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).

Fiction I Read in 2019

Once again, I put together a list of the fiction that I read over the past year that I loved and want to recommend. I found that in doing so, both this year and last, I was reminded of what I learned through reading literature. Indigenous author Rebecca Roanhorse suggests that fiction, and especially science fiction, is important because “the future you imagine is the future you get.” She goes on to say: “for me, it is important to imagine a future that centers Native people,  that highlights our stories and our ideas and our languages, science, and art. Otherwise, the world suffers. Stuck in colonizing language and thought (Space conquest! Colonizing planets!) without considering that there might be another, better way.”

  • Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli
    • A haunting, beautiful, and thoughtful book about colonialism and children taken from their families on the southern border
  • The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai
    • A wrenching, powerful book about love, death, and politics that takes place across decades about the beginning of the AIDS crisis
  • Akata Witch – Nnedi Okorafor
    • Kids and magic, better than Harry Potter. I finished the first book and immediately downloaded the second from the library, Akata Warrior.
  • The Sympathizer  –  Viet Thanh Nguyen
    • I was a little slow on this one, in part because I was worried it was going to be reactionary, but I found this book to be satisfying politically and quite funny in parts. I wish everyone could read the section skewering Vietnam War movies.
  • Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse
    • A quick-moving, adventurous read about monster killing. Also a thought provoking piece of literature that taught me in a new way (as I hoped it would) that representation really matters. Let’s hope there is a movie or TV option. I’m #50 on the waiting list for the next book.
  •  Brown Girl in the Ring – Nalo Hopkinson
    • Second book I have read and absolutely loved by this author of Black speculative fiction. my favorite part of this book might have been its insights into family dynamics although it is also leaving me thinking about the skills I should be building for the climate crisis.
  • Disoriental – Négar Djavadi
    • A story of a family and particularly one woman (a punk rock aficionado) in exile from Iran. A beautiful novel about state terror and family drama.
  • The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
    • I didn’t see the movie, so I don’t know how it compares. I really liked the book and felt like it was a good companion read to When They Call You a Terrorist; each covered certain things the other did not. I liked the emotional terrain and complexity of this book which used the power of fiction to tell another side of the story of police murder. If you want to know about the Black Lives Matter movement though, you should do further reading.
Picture of three women in an attic (the Vera sisters) looking at a large old book (the Book of Shadows).
The Vera sisters understand the power of a book.