Reflections on what happens when COVID-19 takes on human form
For several months COVID-19 has been stalking[i]all of us, silently, invisibly, exterminating us one by one. Over 100,000 in the United States; several hundred thousand around the globe[ii]. No one is immune. The fear that so many have felt has been palpable and stubbornly persistent. And while all of us have been targeted, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions have been the ones most likely to become seriously ill or die[iii]. And amongst those groups, people of color have been disproportionately represented[iv]– not because of innate susceptibility, but due to the effects of multigenerational and institutional racism. Racism that for hundreds of years has created and continues to perpetuate, among other things, economic disparities, barriers to healthcare and inadequate access to education. Disadvantages that effectively make people of color relatively low-lying fruit, so much easier for COVID-19 to pick off.
Other effects of and opportunities presented by the coronavirus:
In addition to the illness and suffering that it has caused, COVID-19 and our response to it have provided us with a retrospective of significant times and events in our past. A small sample includes:
*Disease: Most obviously, as a pandemic, it reminds us of the Spanish flu of 1918.
*Economics: Our current unemployment rates take us back to the Great Depression of the 1930’s[v].
*Transportation: We have been moving about as if still in an era before mass transportation, particularly air travel[vi].
*Pollution and global warming: The reduction in vehicular traffic and industry are allowing us, at least for a brief moment, to breathe cleaner air than has been available for decades[vii].
*Family time: Our stay-at-home orders have afforded us more time with our families than many of us have ever experienced, even though such time was the norm generations ago.
COVID-19 is also inviting us to come together. To share in a common experience; to develop empathy for those who on the surface seem so different. For example, people who have never experienced food insecurity are now lining up for the foodbank along with those for whom hunger is the rule not the exception[viii]. Germaphobes are no longer the only ones bathing in hand sanitizer. Endurance athletes are signing up to use the same respirators and ventilators that patients with a lifelong battle against asthma or COPD are[ix]. In so many ways, we are all in this together.
Mounting a defense:
From a practical standpoint, we are doing what we can to protect ourselves: physical distancing, hand washing and wearing respiratory condoms (i.e., face masks). Research into potential vaccines and treatment regimes are in high gear. But in the meantime, how do we deal with the anxiety and fear?
“Behind every angry face is a fearful heart”
Our natural instinct is to convert our fear into anger. Fear resides within and makes us feel vulnerable, intolerably so. Anger is projected outward, making us feel powerful and is designed to scare off the attacker so that our own fear can subside. Like a game of “hot potato” it is a way of transferring our fear from “us” to “them.” But what if there is no “them”, no target? No person or group of people onto whom we can project our ire as a way of (temporarily) feeling safer? What if the attacker is an invisible virus, immune to intimidation? What if our lashing out is no more productive than punching at the wind?
What if we were forced to sit with our fear, embrace it, learn from it? With no human enemy, what if we were invited to realize that people are never strictly the problem; they may be infected with a virus with the potential of spreading that illness to others but they themselves are not the problem. Similarly, they may be infected with poisonous and destructive attitudes and beliefs and may engage in oppressive and violent behaviors, but they themselves are not the problem. Instead, people are potential resources to solve problems. Perhaps we are being invited to remember that and to live up to our potential: to work as one, to stop viewing others as adversaries, to start treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated; to live up to our creed that we indeed are all created equal – not identical, not the same – but equal.
COVID-19 arrives in person:
Now that that invitation has been extended, it is only a matter of time before COVID-19 takes human form and we will have to decide how to reply. That time has arrived. For example, just last week, a clearly symptomatic, infected individual approached another man – well within the suggested six-foot “social distancing” guideline; and proceeded to pass along the infection. Quickly the symptoms set in – the tightness in the chest, the difficulty breathing, the panic. First responders were nearby. A medical professional checked for vitals, but it was too late. With no family or friends nearby to offer comfort or to say goodbye, the infection claimed another life. The man died. His name was George Floyd. The deadly viral infection was racial oppression, delivered in this case by a calm, hands-in-the-pockets, robotic assailant, apparently confident that impunity was nearly guaranteed. Into a camera he stared, as emotionless as COVID-19 itself.
The overlap and parallels between social viruses such as racism and medical viruses such as COVID-19 are screaming to be noticed. Even the identity of the most recent messenger has metaphorical significance as he literally has a “chauvinistic” name – Derek Chauvin. Chauvinism is an aggressive form of patriotism[x]. Nothing wrong with being patriotic if that means that you value your connection with those in your own community who look like you, talk like you and worship like you. The problem isn’t the attitude toward “our own people.” The problem is the attitude toward everyone else. The problem is the belief that “different from” is equivalent to “better than.” Problematic because “better than” leads to an inflated sense of entitlement and privilege, which is the foundation for prejudice and discrimination. It is a belief system that continues to fuel each successive iteration of racial oppression – from slavery to segregation to separate but [decidedly not] equal to the [well-intended but condescending] “promotion of tolerance” campaigns[xi].
Suffering in silence:
The most striking similarity between COVID-19 and oppression is the primary symptomology – respiratory distress. One makes it difficult to speak; the other makes it difficult to speak up. One achieves its goal through physical impairments, the other through intimidation and violence. The mob led by Derek Chauvin pulled these together by demonstrating how oppression can employ both tactics simultaneously to tremendous and permanent effect. Over nearly 10 minutes, the “Chauvinistic” mob participated in the production of an unrehearsed, unscripted real life and death documentary – a snuff film[xii]– on the 21st century version of a public lynching caught on tape by a brave 17-year old girl[xiii]. To call their attack a public lynching is not hyperbolic as all of its customary elements were present: death by asphyxiation, with an element of torture, in response to an alleged offense, perpetrated by a mob (four officers), with neither a trial nor legal authority, within public view, as a tactic to intimidate people of color, and despite pleas for mercy.
Time to speak up and be heard:
This indignity places us at a critical juncture. Voices are being silenced – some by COVID-19, some by racists and white supremacists, some by both. “I cannot breathe” echoes across our entire nation by both sets of victims. How do we restore their breathing, their ability to speak freely? With COVID-19, epidemiologists continue to be pro-testing as fewer than 6% of the US population have been tested so far (placing the U.S. outside the top 20 nations per capita). And even those who have been tested cannot be fully confident of the results, as false negatives, particularly with the antibody tests are frequent. But we need that information so that we can understand better what we are dealing with.
The same is true with oppression. We need the information from protestors to understand better what we are dealing with. Similar to the error rate with COVID-19 testing, the protestors of oppression have had their message distorted by the looters and rioters who have inserted themselves into the peaceful and informative marches throughout major cities across the nation. Complicated further by aggressive law enforcement response occasionally directed at entirely peaceful gatherings. We need to protect those messengers and the communities in which they are speaking up, so as not to be distracted from the central issue at hand.
COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that any of us, at any time can be targeted, can be silenced, can literally and figuratively have our breath taken away. In response, now more than ever before, we need to deploy our most powerful weapon against racism and bigotry. A weapon rarely mentioned on the battlefield, but which is arguably the most effective form of self defense ever devised. It is present in every intimate relationship and is a necessary component of meaningful and lasting peace. It is what the protesters are seeking and if delivered will pave the way toward healing our nation and our democracy. It is the often-dreaded “L” word. Dreaded because of a fear that it will make its practitioner appear weak and vulnerable, when in reality it is a sign of strength and confidence. Is it “Love”? No, it is not love, but what makes love possible. In fact, without a willingness to fully and deeply engage in it, neither love nor peace carry any meaning. The word is “Listening.” With our ears, minds and hearts. Listening to what the protestors have to say. Listening to what our President could have quoted out of the Bible while standing in front of St. John's Episcopal Church on June 1, 2020 (e.g., “Love thy neighbor,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” etc. So many possibilities). Listening to what those who have been disenfranchised, disempowered and otherwise silenced need us to hear and need us to change. COVID-19 slowed us all down and for better or worse, it caused us to take a break from our normal daily routine. What better time to listen to each other so that we can begin to heal? Let’s not pass up this opportunity.
Scott Hampton, Psy.D.
[i]For a comparison of the experience of stalking victims and those concerned about being infected by the coronavirus, see http://www.endingtheviolence.us/reflections-on-developing-virtual-supervised-visitation-services-amid-covid-19.html
[ii]https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries Retrieved June 3, 2020.
[iii]“People who are at higher risk of severe illness” from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-at-higher-risk.html
[iv]“Black Americans dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people” from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/20/black-americans-death-rate-covid-19-coronavirus
[v]“Unemployment is nearing Great Depression levels. Here’s how the two eras are similar – and different” from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/19/unemployment-today-vs-the-great-depression-how-do-the-eras-compare.html
[vi]“Coronavirus air travel: These numbers show the massive impact of the pandemic” from https://www.cntraveler.com/story/coronavirus-air-travel-these-numbers-show-the-massive-impact-of-the-pandemic
[vii]“Pollution made COVID-19 worse. Now, lockdowns are cleaning the air.” From https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/pollution-made-the-pandemic-worse-but-lockdowns-clean-the-sky/
[viii]“Reality of American Capitalism exposed. Millions line up for food aid as pandemic spreads.” From https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/04/13/pers-a13.html
[ix]“These athletes had the coronavirus. Will they ever be the same?” From https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/sports/coronavirus-survivors-athletes.html
[xi]For example, one African American male, during a study on interpersonal attitudes, commented: “Tolerance? Are you kidding? It’s an insult. It’s how white people feel better about themselves while continuing to hate Blacks.” We need to listen to and take seriously, the reactions from those most affected by hatred and our programs designed to address it. The study was reported in “Tolerant Oppression: Why promoting tolerance undermines our quest for equality and what we should do instead.” Dog Ear Publishing, 2010.
[xii]A snuff film is a film in which someone is actually killed for the pleasure of the audience. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=snuff%20film