As COVID-19 sweeps across the nation, one of the most conspicuous responses has been exercising our purchasing power. People have been hoarding hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, nonperishables, and toilet paper. Those of us who live in the United States have been known to think that buying things will save us—consumerism is central to our culture.
In times of uncertainty, it’s understandable that people want to feel a sense of safety and control. I succumbed to the group think, though I rather choked under pressure (instant rice from Target, anyone?). Going to the store didn’t dissipate my panic, but it was an action to take.
The sinister side of this inclination to accumulate is that the people who really need the sold-out products might not have access to them. I know someone who works at a Planned Parenthood that might have to close because they’re running out of face masks. People living with chronic illness and those who experience immunosuppression don’t have access to the disinfectants they rely on. Many people can’t afford to buy in bulk and are left in the lurch when others buy more than they need.
Some time ago, I listened to the pilot episode of the podcast “How to Survive the End of the World.” In their first conversation, hosts adrienne maree and Autumn Brown question whether humans deserve to survive the apocalypse. I’ve been wrestling with this dilemma ever since. As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded, it’s been especially present. These times do feel rather apocalyptic. The economy is on hold, we’re limiting our social engagement and time in public, and people are wearing hazmat suits. It feels pretty surreal.
Thinking about hoarding as a response to a collective health emergency, and about the legacy of violence and destruction in the United States more broadly, my gut answer to the sisters’ existential question is “no”—as a species, we do not deserve to withstand this crisis. Even before coronavirus, our institutions were not equipped to care for our people, and the pandemic is only exposing and exacerbating the grotesque inequities that we’re up against.
"Even before coronavirus, our institutions were not equipped to care for our people, and the pandemic is only exposing and exacerbating the grotesque inequities that we’re up against."
We live in the seat of an empire that has ravaged the planet, and continues to do so. Yet, as much as our institutions are failing us now (because they were not designed with all of us in mind—people who are Black, Indigenous, immigrant, queer, trans, women, nonbinary, differently abled, living with chronic illness, poor, houseless, neurodivergent, working class, survivors, etc.), we have made it through crises before and will make it through them again, because of each other.
Even as people are hoarding toilet paper, they are also showing up. They are learning old and new ways to practice mutual aid. While the scale and severity of this virus may be unprecedented, many people have the wisdom and skills needed to get through it—and have been practicing them for generations. Crises like these induce pandemonium, especially among my white, non-disabled, upper-middle-class counterparts. Yet I stop feeling like a chicken with its head cut off when I think about the people alive on this planet right now who have already lived through apocalyptic conditions.
"I stop feeling like a chicken with its head cut off when I think about the people alive on this planet right now who have already lived through apocalyptic conditions."
Last fall, I went to an interview with the Native American author Tommy Orange about his book There, There. The book tells the stories of Indigenous people living in Oakland, California, in the 21st century. At one point, he said, “Being Native is very much like being a part of a post-apocalyptic group of people who everyone else doesn’t talk about as being post-apocalyptic—like our world did actually end in all the ways, and what we have that we’ve kept is not the world that it was. It’s something else, which is not to diminish it or speak badly about it, but it’s not the one….”
Indigenous organizers in the Bay Area are taking leadership amid the spread of COVID-19 and are encouraging new ways of connecting and organizing. I recently started working with the Alternatives to Policing coalition in Oakland, which was started by faith-based organizations (most of whom are white). Last weekend, we were supposed to host a workshop and were on the fence about postponing/canceling. Someone in the group lifted up the guidance of Idle No More, a grassroots organization led by Native women that focuses on climate justice. They chose to cancel all events (or move them online) for the coming months, and shared this message:
“As Native people, we have experienced through our ancestors the impact of having illnesses arrive from Europe to the Americas that we had no immunity or resistance to. We carry inter-generational trauma from the effects of those devastating epidemics, which wiped out so many of our people and were also actively used as tools of policies of genocide.
We are living in a time in history when we are collectively facing a virus that no humans have any kind of acquired resistance to or immunity to…. The COVID 19 virus puts all of humanity at risk, especially our elders and those whose health is more vulnerable. The opportunity here is to notice that we are all in this together....
Unlike our ancestors, who had no warning or information, we have access to information. We get to model the behaviors that public health experts are sharing with us. We get to do everything possible to limit the spread of this virus and in particular its impact on the most vulnerable communities....”
The Alternatives to Policing coalition ultimately decided to cancel the workshop, to try to limit the impact on the most vulnerable people in our community. Moving forward, we will likely host workshops via zoom or with other digital tools.
As more of us are confined to our homes (those of us who have homes, anyway), many people have also pointed out that organizing/movement spaces should already be accessible via phone/zoom so that people living with chronic illness/disability can be included. I’ve recently read the laments of many folks who live with chronic illness/disability, who note that more events than ever are virtually accessible—now that such access will benefit able-bodied people. They have a point. People who live with chronic illness or disability also have the expertise we need in a health emergency, yet their voices have not been lifted up in the mainstream conversation.
"People who live with chronic illness or disability also have the expertise we need in a health emergency, yet their voices have not been lifted up...."
J.D. Davids and others captured this erasure well in a recent episode of the podcast Irresistible, Coronavirus: Wisdom from a Social Justice Lens. They asked:
“How many mainstream news stories, how many TV reports have any of us seen in the last couple weeks or last month that have...featured...the real experts in what they're talking about right now? How many have talked to people who live in their beds about how to live in the bed? ...How many reports have talked to people who live at home about how to thrive living at home? How many people have been talked to or given space and a broadcast mic to talk about what they do to stay healthy in a circumstance where the circumstances of their living situation are not under their own control?”
In the episode, the presenters also mention how folks organized and showed up in the beginning of the AIDS crisis, another time when the government failed to respond adequately to an epidemic. I think of ACT UP, an organization that formed “...in response to social neglect, government negligence, and the complacency of the medical establishment during the 1980s. Soon it found itself needing to fight corporate greed, lack of solidarity, and various forms of stigma and discrimination at home and abroad.” Their work continues today, and can provide guidance in this new context.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m going slightly stir-crazy. I’m on day two of “shelter in place” orders from government officials in the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet I take solace in the fact that this mandated slow-down is also forcing us to reckon with the status quo.
At the end of his interview, Tommy Orange talked about how the last election forced us to confront many realities that we wouldn’t have if a Democrat had been elected. He observed that it’s likely his book got published in the first place:
“...because Trump got in, because this...for a lot of people...revealed things that we...wouldn’t have looked at if somebody else got in that was more palatable to Democrats or progressives or whatever. It brought up a lot that we need to be looking at…. [Trump] and the people around him did do something for the country that in a weird cancer way we needed….”
In many ways, Trump’s election drew back the veil in front of white supremacy, patriarchy, and bigotry, and exposed how intertwined these systems of oppression have been in the foundation of our country.
Hopefully, the coronavirus will function in the same way. I think it already is. It’s calling into question the reality that many people do not have access to health care, to paid sick leave, to mental health care—and that they haven’t been able to save the money they need to fall back on in hard times. The crisis is revealing how shoddy and inadequate our healthcare system is in the first place. People are asking why we have to pay for health care, for water, for basic human rights—at all. We’re learning that much of what we spend our money on (shopping, going to restaurants and bars, sporting events, etc.) we don’t actually need. Our priorities have been called into question.
"We’re learning that much of what we spend our money on (shopping, going to restaurants and bars, sporting events, etc.) we don’t actually need. "
The crumbling of the American empire is long overdue, and although the current crisis will be tumultuous and scary and unfamiliar, we are not alone. There are leaders among us who know the way. In thewords of J.D. Davids: “The people who have been living with a pandemic of marginalization, disregard, or neglect for much of their lives or their whole lives are the people who have the expertise we need today, and that could help the rest of the world....”
This is a moment of opportunity, when it might actually be possible to reinvent ourselves.
Sarah Allison was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated from Fordham University, where she studied American Studies, Spanish, and Peace and Justice studies. She lives in Oakland, California, where she is trying to figure out how to practice the world she wants to live in.