Plague and renaissance

A case for transformation

The following is the draft text of my opening monologue as guest host of “The Mehdi Hasan Show” yesterday on Peacock (and the video is above). I would love you to share your thoughts about this moment of rupture in the comments below. And if you enjoy my writing and wish to support it, consider subscribing to The Ink.

I’d like us to take a trip together. Think of where you were in the final days of March, in the crushing year of 2020.

We knew by then that a plague was upon us. Like me, maybe you had had your first meetings canceled. Maybe your kids were home, climbing on your lap during a novel thing called Zoom meetings. Maybe you were watching those handwashing videos — the ones that made me realize I had never done it right ever before. Maybe you were discovering that, despite getting no respect at work, you were suddenly now something called “essential.” Maybe you were among the early ones to fall ill with Covid, or you knew someone close who did, or you once dated a guy whose sister knew someone who works with a lady whose chiropractor got it.

It was March. It was early. It was the beginning of the beginning.

The sun has risen 423 times since that last day of March 2020. Days of agony and upheaval, loss and revelation. And as this week ends, this country has just crossed a remarkable milestone. For the first time since that ominous beginning, the Covid death count has fallen to where it was at the end of last March. For those of us lucky enough to live in America, there is in the air the whiff of the beginning of the end.

It smells like barbecues in the park, and kids’ birthday parties full of cupcakes that, this year at least, no one is counting, and hugs between grandparents and grandchildren that last longer than a TV commercial, and the return to offices with their scent of cleaning products and lukewarm coffee, and going places again! All around is the feeling of a great, blessed lifting.

“We are back,” I hear again and again.

But if the death count is back where it was in March 2020, if schools are planning to re-open and promising parents the lives that become impossible when your home must double as an unlicensed daycare, if we are truly back, we are only back in the sense that a runner is back after a grueling race.

When you complete that run, you may be back where you started. The finish line and the starting line may be the same line.

But you are not the same “you” who embarked. You are stronger and more broken. Those who were running beside you may no longer be there. You are shaped and redefined by their absence. And, along the way, you saw things, thought of things, realized things, and these you now carry.

Covid was the longest run. And the beginning of its end will give us the illusion of a return that is tempting, but untenable.

Because the plague year was not only a killer, not only a terrorizer, not only a thief of dreams and work and fellowship and time.

It was also a teacher. And now, as we come up for air, it is also the time to take stock of its lessons.

I will tell you what I think we learned.

That childcare is a shared societal burden, not a private good. We learned this year how much harder it is to work, how much harder women in particular have it, how much female brilliance we sideline, when we make childcare a luxury product.

We learned that we’re only as healthy as the person next to us — so when they don’t have access to healthcare, we all suffer.

We learned, at the same time, that there are no great equalizers, not even viruses — that inequity is a preexisting condition, and viruses, like so many other disasters on record, hit people according to their position in the caste hierarchy.

We learned that work wasn’t working for workers. We see it now in the righteous refusals of people to go “back” to jobs where they got too little respect, too little mobility, and too little money. 

We learned how our hyper-capitalist grind culture has starved our relationships, leaving us so little time at the end of the day. And now there are concerned reports in the press that employees working from home are taking shards of their lives back, dating, even having sex, while on the clock. I say, if you expect employees to check their email at 11 p.m., don’t be surprised if they’re getting some action at noon.

We learned that when we allow monopolies to corner every market, we become vulnerable to shortages and supply issues we usually associate with the Soviet Union — even as the owners of those monopolies profit from crisis.

We learned that the billionaires who market themselves to us in crisis as saviors will do everything they can to make capitalism seem woke while resisting any attempt to place capitalism in a yoke.

We learned from the cries of “Black Lives Matter” that grew out of last summer’s murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others that we need a new model of keeping communities safe and flourishing that is something fundamentally different from what we today call policing.

We have learned that there can be no democracy without a shared belief in facts, whether facts about an election, facts about a virus, or facts about a vaccine to beat it.

We learned that a worldwide mobilization of the kind that will be required to fight climate change is possible, if we can make that slow-spreading threat as vivid and here-and-now to people as a lethal pandemic was.

We learned that mental health is health, and mental healthcare is healthcare — and that even as you save people from airborne particles, you may unwittingly expose them to the pandemics of isolation and depression.

We learned that we in America so often fixate on a childish understanding of freedom — of negative freedom from government power, from masks, from being told what to do — that we often deprive ourselves of the no less valuable freedom to remain alive.

We learned, with apologies to Ronald Reagan, that government is not, in fact, the problem.

We learned we need a safety net that can catch people when winds too powerful to withstand alone knock them over, and that communities shrivel without one.

We learned that a system that privileges bipartisan consensus over problem-solving ends up with little of either thing — and risks the very death of democracy — as we witness a Congress unable to achieve consensus even on whether an insurrection against it merits retrospection.

We learned that the activists our society so often resists listening to, the ones who provoke us, are often pointing us to truths hard to see in the present — whether about the police, or about what happens to Black women in the care of hospitals, or about the callousness of linking healthcare to being employed. Which is as arbitrary as sending you Social Security checks only if you’re fully caught up with “The Bachelor.”

Of course, you have drawn your own lessons from this time; and others have drawn theirs. Some have been saying these things. Others, including, it would seem, the current occupant of the White House, have allowed themselves to be educated by the moment — to realize, as a close adviser to President Biden told me not long ago, “I don’t think you can go through an experience where 500,000-plus people lose their lives and everybody has their life turned upside-down and you reach unemployment levels approaching Depression-era levels and come out of that the same.”

The question before us now is: What will do with these lessons? Will we be so eager to crowd back into restaurants and get our kids out of the house and have date night again and go to games again that we seek to shed these past 16 months like snakeskin?

Or will we carry them with us as a shared national memory that guides our decisions about where we go from here? 

Will that collective memory inform our choice of whether to make a historic investment in care infrastructure? Will that memory impel us further toward the pursuit of real racial justice, not black Instagram squares and occasional diverse hires, but a real reckoning? Will that shared memory kick this country’s habit of hoarding drug patents rather than sharing know-how with poor countries?

“Historically,” the writer Arundhati Roy said not long ago, “pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.”

It is possible at this hour to be consumed by despair. To be scarred by the year-plus gone by, exhausted, depleted, ready to forget and move on, and enjoy the looming hot-girl summer. To be back, baby.

But there is, in moments like this one, a possibility of tearing open a hole in the universe and marching through it.

The writer Sarah Schulman says that in most times a small number of activists on the margins advocate for meaningful change and all too often are ignored or defeated.

Then, every so often in history, “the zeitgeist moment hits,” as she puts it, and“persistent voices can finally be heard.”

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