As more people in the US get vaccinated against Covid-19 and infection rates continue to drop, many are thinking about what comes next. Is it “back to normal”? Is there now a “new normal”? Perhaps those of us who survived the pandemic should be looking toward something better than the old world that failed so many, and should think about going forward to a better world.
Over the past year we have seen people coming together to help each other live. Instead of driving harder into contests of exploitation, millions of people have acted individually and collectively to take care of each other and find new community. Instead of joining with fascists or accepting their power grabs, a large part of the population vocally rejected fascism and many thousands actively fought against fascism by a variety of means. Instead of allowing surveillance capitalism, state violence, and racism to go unchallenged, people have taken action to claim personal autonomy while fighting to help others live. Against the backdrop of a disaster grinding on over a year, against numerous threats of new dangers, people have shown that another end of the world is possible.
My perspective is focused on the US as a person who lives here, but it is important to recognize that the pandemic is not subsiding equally for people around the world. Covid is still widespread in many countries, and access to vaccines is unequal. Patent regimes and the lobbies and lawyers who uphold them may still hinder the global production of vaccines and medicines necessary for all to live better lives.
Those of us who lived through the pandemic in the US must reflect on the disaster around us. There are well over 500,000 recorded deaths from Covid, numerous people with lingering illness, and many others physically harmed by secondary effects of the pandemic.
I sometimes see people write that “individualism” is to blame for the generally inadequate response to the pandemic by the US. While there are some damaging behaviors that the term individualism could cover, focusing on this neglects the bigger picture and could deflect blame from larger problems: hardened class rule, structural racism, and the authoritarian ideology of the ruling party in 2020. Telling workers it’s their duty to risk their lives for the good of The Economy, whose gains they will not have much of a share in, and labelling them “heroes” for their sacrifice, does not sound so individualist. The authoritarian drive to assign individuals to groups that can be sorted, segregated, and ranked is actually a reason why the pandemic was so devastating in the US.
The abandonment of people in disaster was practiced in the imperial periphery but would soon be brought to the core. In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Rather than use the resources of the US government and its globe-spanning powers to help US citizens in need, Trump and his lackeys put more effort into regime propaganda.
When Covid first struck the US, it was primarily seen in busy metropolitan areas and a few suburban ethnic enclaves. Many people in the US – especially white right-wingers – view such areas as somehow outside of their nation and the people who live there suspect. Like Puerto Ricans, they may be technically American but are seen by many as not the same kind of American. Areas where a lot of poor people of color live are often presented as a kind of vague foreign threat, which was made more explicit with Republican campaign ads threatening that people and values from such areas were seeking to invade the suburbs.
So long as most people who were dying could be seen as other kinds of people, it was easier for many to not care. When it did strike someone they knew, ideology instructed them to blame some other group of people or find some reason why this person’s particular health history made them an exception and their death less important.
The ruling party of the US in 2020 was an authoritarian movement led by a man who called immigrants “animals,” spoke in apocalyptic terms of the threats facing the nation, and cultivated an absurd image of physical toughness (regardless of the physical reality). It is not a stretch to suggest that many of their supporters would treat a mass death event as a cleansing of the nation that was worth risking life for: individuals would suffer but the nation may become stronger.
The demagogues, fraudsters, and racists in charge of the federal government doled out lifesaving equipment for public praise and political support. The wealthy could count on luxury quarantine and excellent medical care while others labored in danger. The supposed public health experts told Americans for weeks into the pandemic to keep going into work without masks, and said we would be okay if we sang a happy song while washing our hands.
A lesson of the pandemic should be that we cannot count on authority but we may be able to build community that we can count on. We should take whatever we can from this moment and run toward individual and collective liberation.
Keep wearing a mask when Covid transmission is a threat, and keep wearing it at other times if you want to. The more common that masks are, the more frustration for surveillance capitalism and the police state. Masks can decrease the spread of illnesses that are annoying to most and dangerous to some. Masks can reduce airborne irritants like pollen and particulates.
The shift to online meetings and working from home has had positives and negatives, and it is up to workers to make it work for them. It is great for many people with disabilities and has made commuting less of a burden. Yet a haphazard effort to bring the office into the home has been difficult for many to manage. There is also the danger of workplace control being extended into the home, breaking boundaries on work versus personal time and space. Taking control of where you work is an important part of taking control of the work day, and this will be a challenge over the coming months.
The struggle of workers to be treated with respect may become one of the most far-reaching struggles of the year. Whether by informal actions, such as an entire store’s workforce walking out and leaving notes describing their frustration, or by union drives or strike action, workers across the country are exercising more power. Bold worker action may bring higher wages and better benefits, which would be a massive improvement for people who have been told that they do not deserve enough to live well. It may bring more confidence to workers and enable them to set more of their conditions of work. Hopefully worker actions go even farther, and people form worker-managed enterprises and cooperatives that operate for the benefit of workers and the greater community.
It can be nice to return to some familiar things that make life feel normal, but to build a better future it is necessary to see where we are and move forward. Forward in solidarity. Forward to equality. Forward to liberation.