What will we care to re-member about the era of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Some events become a generational marker, an experience shared by so many in such profound ways that the ripples last decades. The “Great Depression” of the 1930s and the US war in Vietnam are examples. The Covid-19 pandemic is one of these, but how these ripples shape the future depends on the stories that stick about the pandemic. The stories might start with basic questions like, What happened? Who suffered from it? Why did it have the effects it had? But the deeper questions are where these stories must go. What did it teach us about who we are, how our society actually works, who we are becoming, and what futures are possible? These will catch on and become public narratives that shape culture and politics.
This is a call to tell and uplift the stories that matter, and to not shy away from the lessons that challenge deeply held misconceptions.
Remembering has been called “re – membering”, the putting of parts together so they are members of a whole. The stories we share with each other make the parts of our experiences into a whole. Without remembering, they remain loose parts scattered around. Ariel Luckey, creator of the play Amnesia and staff at the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, shares that according to mystics of the Jewish tradition, “when enough shards have been released and put back together, or re-membered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the healing of the world will be complete.”
Here are questions offered to provoke stories that foster re-membering.
What did we learn about death?
I have felt closer to death than ever before. My talented god brother Jamal died from Covid while stuck in a residential care facility. Our family and loved ones could not gather to grieve his death and celebrate his life. He had the ‘vulnerabilities’ already piled high– a Black man with mental and physical health issues. Covid was a stark reminder that health is about more than vitamins and medicine. “Pre-existing conditions” take on deeper meaning when they mean your current illness makes you more likely to be harmed by the virus. But the pre-existing conditions weren’t just physical.
What did we learn about social privilege and injustice?
If you were already sick or without housing, you were more vulnerable to Covid-19. If you did not have the option to work from home or live without working, you were more vulnerable. If you were incarcerated or breathing contaminated air or water, you were more vulnerable. All of these and other conditions led to premature deaths during the pandemic. And all these conditions and others burden Black, Indigenous, and other people of color more than white people. The pandemic reminded us that racism is about unfair exposures to premature death, exactly as reflected in Ruthie Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death." My own family’s access to housing, a salaried job, and other supports and protections allowed us to avoid exposures over and over.
What became clear about our collective resources and the role of government?
We got a better glimpse of our collective abundance and the ability of governments to muster the resources to solve problems at a whole new scale. In my community, the West Contra Costa School District made a healthy bag of groceries available to anyone who needed it, and thousands of families benefited every week. California enacted rules that reduced the number of people incarcerated in county jails. California also mobilized resources to rent out hotels and make rooms freely available to people without housing. These weren’t new ideas, advocates had been raising them for years, but they suddenly became politically possible. The resources already existed, what was needed was the commitment of decision makers to put these resources to use. Even still, when the funding was dedicated, there were still elected officials, hotel owners, and others who refused to make the housing available to the people who needed it most.
What was our experience of our interconnectedness to each other?
Perhaps these public solutions like free groceries and housing became politically possible because so many of us gained a deeper appreciation of how interconnected we are. Not being able to physically gather to grieve the deaths of loved ones and celebrate milestones in our lives showed just how much our relationships with each other make us whole.
We saw how interconnected our vulnerabilities are too. If another parent at my child’s school gets Covid and can’t get work off to stay home and quarantine, my family is at greater risk. Our destinies are tied whether we like it or not. The myth of extreme individualism insists we are best off if I focus solely on myself and my family, but the virus shows the lie in this.
What did we see about our ideals of freedom and health?
A family member of mine insists that the vaccine is experimental, even after millions of people had used it, yet was willing to take the horse anti-parasitic drug ivermectin to treat her Covid, a truly risky treatment. The protests against masks show that even the value of the easiest and most harmless measures to protect ourselves and others’ health can be denied. But it is not denialism to those who hold these views, it is about upholding individual freedom and resisting government overreach. This is a view of freedom rooted in extreme individualism, the ideology that separates individual choice and action from any responsibility to collective wellbeing. It amounts to the freedom to infect others.
Before the pandemic, it was already clear that denialism of the climate crisis, the history of racial terrorism, and other truths were deeply held and a linchpin in the dam against progress. But denialism of the pandemic proved that even when the repercussions may be immediate harm to one’s own health, people will cling to their denialism.
What are the possibilities for solidarity?
The pandemic caused a shock of economic instability that made existing problems worse and created precarity for many who had been doing alright. Many faced the real possibility or actuality of having no money left to pay for the basics of a building to live in, food to eat, and other essentials. For some of us, this was the first time we realized it could be us without access to daily necessities. We felt what it feels like to have no control over the actions that were stripping us of these essentials.
This economic shock rippled out and exposed the long standing lie that the people who don’t have their basic needs met have done something to deserve their suffering. This lie has been repeated for decades as part of the message that it’s better to have a safety net that is small and has huge holes in it. The cruelty of not helping people in a health crisis revealed itself, and it was clear that the basic necessities must be accessible to all.
Could this be a turning point toward a wider and deeper commitment to caring for each other’s wellness? Will we tell our stories and hear each other, and transition to the era of the “years of repair”? We saw that extreme individualism is so rampant and has so twisted our ideals of freedom and justice that we will reject doing the most basic things to protect ourselves from a deadly virus. We saw that trillions of dollars into the military does not make us safer when the threat is a disease. In the U.S. we saw that the richest country still has had millions of people who could not get tested or get healthcare.
What sense will we make of these moments? What will we take care to remember? For me, there are truths in the stories I’ve witnessed that must be amplified if we are to find a pathway to a more just world. We are all essential. Our society is abundant enough for everyone to have their basic needs met. We are interdependent and denying this is an illusion that can end our lives.
Want to tell your own pandemic story?
We invite you to write, tell, draw, or express in whatever form you’d like. Pick one of the questions in this blog, or another angle on your experience, and speak your truth. We encourage you to share your story with your community and beyond. We’d love to hear it, so please send us an email (email@example.com) or tag us in social media. #PandemicTruths
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.