As of this writing, 185,291,530 cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed worldwide, with 4,010,834 deaths. When two of those deaths belong to your family, you want to be precise; just as you want to be circumspect about saying anything positive can come from all this pandemic madness.
"The Earth is healing," was one of the early ones. "Our grandparents went to war and all we need to do is stay home and watch Netflix," was another. The unavoidable, self-congratulatory proselytizing came out too: "Learn a new skill," "Write that novel," "Develop that side hustle…" otherwise you’d have wasted the opportunity of all this “free” time. And the narcissists, never to be outdone, started counting their "true friends" based on who checked on them, while some folks needed the nudge of a few million deaths to value “family time” and/or “self care” and/or “simple living.”
I sound salty and I won’t be the only one. The (mostly) well-meaning comforts turned tone-deaf and hollow quickly, for good reason: they were as flimsy as the “news” of dolphins returning to Venice, and as ephemeral as the skies clearing of smog. It was positivity rendered insubstantial over time and circumstance, like cotton candy.
Any sense of being #blessed folded beneath the weight of more brutal realizations. The possibility of disease and death lurked around every corner, and playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” COVID-19 Edition was anti-climactic because everyone-knows-someone-who-knows-someone-who-died soon turned into, everyone knows someone who died.
Even for those somehow lucky enough to dodge death or disease, it was hard to miss income disparity so stark that not only were there people who couldn’t afford to stay home, too many people had no safe homes at all. Culture wars have polarized people so severely, too, that even science was taken as a matter of opinion, and even wearing a mask or getting vaccinated became political. Furthermore, dysfunctional health systems couldn’t handle masses of the sick, yet economies couldn’t afford to stay closed for long.
Many businesses have closed and more will still follow, just as many people have lost their jobs and many others are still slated to, and certain politicians have a vested interest in keeping their base as rabid as they are ill-informed. The world feels like it's coming apart at the seams, in 4D, in real time, and we are only in Modified Enhanced Act I, or Modified General Act IA, or something.
The pandemic isn’t a blessing in disguise – the “blessings” were the disguise.
There seems to be no making lemonades of it all, and that is especially the case if you’ve lost someone. The positives, if there ever are any real and sustainable ones at all, are never going to be commensurate to the loss. One can still choke on a glass of water half-full. When you are in mourning, there is only the time Before the death, and the time After. If, by incident, the After has something decent to offer, great. But it will have nothing to do with compensation. Grandma died, at least the earth is healing? – won’t quite cut it. So yes, we should be wary of waxing positive at a time of sustained global crisis.
But there are positives, except they need to be taken as they really are: pricey, ugly, and merciless. Like a scar or callus – hard-won.
Brutally speaking, societies have shown the ability to improve in the long-run, following the ravages of an epidemic. There’s some indication that historical plagues served as an executor of natural selection, such that the people who survived had hardier physical characteristics that were carried down to future generations. The Black Death in particular, is believed to have ushered in better life outcomes for survivors due to societal factors as well: depopulation meant more quality resources for fewer mouths to feed per household; less congestion and less waste; better pay for laborers having bargaining power from low supply over demand; and an overall better understanding of health and hygiene.
Again – the only real positives in a pandemic are brutal. There is more for you to eat if your brother is gone, you can command higher pay over the bodies of your colleagues, and millions had to die for the advancement of science.
Already ugly and merciless, the positives have one more thing foul about it – they aren’t inevitable. Any good thing we can dredge out of this hot mess requires action.
The coronavirus pandemic, for example, shows how far we have come in terms of scientific knowledge. But we have to do better about the student debt and pay of our medical workers, we have to widen access to healthcare, and we need to communicate better about vaccines. The scientific expertise of a few people is also proving sterile to policy and collective action, if affordable and quality education is not given to create more discernment in the wider population.
The lockdowns have also exposed how we as a society have been a jerk to “blue collar” workers. All hail to the well-meaning gratitude and resolve to treat and tip better, but there needs to be a systemic, financial reevaluation of what constitutes essential work, and how they are quantitatively appreciated.
Maslow’s famed theory on the Hierarchy of Human Needs places the basics of physiological and security needs as essential to achieving higher forms of ourselves. The necessities here are visceral, usually requiring labor that is basic, or down and dirty and oh-so-necessary. Yet we also live in the cold world of Marx, who had written of lower wages in more "repulsive" work. Maslow and Marx together form an incongruity that is tearing our world apart – we provide such poor rewards for indispensable foundations. It is unjust.
And the thing about injustice, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, is that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We see that idea illustrated and magnified here, in our viral interconnectedness – because when the poorly compensated indispensable worker feels ill but cannot afford to miss a day on the job, everyone he serves is at risk. When they have limited access to nutritious food and quality healthcare, the underserved are open to severe forms of the virus. When they do not have living spaces conducive to recovery in isolation, they expose other people to illness, eventually overwhelming medical facilities, equipment, and manpower. When a struggling education system puts quality schooling out of reach of wide swathes of the population, every person vulnerable to disinformation can self-medicate, or refuse to wear a mask or vaccinate, or make poor electoral choices that affects everyone else.
We are entangled, and you don’t have to be an idealist to want to pursue better lives for all sectors of your countrymen – you only have to be realistic. Because it’s not just the virus that is contagious, but also injustice. It trickles outward and upward. It mutates. It adapts and inserts itself into all levels of society.
Pursuit of fairness should no longer be a project dumped into the hands of the so-called leftists and bleeding hearts. It should be an imperative for anyone interested in selfish self-preservation. The desire for decency and social justice isn’t a fluffy unicorn pipe dream, it’s grounded in reality. The real delusion is believing anyone can be individually successful enough to isolate themselves from social illness. Only a handful of billionaires can launch themselves into space, the rest of us are stuck here with each other.
The pandemic is the open wound that exposes the brittle bones of our collective, broken body. Let’s not just close it up and die slowly. Since we’re here anyway, let’s dig in and make systemic repairs in minimum wage, universal health care, public housing, and education. Let's make all the heartache mean something. – Rappler.com
Isabel Lacson-Estrada is a freelance writer with a Master of Science Degree in Global Affairs from New York University. She is a stay-at-home mom and is underqualified but lucky to have the best job in the world.
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