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On refusing to stop living a "normal" life during covid.
We are in another covid wave. Reported cases are up, even though the majority likely aren’t being counted because of our reliance on at-home testing. And so the usual talking heads repeat their tried and true tropes: the individual-responsibility-ists implore us to wear masks and social distance. The more social-justice-minded highlight the stories of disabled and immunocompromised people. People yell at other people on social media for being irresponsible, ask us to think of the most vulnerable among us. And the covid-is-over-ists counter that we must get back to normal, stop complaining and move on. This cycle repeats over and over, each time there is a new wave.
But nowhere in this cycle is a recognition of why, exactly, people are being so “irresponsible”—why people have stopped caring, continued partying, traveling, and living their lives—even as cases and hospitalizations once again rise.
And that’s because there has been a fundamental miscalculation in the stakes of covid. We have learned to frame this pandemic in terms of life or death, safety or danger, responsibility or irresponsibility. We argue over staying home or going out, traveling or not traveling, normalcy or precaution.
Rarely in this calculation do we think about the time we’ve lost—the fundamental unfairness of asking people to disrupt their lives, to stop doing the things that bring them joy and solace and prevent themselves from dying in other ways (of overdose, depression and suicide, of loneliness).
Rarely do we realize the political potential in fighting not only for the right to live, but the right to have fun, be social, dance, see our families, and experience life to the fullest, safely. What is a reasonable period to ask you to put your life on hold? Two weeks? Two years? Five years?
This pause in normal living leads to immense loss: over 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in one year. Anxiety and depression diagnoses are skyrocketing. When we frame covid as a calculation between individual responsibility and irresponsibility, we ignore that being asked to be “responsible” for years on end leads to its own kinds of loss— literal death, trauma, the breakdown of social ties.
Had our governments focused on stopping this pandemic, we would not be in this position. Had they provided adequate money to stay home, social resources, air filtration systems, food, we could have avoided this compromise: either be good and stay home and prevent more sickness (but contribute to the decline of your own mental health and the fracturing of your social bonds), or be irresponsible, go out, and contribute to a raging pandemic. Even the people who normally make laudable and coherent systemic critiques of our society have fallen into this trap, blaming others for refusing, or being unable to continue isolating indefinitely, and letting those with actual power to stop this off without much more than an angry tweet.
There is no coherent political action against our government’s covid failures. No protests on the steps of the FDA, not even a popular proposal from progressive or leftist organizations that we can point to as a roadmap for what governments should be doing, something we can hold them to, contrast their failures against. Which is not to say that people aren’t doing good work to outline what should be done. But our mainstream conversation is still stuck between responsibility and irresponsibility, between allowing the government to take years of our lives, and blaming ourselves for a pandemic which is in fact completely out of our individual control.
I used to view people’s refusal to stay indoors and be responsible as a sign of American selfishness, an abject failure on a societal and individual level to care about others. But I now think we must see the inherent politicalness in this refusal: we are all collectively saying, whether we realize it or not, that we will not allow our lives to be postponed, that we care too much about our families, our friends, our fun, to keep waiting.
Unfortunately, this widespread and popular politic (no one wants to stay inside anymore!) is unorganized. It expresses itself through hedonism (which is fine, but not enough on its own), rather than concerted political action. But again we have been divided—those who want to party are accused of not caring about the more vulnerable. Those who want us to do more to care are accused of wanting everyone to live the most depressing and isolated versions of their lives. We remain divided, not realizing we want the same thing.
People argue that centering the concerns of those who probably will not die from covid and want to leave their houses and live normal lives brushes the concerns of the most vulnerable under the rug. But it is the most vulnerable who have been asked to experience the largest amount of time-death, who have been asked to stay indoors indefinitely, to simply not live their lives until it is safe to do so. Those who want to party and travel and refuse to have their lives disrupted and those who want covid to end for their own safety are, or should be, on the same side.
We are all experiencing forms of loss because of the way we’ve framed covid. That loss, like all loss under capitalism, is not evenly distributed. Some experience actual death. Some experience the death of their loved ones. Others experience a less extreme loss—the loss of years of their lives. The inequality in these losses should not stop us from recognizing that we all should be fighting together for the right for all of us to return to lives in which we can socialize, party, travel, and simply live as well as we can, safely.
There is powerful potential in the politics of our desire to get back to normal. We could harness it, if only we could stop yelling at each other about who has thought through the pandemic the best.