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Are We Ready to Emerge From Covid-19? Revisiting the Pandemic as a Portal

Instead of rushing to emerge, we would do well now to slow down, take stock of the luggage we are carrying and the carcasses we are still dragging.

Judy Rohrer

It is June 2021. We are emerging from the pandemic here in the U.S. at the same time global vaccine inequity enables the virus to continue to ravage most of the world's population. Covid-19 has revealed our exceptional (American) ability to hoard life-saving resources (even if we cannot figure out how to use them), at the same time we squandered more lives than any other nation. The 3.5 million, including 600,000 U.S. deaths to date (official national and global numbers are likely undercounts) should haunt us, should at least spur us to demand better distribution, education, and a people's vaccine.

We might like to think we are post-pandemic, racially woke, economically recovering, sustainably committed, but we know better.

Instead, many of us, in this richest nation on earth, are choosing to turn away, to pretend the pandemic is over because we have gotten vaccinated. Many bemoan "pandemic fatigue" and are tossing aside masks, along with any Covid-inspired revelations about public health and commitments to collectivity (not to mention the anti-vaxxers who are still not convinced they are part of a public). Some folks are nearly giddy with plans for getting back to "normal," forgetting that "normal" was not working for most of us in the Before Times. Pandemic fatigue is real, and if we are honest, many of us have likely felt the urge to throw open the door, unmask, and inhale deeply as we rush toward a quarantine-induced mirage tagged "freedom."

Still, for those of us who are slower to let down our guard, slower to unmask, we feel a new anxiety. We are unnerved when out in public. Literally out of step, as we continue to step out of line and off curbs to maintain a now socialized social distance. We feel compelled to justify ourselves but are without any easy explanation.  We search the internet for "evidence-based" guidelines, as we have been trained to do over the last fourteen months. We find a lot of confusion and not a lot of data.  

We worry about what we don't know about the rapidly spreading variants, about how long immunity lasts. We feel betrayed by the CDC and Fauci.  We think there should be more deliberation, more planning, more equity.  We feel frustrated and even angry at free-riding friends and family who refuse vaccination. We are concerned for those who have not yet been able to access shots.  We read that in some states, the case rate among the unvaccinated is as high as it was at the peak this past winter.

It is June 2021 and we are emerging. There is a lot of judgment and hostility, not a lot of compassion or grace. We seem unable to recognize the signs of PTSD in ourselves and others. This is a global pandemic after all. It will be one of the defining elements of our lifetimes. It has profoundly shaped us in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Some of us have lost friends and loved ones, many are suffering from long-haulers syndrome, record numbers lost their jobs and homes, there has been a spike in interpersonal/gender-based violence, as well as mental health issues, and these are only the most obvious impacts.

Even those of us who have come through relatively unscathed have experienced "languishing"—a sense of stagnation and emptiness. This is related to the new psychological field studying ambiguous loss—loss with no possibility of resolution or closure. So much that is intangible, ambiguous, and therefore difficult to grieve, has been lost during this pandemic. Perhaps that is why the moniker of "Before Times" resonates. No one escaped this plague, and at the same time, its impacts are widely disparate, and that partly explains our differing responses to this moment.

It feels like forever ago, but it was just last September that I wrote: "While many of us feel caught in a liminal place-time, we are all very much emplaced—and that emplacement is profoundly (really, mortally) tied to privilege. We are hyper aware of the spaces we are occupying, who is sharing (or not sharing) them with us, how much power we have over them, what air we are breathing into and out of those spaces.  As COVID-19 rages through San Quentin prison, Mesa Verde ICE Processing facility, and so many sites of incarceration and detention, it is clearer than ever whose lives and freedom do not matter."

It is June 2021 and we are emerging. The convergence of the pandemic, the economic collapse in its wake, and the uprising for racial justice propelled us last year into an historic moment variously named: a tipping point, a potential portal, the great turning, a hegemonic/paradigm shift. Last June, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza asked, "Are we going to use this moment to tinker with what is or are we going to use this moment to transform toward what can be?" If we are indeed emerging, coming out on the other side of the portal, are we doing that mindfully, courageously, transformatively? Or, are we simply hurriedly stumbling back to the old unjust, unsustainable status quo?

In April 2020, Arundhati Roy shared her vision of the pandemic as a portal: "Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."

Instead of rushing to emerge, we would do well now to slow down, take stock of the luggage we are carrying and the carcasses we are still dragging. We might like to think we are post-pandemic, racially woke, economically recovering, sustainably committed, but we know better. We may desire for this to be the end of the pandemic, the other side of the portal, but perhaps we are simply coming up for a breath before submerging again to do more work at the root, to make more of the deep structural change necessary to "transform toward what can be."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Judy Rohrer

Judy Rohrer

Judy Rohrer is a scholar-activist and has written previously about whiteness, racial politics, and settler colonialism for both academic and popular audiences.  She is currently the Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Eastern Washington University.

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