As The Coronavirus Spreads, What Do We Really Owe One Another?

Pandemics have historically pushed humanity to undergo great moral and spiritual reckonings. This one could be ours.

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A few weeks ago I spent a long weekend in a glamorous upstate New York Airbnb with some friends. I was grabbing another beer from the fridge when I thought about something my brother had told my grandma recently after she'd asked about my dad’s eating habits; he’s been looking scary thin lately. My brother, who lives with our dad in a small one-bedroom apartment in Orlando, relayed that he typically only eats one meal a day. Was it because he only wants to eat once a day, or because he can’t afford to? “Both,” my brother said.

Remembering their conversation while I idly browsed an abundantly full kitchen in this temporary home managed to overwhelm me so entirely that I collapsed to my knees, doubled over and struggling for air. Felled as if by something more physical than sorrow.

I called my dad, who always tries his best to calm my fears. Don’t be silly; he’s eating great! He’s feeling great! The money I sent him definitely wasn’t needed but appreciated nonetheless. Never better, honey girl. Never better. He’s got such a good sense of humor, cracking jokes about the ladies he meets when he salvages near-dead plants from the gardening store — for a buck or two a pop, he’ll lovingly nurse them back to life — that I can nearly convince myself everything’s okay. Or at least close to it.

Over the past few years, and particularly the last few months, I’ve found it more and more difficult to enjoy the lovely little banalities of my middle-class life when members of my own family, along with approximately 37 million other Americans — about 1 in 8 households — struggle with food insecurity, in what’s supposedly the greatest nation on earth. (The fact that so many of them are children was thrown into stark relief this week when school districts have had to decide whether to shut down amid COVID-19 fears or stay open for kids who rely on school lunches.) I’ve found it more and more difficult not to lose my mind completely whenever even leaders of the Democratic Party bash Medicare for All; I’m infuriated that my dad was bankrupted by medical debt more than a decade ago, from which he’s never really recovered, and I’m infuriated that 41% of working-age Americans — some 71 million people — are still struggling to pay off the costs of their health care. Perhaps most of all, I’m finding it more and more difficult to keep agitating for much-needed change in this country when it seems as though, unless they know someone personally touched by structural injustice — and even then! — so many better-off Americans just do not give a shit.

I’m unable to see the line, if one exists, between where my own agency stalls out and where the role of a robust social safety net can and should begin.

As the coronavirus has spread around the world, some Americans have self-soothed, and soothed each other, with reports that the virus likely won’t kill anyone besides the elderly and immunocompromised — as if they don’t know and love someone who’s elderly or immunocompromised. As if, even if they don’t, strangers’ lives are somehow more disposable and worth risking if it means getting to pretend their comfortable lives should continue on as normal. Watching Republicans block an emergency paid sick leave bill and hold firm on CDC cuts and peddle xenophobia in lieu of real solutions, or hearing about a friend’s boomer dad whose fever and coughing spells haven’t compelled him to stay self-quarantined at home, I see the same dizzying ticker tape ablaze against the inside of my eyelids: I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.

But I know I shouldn’t succumb to despair. So I donate to mutual aid funds. I Venmo my dad. I sign up for a volunteer shift. (It’s not enough. Nothing is ever enough.) I scroll through Twitter in an increasingly delusional search for answers only to find escalating chaos. Last night reached its peak when Trump addressed the nation with an error-riddled speech, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had tested positive for the virus, the NBA suspended its season, and Sarah Palin was revealed on The Masked Singer — all within a span of an hour. Amid the news, I find tweets telling me it’s okay to take time for self-care, tweets telling me it’s crucial that the more privileged don’t coddle ourselves in times of crisis, tweets telling me to keep paying attention, tweets telling me to just log off already, tweets offering a desperately needed silver lining to some fresh horror, and tweets (more and more and more of these now) expressing helplessness and confusion and anguish and fright. (There’s also all the disinformation, leftist infighting, stupidity, pettiness, and hate speech. And I keep coming back, baby!)

I told a friend the other day that I think I’ve stopped knowing how to be a person — if I ever really knew, if it’s even possible to know. Inside my Very Online bubble, it seems as though the sky is truly falling this time; outside of it, people are still going about their merry way, happy and hopeful in ways I’m both jealous and resentful of. I feel like Sarah Miller, who wrote this week in Longreads: “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with my depression and insecurities and personal petty fears now. They used to be so tragic and important. Now they are old plastic toys.”

I hate that, even though I think my own ambitions and achievements should matter less now than they ever have, there’s still a part of me that’s endlessly preoccupied with my own sense of goodness. I’m paralyzed with guilt and dread over my every move right now: Can I go to the grocery store? What about a friend’s house? In a couple weeks I’m supposed to fly to Florida to visit my dad and my grandmother, neither of whom are in good health; what if I get them sick? (But if I don’t go, what are the chances I never see them again?) Would it be extraordinarily selfish if I get on a plane to reach my girlfriend in the United Kingdom before any more potential travel bans are put in place?

How solipsistic, to turn all of the world’s tragedies, large and small, into a referendum on how appropriately I, personally, am responding to them. But my own actions, however impure, are all I have.

What upsets me most of all is that I’m unable to see the line, if one exists, between where my own agency stalls out and where the role of a robust social safety net can and should begin. I am desperate to the point of feeling physically ill over it — that I can’t do more for those without the structural advantages I have, from members of my biological family to those in my local community to everyone (please excuse the woo-woo bullshit, which is maybe not so bullshitty after all) in the biggest community of all: my human family.

“There is nothing to achieve right now,” Miller wrote, “except to insist that the only achievement is caring for others, and not caring specially for family or friends, but in caring for every person as our family or friend.”

My colleague Anne Helen Petersen, in her extremely helpful guide for what we as individuals can do to stop the spread of the coronavirus, pointed out why that theoretical proposition will be such a difficult one for most Americans. “One of country’s most cherished ideologies is a belief in the power and centrality of the individual: that every person succeeds or fails because of their personal effort, or grit, or stamina, and every person deserves whatever success or failure follows,” she wrote. But just taking care of one’s own — believing that if you are okay, then everything’s okay — “is, quite simply, contagion fuel.” Unless the collective is safe, none of us are.

Earlier this month, Isaac Chotiner at the New Yorker interviewed Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale, about his new book, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. To prepare for global health crises, Snowden said, “we need as human beings to realize that we’re all in this together, that what affects one person anywhere affects everyone everywhere. … We have to work together as a human species to be organized to care for one another, to realize that the health of the most vulnerable people among us is a determining factor for the health of all of us, and, if we aren’t prepared to do that, we’ll never, ever be prepared to confront these devastating challenges to our humanity.”

Perhaps everything I’ve done to protect myself never mattered as much as what I have done, and can do, and should do, for other people. 

Oftentimes, Snowden noted, diseases have been used as excuses for political oppression; but there have also been times throughout human history when mass death has inspired people to undergo incredible moral and spiritual reckonings. The bubonic plague, for example, “raised the whole question of man’s relationship to God,” while “the end of chattel slavery in the New World … and the success of the Haitian rebellion and Toussaint Louverture was determined, above all, by yellow fever.”

Our own great moral and spiritual reckoning is upon us. I keep thinking, somewhat embarrassingly, about a line from Les Misérables: “It is time for us all to decide who we are.”

Maybe the answers won’t be quite as devastating as I’ve feared. Last night, lying in bed and unable to sleep, I started to panic about how I haven’t managed to save enough money, how I’ll have to go without health insurance if the economy collapses and I lose my job — that I’m dumb and useless and deserve whatever bad things happen to me. But just as quickly, I was enveloped by a wave of perfect calm. If I really do believe I don’t deserve to live a dramatically better life than other people do, then perhaps I don’t deserve to suffer if what little privileges I’ve managed to hoard for myself are lost to the crush of capitalism. Perhaps everything I’ve done to protect myself never mattered as much as what I have done, and can do, and should do, for other people.

In a way, it’s a sick sort of comfort: There’s always been a part of me bracing for the moment when all hell breaks loose because I’ve never trusted this society to hold me; it has already failed so many others. Sometimes it’s failed me too. So much of my anger at those who don’t believe in basic social protections stems from what I’ve always known in my bones, having experienced what this world has to offer women and queer people and children growing up beneath the poverty line: Capitalism will not save us; working will not save us; believing we are any more inherently worthy of health care or clean water because of our relationships to so many factors largely outside our control that we’ve been taught, nonetheless, to worship — richness, whiteness, normalcy — will not save us.

Now, maybe more of us can finally recognize our only real worth in this world is what we can offer to others. We are all we have. ●

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