a lot of us are struggling, but this is a social problem

Over the last few weeks governors in almost every state have called for a “reopening” after the spring COVID19 shelter-in-place orders. During this time, in response to debates about whether returning to circulation in public again en masse is safe or not, I have repeatedly heard the answer given as some variation of “everyone has to decide for themselves what they think is best.”

like everyone else Like many of us, I am not sure what to do and am just trying to figure it out. This is a terrifying time. I think often of another pandemic, another plague, where people died in hospital hallways. This plague also seemed concentrated in certain cities (the same ones that loom large today – New York and San Francisco) and to affect a specific segment of the population. Unlike the Spanish flu, the majority of the population alive today remembers that plague. And maybe in some ways this is the more relevant lesson, because the majority of the population alive today actually doesn’t recall that plague with much specificity, although in some communities whole networks of people were dying by the month and even the week.

During that plague, it seemed that it was easy for a majority of people in the United States to ignore or feel unaffected by what was going on because they believed it was only affecting specific groups of people to whom they already did not feel connected. And once they had done that, they could simply ignore the crisis, the tens of thousands of deaths, and even laugh at jokes about it.

M0001845 John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Bell. Line engraving Gent\’s magazine Published: 1827 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Then too it was easy to fall into debates about what behavior was the right behavior to prevent oneself or one’s beloved community members from getting sick. But the real culprits, the villains, the murderers, were the politicians and institutions that refused to recognize the crisis or do anything to solve it, and the social structures that sustain systems of inequality making specific groups of people so much more vulnerable to illness.

In fact, it is the same communities who are still being affected. African Americans, imprisoned people, drug users, queer and trans people – these groups are all still dealing with the HIV epidemic that did not go away, and they are the same groups at much higher risk from COVID19.

And it was easier for the pandemic to keep raging when a majority of people felt no urge to apply pressure, when they did not feel personally affected, when they did not feel that their communities would continue to feel the reverberations forever.

Like many others, I am struggling to figure out how to negotiate this situation. I do not understand all the biological science involved. But I do understand that an inherently social problem is going to call for a social solution, and better yet, many of the aspects of the problems that we face here in the US with COVID19 are political problems that require collective action. We have much we can learn from previous struggles.

That means the answer, in an inherently social situation with a contagious disease, is ANYTHING BUT “everyone should do what they feel most comfortable with.”


Some ideas for collective action:

  • The Poor People’s Campaign has launched a “moral non-cooperation campaign” called Stay in Place! Stay Alive! Organize! with actions you can take coordinated with others to push for a healthier plan for your community.
  • Now is a great time to find or start an existing mutual aid network. Create and share the resources people need together in your community to be safe based on community members’ own assessments, instead of saying “some people will have to go to make the tough choice to go to work,” which is another way of saying some of us need to decide between dying from hunger or dying at work.
  • Find ways to support the many workers who are striking right now (e.g., respect their picket lines, donate to their strike funds, amplify their demands).

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