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Pandemic Living

The long haul.

Seven months in, I’m finally realizing what so many marginalized people have always known: we’re on our own. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Seven months in, I’m finally realizing what so many marginalized people have always known: we’re on our own. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

After all these months and 210,000 deaths, you’d think I’d be used to it all, but I’m not. It doesn’t seem even a little normal yet. I’m still full of absences, missing so much I used to take for granted: hugs and handshakes, rooms crowded for funerals and weddings, potluck dinners and house parties. I miss browsing the stacks at the library and the racks at the thrift shop. I miss going to our Unitarian Universalist congregation and the robust community connection we enjoyed every Sunday.

I should count myself lucky, of course, that such human encounters and quotidian pleasures are all that I miss. I have yet to lose friends or family to Covid-19, I haven’t lost my job, and our home is not in danger of foreclosure. Still, I’m at a loss to figure out how to go on.

But that’s the work, isn’t it? Going on somehow because, if the experts are on target—and they’re hard to hear above the din of the bombast and threats of carnage coming out of Washington—they say that things won’t get back to normal for a year or longer. They say this is the new normal: masks, distance, existential dread over every sore throat.

Another year... at least. How do I pace myself and my family for the long haul of the pandemic? How do we figure out how to mitigate our risks and still live lives of some sort? Who do we trust? Who do we listen to? And who do we call if a spiking fall or winter pandemic hits us directly?

I’m full of missing and longing, but the thing I miss most poignantly and sharply isn’t something (or someone) you could see or touch. What I miss is the privileged (and ultimately false) notion, almost an article of faith for white, middle-class people like me, that the future is predictable, that there is a "normal." I miss good old-fashioned American optimism, that "aw shucks" sentiment that absolves and salves and says with a twang or lilt: It’ll be okay. They’ll figure it out. Things will get back to normal. This is only temporary.

Pandemic Plus

While most of the developed world has been dealing with the impact of the pandemic in a reasonable fashion -- caring for the sick, burying the dead, enforcing lockdowns and the sort of distancing and masking that seems so necessary—it’s played out differently here in the good old U.S. of A. Here, we have a pandemic-plus—plus a broken social safety net, a for-profit healthcare system, a war of disinformation, and that’s just to start down a list of add-on disasters.

In addition, parts of the United States have been beset by record wildfires, hurricanes, and deadly storms. So add on the impact of catastrophic climate change.

Here in the land of the fearful and the home of the riven, it’s been a pandemic plus poverty, plus staggering economic inequality, plus police violence, plus protest, plus white supremacy. It’s a nightmare, in other words and, despite those more than 210,000 dead Americans, it’s not slowing down. And no matter the facts on the ground, and the bodies below the ground, the president’s supporters regularly deny there’s the slightest need for masks, social distancing, shutdowns, or much of anything else. So, it’s a pandemic plus lunacy, too—a politically manipulated lunacy spiced with violence and the threat of violence heading into an increasingly fraught election, which could even mean a pandemic plus autocracy or a chaotic American version of fascism. In other words, it’s a lot.

Still, it’s also the fall and, after this endless summer, my three kids have started school again—sort of. They are in first, third, and eighth grade. Right now, there’s more coaching around masks and distancing than instruction in math and the ABCs. Still, the teachers are working hard to make this happen and my kids are so happy to be away from us that they don’t even seem to mind those masks, or the shields around their desks, or the regimented way lunch and recess have to happen. Over the whole experiment, of course, hangs an unnerving reality (or do I mean unreality?): that in-person schooling could dissolve in an errant cough, a spiking fever, and a few microscopic germs catapulting through the air. In fact, that’s already been happening in other areas of Connecticut where I live.

After all these months of lockdown, my husband and I automatically wear masks everywhere, arranging the odd outdoor gathering of a handful of friends and trying to imagine how any of this will work in winter, no less long term. Still, bit by bit, we’re doing our best to quilt together an understanding of how to live in the midst of such a pandemic—and that’s important because it’s so obvious that there’s going to be no quick fix in the chaotic new world we’ve been plunged into. 

Seven months in, I’m finally realizing what so many marginalized people have always known: we’re on our own. It came to me like a klaxon call, a scream from the depths of my own body, all at once. I still whisper it, with sorrow and wonder: we are on our own.

It’s as if our small city of New London and the state of Connecticut had been untethered from the federal government and, despite the crazy game of telephone that passes for federal public-healthcare policy, are faring better than most due to a mixture of our state’s reputation as the "Land of Steady Habits," our small-city web of mutual aid, and our own family’s blend of abundance and austerity. Still, the fact that, relatively speaking, we’re doing okay doesn’t make the realization that we’re on our own any less stark or troubling.

It’s not complicated, really. You can’t beat a pandemic with a mixture of personal responsibility and family creativity. Science, policy, and a national plan are what’s needed. My own vision for such a plan in response to Covid-19 would be the passage of a universal basic income, robust worker protections, and Medicare for all. But that's just me... well, actually, it's probably the secret dream of the majority of Americans and it’s certainly the opposite of the position of Trump and his ilk. It says that we really all are in this together and we better start acting like it. We need to take care of one another to survive.

In spite of it all, I’m doing my best to manage this new normal by focusing on what I actually can do. At least I can feed people.

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Our city was poor even before the state ordered a lockdown in mid-March and few had the extra money to panic-buy. So the food justice organization I work for started planting extra carrots, peas, and collards back in March. We built public garden boxes and painted signs telling people to harvest for free. We distributed soil and seeds to people all over the city and gave them some gardening 101 guidance.

And now, as October begins, we’re still finishing harvesting all that food and distributing it every week. On Fridays, I also help pack boxes of milk and eggs, meat and vegetables, which we then deliver to more than 100 families. The rhythm involved in harvesting the produce and packing the boxes, each an immersive physical task, helps banish my darker thoughts, at least for a while.

"We Are Going to Be in Very Good Shape"

The president held a news conference on March 30th. Of course, that’s ancient history now, separated as it is from the present by long months of deaths and hospitalizations, layoffs and political in-fighting. The CEOs of Honeywell, Jockey, MyPillow, United Technologies, and other companies were gathered alongside administration officials that day. It should have been a briefing on where we Americans were a month into what was clearly going to be a long slog. Above all, it should have honored those who had already died. Instead—no surprise looking back from our present nightmarish vantage point—it proved to be an extended advertisement for those companies and a chance for their CEOs to spout patriotic pablum and trade compliments with the commander-in-chief.

I was crying a lot then. When the president said, "We have to get our country back to where it was and maybe beyond," I began to sob and dry heave. After I finally wiped away the tears and blew my nose, I checked out the website of a company that makes homeopathic remedies. A friend had sent me a list of ones doctors were supposedly using to treat coronavirus symptoms in Germany, Italy, and China.

"Get these if you can," she texted. It wasn’t science. I admit it. It was desperation. As one of millions of Americans on state insurance with no primary-care doctor or bespoke concierge service, I feared the worst.

As the CEO from MyPillow was telling the American people to use the time of the shutdown to "get back in the Word, read our Bibles," I made my own faith gesture and pressed the buy button. When the order arrived, it was full of tiny, archaic vials labelled with names like Belladonna and Drosera. Even now, when I feel anxious and cloudy, I rummage through that box of vials and read the names like incantations. Better that than heeding the president’s assertion on that long-gone day that "we are going to be in very good shape."

A Handful of Chickens

We are not in very good shape and it’s getting worse every day. As the November election looms and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death (as well as the grim Republican response to it) casts an ever more massive shadow over the country, the subtext of the administration’s message—however convoluted its delivery—is simple enough: you’re on your own. Over the last half-year, whether discussing the pandemic or the vote to come, Donald Trump has made one bizarre, bombastic, patently untrue assertion after another. In the process, he’s vacillated between a caricature of a dictator from some long-lost Isabel Allende novel and of an insecure middle manager (The Office’s Michael Scott on steroids).

Critical medical information, public health guidelines, and the disbursement of necessary protective equipment have all been thoroughly messed up and politicized in ways that are harmful today and could be devastating for years to come. As Peter Baker of the New York Times reported in September, so many of us are indeed confused:

"With Mr. Trump saying one thing and his health advisors saying another, many Americans have been left to figure out on their own whom to believe, with past polls sharing that they have more faith in the experts than their president."

That’s me! I do have faith in the experts. I’m wearing a mask and digging into the idea that mask wearing is going to be a part of our lives for at least the next year or so. In other words, the new normal will be ever more of the same, which means careful, awkward, tentative engagement with a wildly unpredictable world full of pathogens and unmasked "patriots." The new normal will mean trading in the old sock masks my mother-in-law fashioned for us and investing in more high tech and effective masks. Beyond that, my answer to all this couldn’t be more feeble. It’s taking care of my backyard chickens and my front-yard garden and adding strands to our small web of mutual aid.

This spring and summer, I dug up more of my lawn to plant carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash in an ever larger garden, while learning how to store rainwater from the gutters of our roof in big barrels. I joked with my friends about growing rice—and might even try it next year. I acquired a chicken coop, built a rudimentary run, and ordered six beautiful chickens from a farm in a quiet corner of Connecticut: two Golden Copper Marans, two Black Marans, and two Easter Eggers. The kids named them after characters in the Harry Potter series, which they’ve all but memorized during the shutdown. One chicken ran away and one died, but I love everything about taking care of them and harvesting the perfect magical protein orbs they produce with religious regularity.

These things bring me pleasure and a feeling of accomplishment, while leaving me with a set of tasks that I have to complete even when I feel despondent and overwhelmed. That’s all to the good, but a handful of chickens and a few collard plants don’t add up to self-sufficiency. They are not a bulwark against national insanity and ineptitude. They will not solve the problem of Donald Trump and Company.

Still, in bad, bad times, at least they keep me going and let’s face it, all of us—at least those of us who survive Covid-19—are in it for the long haul.

Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan, a columnist for WagingNonviolence.org, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and organizes with Witness Against Torture.

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