Paper Tiger

I’ve been trying to write this fucking essay for three weeks, but my brain won’t stay allegiant to my body. I feel like the inside of my head is a giant scribble, like Charles Schultz’ confusion thought bubbles or Rowling’s Obscuris.

I keep rolling the word around in my head, like that will somehow make it dissolve: pandemic. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. We’re having a pandemic.

The problem, I think, is that I have no frame of reference. It’s like trying to imagine a new color. And sitting down to write, the world is so loud that it’s hard to hear my own thoughts. I feel this ball of energy gathering — this terrible welling of grief and fear, tragedy and panic. I know this is crazy, or fantastically pessimistic, but it feels like we’ve been careening toward this for years. Maybe it’s an artifact of all of the government preparation for the inevitable disaster we received. As a Generation X kid, I spent so much time preparing myself for Soviet invasion or nuclear war that it’s bound to have permeated my subconscious in some insidious way.

I’m not paralyzed by fear, as I might have been when my anxiety was bad. That hardly happens anymore. I’ve joked with other people that my most recent calm in the face of various calamities comes from a five-year period in which every closet I opened, every under-bed space I checked contained an actual monster. After a while, you expect them. They don’t bother jumping out at you or grabbing your ankles, anymore. They smarmily mill down the hallway, cavalier spectres displacing the runner rug you got from IKEA, drinking the last cup of coffee as they head back into the shadows to do all the terrible things monsters do. Monsters, it occurs to you, are ordinary. Catastrophes are ordinary. Horror even, is ordinary.

But this? This feels different. I could never have imagined something on this scale. This is a helluva thing.

It’s one thing to see a city close down due to a benzene spill, or watch on television as an isolated country fights a novel virus behind plastic sheets and respirators. But this? This is too much. The scale of things is too great. How are we supposed to move under the weight of this knowledge, that all it ever took was an evolutionary burp, a notchier, tailor-made sugar-and-protein coating on a virus to make our entire elegant, elaborate advanced human society stand still?

The stillness is its own strange purgatory and relief. We’ve become a world obsessed with and identified by busy-ness. Between the availability imposed upon us by the miraculous technology of our time, we are working extraordinary hours: not necessarily working more than 40, but available all the time. That feeling of being on call, in every moment, reminds me of a game of musical chairs, where the music is always playing in the background, and we are always waiting to leap into action. It means we’re never really done with anything. But right now, we are. All of us, at once. Maybe that’s why the world is so loud: the sound of nearly eight billion people saying ‘what the fuck?’ simultaneously.

There’s a strange banality to protracted tragedy. It’s like the Looney Tunes’ Wile E. Coyote in his perennial never-ending fall. After a while, you get so used to falling that you read a book or eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because this is your new life of falling. What’s happening all around us is horrifying, but it’s a play with 126,897,999,435 acts. I’m so tired of listening to the sounds in the basement that I’m seriously tempted to go investigate. I absolutely will not: that would be crazy and so irresponsible. But I kind of understand why the guy finally just runs into the crowd of zombies, is all I’m saying. It’s hard to sit with tension for so long.

I contend with old friends and even family members intent on a lesser version of the disaster: a hoax, hyperbolic made-up news, a morbid exaggeration of a shinier influenza. But their protests and hand-waving insouciance feel like paper tigers. The worst part of their position is a two-way tie between how sad I feel for how frightened they must be, deep inside their subconscious, to be fighting so hard to make the emperor a pantsuit, and how many people their flippant hubris might kill. Maybe it’s a three-way tie with how badly I want them to be right.

I try not to read the stories about how people die, or what it’s like to be really sick with this thing, because then it will be all of them — all 400,000 people fighting this thing in the United States today (it was 100,000 just a few days ago, and will likely hit a half million by this weekend) — fighting the lead weight on their chests to take a breath. I can’t stand it. I have to be able to make ham and cheese sandwiches for my kids. I have to be a normal human for my kids. I can’t possibly think about this happening to my kids.

As for my own imminent danger, I’m probably doing the same things you are: I comfort myself with my age and relative health. The fucking Hanks’ survived this, I tell myself. It’ll be okay, even if you get it. Even if my family gets it? What about all the people I love with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and those oft-mentioned underlying conditions?

The phrase “underlying conditions” is now as omnipresent in the global lexicon as “an abundance of caution,” a kind of medical-terminology dog whistle intended to soothe peoples’ minds. Knowing the victims of this virus were compromised distances the living from death. The president and frankly the rest of us sweep those folks with underlying conditions right out the door as a comfort to the folks without one. It reveals a deep crack in our society, and a truth we evidently hold in the murkiest recesses of our collective unconscious: the sick, old, and disabled are not really our concern. When it comes right down to it, we think of them as disposable — acceptable losses.

The data isn’t in, because we’re not testing widely, so it tracks that we wouldn’t have any idea what the socioeconomic status is of the people who are dying (especially the ones who die in their homes, or in alleyways), but if it’s like every other contagious disease, it will kill exponentially more poor people than rich people. Poor people die more readily of all causes because they can’t get medical care, can’t afford medications or healthy food, and often develop those underlying conditions as a result. As a byproduct, more poor people have underlying conditions. This phenomenon is so ubiquitous that the sentence is commutative: being poor is an underlying condition. So is being a person of color, for all of those reasons and many more. (For a thorough exploration of that topic, the Washington Post wrote an excellent piece explaining the devil-filled details.)

This aberrant fact is so accepted that it is a standard: we forget to notice that being poor isn’t a fixed, constant characteristic, like being a human or a flying tree squirrel. Poverty is fluid: we can change it easily. Resources are mobile, we can redistribute them readily. We choose not to.
We attribute poverty to inherent human failure, to weakness of character or work ethic, to failure of imagination. Shit, we’ve attached healthcare access to work, and made it increasingly difficult for the chronically disabled or sick to access healthcare or any type of living assistance. Ask anyone who’s applied for Social Security Disability. (If you really want to feel what it’s like to need immediate help as a disabled person, call the Social Security Administration and request a disability application. I’ll see you in three months, when you finally get rejected the first time. Anyone who doesn’t have a safety net just freefalls.)

We’ve grown our society around this fallacy so entirely that healthcare as a human right is a legitimately debatable thing: a respectable dinner conversation amongst respectable people. But as we watch tens of thousands fall to this virus, understand what that debate really is: do the poor deserve to live as much as the rich? The sentence reads harder the other way around: the poor deserve to die more than the rich. It’s horrible, unforgivable nonsense.

Alain de Botton, a writer and philosopher, recently dug up a story Camus wrote about a fictional plague, eponymously entitled, “The Plague.” In it, de Botton says, “Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency; it is truly an inescapable ‘underlying condition,’” and this hit me like lightning finding the ground.

We spend so much time negotiating with death. Maybe we put a God between us, of one form or another, maybe we put money, power, or love. Fate, we think, offers up proof of our necessity on this planet evident in how often we look at the clock when it’s 11:11, or see a butterfly on the ride home. I like all of these, but I particularly like science, with its cool reason and built-in infinity, which doesn’t just apply to abstract matter and energy, it applies to my matter and energy, which is nice. But death is a constant. Not to put too fine a point on it.

We do such crazy shit to distance or protect ourselves from this incomprehensibly grim reality that we hide our sick and our old from view, tuck them away, or explain their fragility with pity or condescension. To distance ourselves from it, we’re obsessed with accumulation, with the trappings of life: vigor, power, vitality, resources. We are so consumed with it that we conflate it with what we actually are: improbable, strange, imperfect, ephemeral life. It’s all we really are. The rest of the stuff is illusory and fleeting. None of it is real. Look at how quickly it all becomes irrelevant.

So many people are sick that even sick people with resources are being turned away. So many people are sick that medical professionals are working impossible hours and getting sick themselves. The class of wage earners most likely to be on public assistance, the low-wage earners like grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, gas-station clerks, nursing home personal-care assistants, department-store clerks and cashiers are classified as essential workers now, as though their roles had suddenly changed in the face of this crisis, when in fact, they always were essential. They always hold our society together, all for the low low price of $10-15 per hour, nowhere near enough money to afford the cost of healthcare to save them from the disease they’re currently exposed to on our behalf. The virus has revealed something important: these folks are the backbone of our society.

Because we’ve made healthcare a for-profit endeavor, there aren’t anywhere near enough beds or equipment for us all. If the projections are correct, there will be no care for many, many people, and we will live or die based on the unpredictable interaction between our bodies and the virus. In Italy, a country that deeply values its elders and has a significant aging population (arguably because of that) a darkly pragmatic rubric was developed to determine how to approach the staggering wave of seriously ill people needing hospital care. Rather than the usual first-come first-served model typical for hospital care, Italy now is evaluating patients on their likelihood of survival, the quality of life they’d have if they did survive, and how long they would be likely to survive. It’s brutally utilitarian, but what choice do they have? There are simply no more places to put the sick.

Now that this peril is real to people who otherwise could have bought or bootstrapped their way free of the risk, the entire country is locked down. It’s unequivocally the right thing to do, but the difference in response is noteworthy. It has taken more than a month to come up with any kind of plan to protect people in America from this thing, and the decisions have largely been relegated to the states, individually. (I’m not sad about that, because no one is running this country right now: there is a skeleton crew of zealots and ideologues, led by or at least following one megalomaniac who is literally using life-or-death press conferences to feature corporate sponsors.) But it took days to rush to the aid of corporate America, even as they price-gouged the government they beseeched for aid, for the equipment necessary to save the lives of the very people whose taxes saved them.

I’m aware that a huge amount of the two trillion dollars sent to corporations isn’t fun money for executive bonuses (although you can bet some of it is), but invests our federal government more in our business sector than many socialist democracies. Moreover, a huge amount of the money is to pay wages to workers during the slow/shutdown periods. It seems like a good package, and we can’t afford to allow the economy to collapse, because even more people would die then. The problem I have is with the underlying assumptions: that our appraisal of the seriousness of the situation is fundamentally economic. In the absence of any other way to determine or even speak lucidly about the qualitative value of a human life, we fall back on the systemized accounting valuation: how many dollars is a human life worth? (The answer, generally, is 9-10 million bucks, by the way.) It’s like the most exaggerated tragedy of the commons parable: unless we can come up with a way to measure what the loss of, say, a symphony is worth, the loss of a novel cancer treatment, a socially-transformative book of poetry, a breathtaking painting, one fireside conversation with an elder — or shit, let’s be less erudite: one really good cheeseburger — we can only measure earnings and losses. Human life measured only in dollars. (As an aside, I’m pretty sure we could actually calculate a dollar amount for these things, somehow, to translate qualitative value to quantitative value: actuaries have done it for body parts, so it probably could be done for arias.)

I know it’s hackneyed to say that money has poisoned our society, because money is just a thing we made up to simplify trade. But when we commoditize something essential, its vigorous accumulation becomes a measure of success. And in America, where we’ve allowed healthcare to exist behind an increasingly robust paywall, accumulation of wealth is often the difference between life and death. Suddenly it seems as though each person somehow is solely responsible for their own survival, which is impossible. If we need roads, police, electricity, education, fire trucks … why would we make a distinction between those things and healthcare? Between those things and whatever financial resources were necessary for people — disabled, poor, aged, or otherwise — to survive? If we’ve learned anything just in this short few months of living with this pandemic, it’s that anyone can get sick. As of the time of this writing, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had just been sent to intensive care. Our problem is global, and we can’t fight it alone. We need each other.

We need each other for love and soft nice things like playing saxophone on the balcony in dark times, but also to build the roads we drive on, drive the ambulances we ride in, and save our lives. We need each other to make the ventilators that run lungs no longer running themselves, the masks that protect the people willing to save our lives, and staff the grocery stores so we can still eat. Independence is a relative concept, and it’s relative to the fundamental characteristic of a civilization: interdependence. We do what we can on our own, self-determine our contribution to society, and make our own decisions, but all in the broader context of this shared civilization on which we truly depend. Right now, staring at what has happened in Italy, Spain, New York, and New Orleans, we can see that it is a much more fragile thing than it seemed. It can be broken.

That is an inescapable, intrusive reality. The economies of nearly every nation in the world have all but stopped. The skies which we said we could not possibly reduce emissions enough to clear are clear, as are the rivers. We are all suspended mid-animation, watching the world continue to be the world, better without us. We are small again, on this planet we’ve treated as subordinate. If we’re not humbled by this, connected in our shared fragility and humanity by this, I’m not sure we deserve the Earth’s benevolence. What’s special about us isn’t our ability to master the planet and its resources. What’s special about us is us. We’ve drifted so far from that reality that we’re shocked to relearn it.

My question is probably the same as yours: what will happen next? Will we shuffle off afterward, and return to our caste system and coarse judgement? Will we forget how we were all in this together, hunched over computers and books in our homes, suddenly no more or less than anyone in the world? Will we forget how the air and waters cleared, the skies opened up? Will we forget what it was like to stand outside and taste the first air of the morning? We have so little time before we make the planet incompatible with human life, or overpopulate it to a degree that we facsimile the same. If we continue as we are, disenfranchising and disadvantaging the most vulnerable among us, we’ll all suffer the consequences. In this past month it has been made painfully clear that if too many of us are sick it breaks our society. Not just in one country — around the world. It’s not just kindness that makes equity a sensible plan. It’s that we are interdependent, whether or not we want to admit it. When one of us is sick — whether we care or not — we all bear the weight of it.

Is there any way we can see the structure of our society for what it is: a thing that we built that can be changed at any time? Not without consequence, not without disaster even. But disaster, we’re all learning so acutely, is ordinary. What we do with it, however, what we choose to become, is not.

2 Comments

wildknits .

about 6 months ago

Thank you Anna. Well said!

David Syring

about 6 months ago

Thanks, as always, for articulating some of the inchoate thoughts that have been bouncing inside my mind...you and your writerly voice are one of the treasures of our community.

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Duluth artist Carolyn Olson has completed two works in a series on "Essential Workers." Visit her site at carolynolson.net.

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