Note: This piece was written last Tuesday, before our persistent failure to admit and amend racial injustice became a topic of national discussion…again. Had I written it a week later, it would have been written differently. However, the historical record would remain the same. Therefore I have let the piece stand, unedited.
When the world restarts – what will we see?
Very likely what we’ve always seen: exactly what we want to. Which is to say: a great deal less than is actually there. The fact is, we’ve always been quarantined from each other. As communities and as individuals, we were in lockdown long prior to the shelter-in-place orders issued in response to covid-19.
Every single one of us goes through our lives sheltering from the inconvenient reality of some other group of people, some other experience of life. We are terrified of breathing in Other, becoming infected by contact; we are terrified of understanding what life looks like from some other angle.
It is safe to say that this pandemic has affected everyone in some way. Even those normally inured to crisis have experienced some interruption of their normal activity. Pandemics are pervasive. But the reassuring platitude – “We’re all in this together” – masks the harder truth that some of us are in over our heads. Do not confuse “pervasive” with “equally affected by.”
In the U.S., people who are considered “minorities” are disproportionately affected by covid-19 (The Lancet, May 8, 2020: Evidence Mounts on the Disproportionate Affect of Covid-19 on Ethnic Minorities). Despite the standard “more studies are needed” conclusions, sources ranging from the CDC to The Economist observe that people who check off any census box other than “Non-Hispanic White” have higher rates of hospitalization and higher rates of mortality from the virus (Yale News, May 19, 2020: New Analysis Quantifies Risk of Covid-19 to Racial, Ethnic Minorities). Cumulatively, they also experience higher rates of adverse economic impact through job loss or furlough, and have fewer economic resources to fall back on during economic downturn.
Crises tend to most adversely affect the most vulnerable members of a society. Crises unmask vulnerabilities that exist as blind spots during better (read: “normal”) times. To clarify, what this means is that these vulnerabilities are not new. They are simply more visible because crisis has made them (temporarily) impossible to ignore. This particular crisis has revealed social, cultural, and economic stratification. Few things reveal a tenuous place in society quite so effectively as “shelter in place.”
These strata exist because – generally speaking – social distancing has always been part of the fabric of American society.
It’s a laundry list of boundaries. Economic and cultural isolation of minorities leading to entrenched poverty; the rapacity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; the awkward historical agendas of the Monroe Doctrine, the Trail of Tears, and the various literal and structural massacres of Native societies – these atrocities occupy a sort of dead space in the narrative of “We the People”. They are the sections everyone skips; they have been edited out “for clarity”.
The coronavirus has thrown their cause-and-effect descendants into stark clarity.
We have constructed our histories, our policies, and our communities to quarantine against those who are inconvenient – those who don’t fit the average of “assimilated.”
The standards for “assimilation” are established by those who are above average – a state maintained by excluding or exploiting or ignoring anyone who exists outside the manipulated safe space of “normal”.
In short, we relish a good “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” story, but ignore the underlying truth that such stories either rely on miraculous thinking or having access to a shoe store to begin with.
African-American, Hispanic, and Native communities bear the ongoing brunt of this sort of direct and indirect lockdown, so it is not surprising that they also bear the brunt of worst-possible-scenario outcomes during the coronavirus pandemic.
What remains to be seen is if we will see things differently once the pandemic is over – whether the end of quarantine will actually bring about the unrealized promise of “we’re all in this together.”