Warning: this is a dark piece in a dark time.
As I think about what to write this morning, I recognize the need to express the shame, horror and fear of this moment. Almost 100,000 people dead from COVID-19. Millions of people have no way to pay for food or rent. Millions of elders are at risk of death or homelessness. Yet, we cling to the shreds of a dying democracy and a fantasy called “getting back to normal.”
The shame is that we as a nation seem oblivious to the tragedy of so many unnecessary deaths in our midst. Part of struggling to stay sane in this season means trying to maintain some sense of normal life for ourselves and our loved ones. I quote my sister often these days: “You have one job – get through the pandemic!”
Our efforts to maintain stability in the midst of obvious chaos make it appear that we are unaffected by the massive death toll. Yet, we are all affected in some way. Truly, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
It may be a relative or friend that you know has COVID-19. You may have a loved one who died from COVID-19 or a loved one you fear may die from COVID-19. We are all affected. But to the outside world, it looks like we are insistent on “getting back to normal.” It seems like we are willing to die for “business as usual.” It is only a facade created to make us all feel better while making us all look worse than we are.
Our National Hypocrisy
The Memorial Day holiday highlights the hypocrisy of the moment. This is a holiday to commemorate those who died while serving in the military. Politicians preen themselves to acknowledge military service on this day. We are all taught to say “thank you” in the presence of veterans. Yet, last week, we learned that a COVID-19 experiment killed at least 26 veterans receiving care at VA medical centers. Others required ventilators to survive at higher rates than veterans who were not administered the death drug. These veterans died too, at the hands of the military.
Ironically, the experimental treatment imposed on these veterans by our government reminds us of the tragedy of the Tuskegee experiment. From 1940 to 1972, a government study left 399 Black men with untreated syphilis. The government did not tell the men they were being used as guinea pigs. Even when doctors recognized penicillin was an effective treatment in 1945, the “study” continued for another 27 years.
We Are All Expendable
What COVID-19 exposes in America is that we are all expendable. That includes veterans in hospitals, in prisons and without homes. At least 8-10% of those imprisoned in this country are military veterans. One 2012 study found the mortality risk for veterans released from prison is 12 times higher than the general population. No doubt the mortality rates for all returning citizens in the post-COVID-19 season will skyrocket. There is no protection from COVID-19 in prison. As clergy woman Melissa Cedillo notes, “The American prison system today is a new iteration of this long-standing white supremacist goal — to control and dehumanize people of color, the impoverished, the marginalized.“
Outside of prison, COVID-19 is killing Black people at three times the rate of white people. And as Dr. Fauci notes, this is not “news” and there is nothing we can do about it in this moment.
In fact, we are all expendable: veterans, nurses, health care workers, domestic workers, gig workers, low-wage workers, small business owners, homeless people, incarcerated people, Black people, Latinos and Native Americans, all of us. Indeed, in January 2019, according to Forbes magazine, 78% of all American workers were living “paycheck-to-paycheck.” That was last year, before the pandemic hit us. Now, for at least 40 million people, there is no paycheck. No health insurance. No savings, only student loans, enormous medical bills or credit card debt.
A Dark Piece
I warned you – this is a dark piece. This is bearing witness to the collapse of an economic system coming apart at the seams. A democracy that has succumbed to celebrity fascism. A failing education system erected on inequity based on race and social status. Suddenly, the rest of the world considers America “a shithole country.” As writer Marley K. points out:
“America is the rich nation where people can starve to death, children can sleep in cars and no one is bothered by it, where citizens get sick and can’t afford to get well, and where people who work all their lives can’t afford to grow old and die in peace.”
We face the closure of the Post office, a national institution since 1775 and a place of employment for Black people since the end of slavery. According to writer umair haque, we have actually become “too poor” to save ourselves. And we are still only at the beginning of the pandemic. With states rushing to “re-open” the economy, the death toll will only rise. We are simply not seeing the body bags that were widely displayed on television during the Vietnam War. But people are in fact dying: 100,000 people so far to be precise.
Who Will Make The Change?
We already have the answers. We already know what must be done. It starts with Medicare for All. We must have a guaranteed basic income for all. We must have a Green New Deal. It is up to us to destroy the “inherently unequal” school system that Thurgood Marshall challenged and start over. We must end mass incarceration and dismantle our criminal injustice system. This pandemic must result in a fundamental re-ordering of our priorities and how we pay for them. The question is who among us will be alive to make it happen.
Like I said: “You have one job – get through the pandemic!”