The COVID-19 invasion is dizzying. While the infection rate leaps to new highs, the stock market jumps up and down while dropping to new lows. We sense that there’s something dirty, and deadly, in the air, and experts tell us we have to close ourselves in. This seems unAmerican; we don’t value highly what’s slow, quiet and small. We like to go fast, out and away, and we think loud and big. Our presence — economic, military, cultural — is global. And now a lockdown could be the new normal for months. How could this be good for us?
Those on both sides of the political divide have been facing lockdown issues long before the virus spiked. The Trump presidency has been based on lockdown policies. Build the Wall. Bring industry home. Keep foreigners out, especially those who don’t look like us. The world outside our borders is dangerous, dirty and dark, like a disease. We need to lock ourselves in.
Liberals are not immune from the lockdown mentality. Only a few insist we should open all immigration doors, and few would welcome actual refugees into their homes. Most want to call our troops home from foreign wars, and they’re not happy about large corporations finding safe havens in foreign banks and using cheap labor in foreign factories. They insist on locking complex personal identities into enclaves based on skin hue and gender labels. And they too want to Make America Great again, by creating worthwhile jobs at home, spreading the wealth, and showing America off as an exceptionalist example to nations that have their own diverse ways. They want regulations that limit investment schemes, slow carbon based development, and close in natural wilderness areas. They want an America that feels not like a giant fancy cruise ship but like a house in a nice green yard, even as this sense of home privatizes and narrows their sense of community.
COVID-19 brings home to us a sense of contagion we’ve been feeling for years. The virus makes present a dread analogous to the fear and demoralization we experience on a daily basis when we see lies and dirty politics as the new norm, when we suspect that dirty money calls the shots, when clean water, air and food are suspect because mining, fossil fuel, and other known polluters insist on business as usual, and when we read labels carefully, nervous that wonderful new products are laced with artificial gunk secretly doing us in. In our worst moments we dread that the virus may mutate into even more terrible versions, and that what comes with it are new warfare schemes, quietly waged by invisible specks of disease no walls, fat defense budgets, or hardened armies can keep out.
We try to banish such thoughts.
But these suspicions linger, and are queasy enough to send us toward distractions and palliatives that help us look the other way. We try to self-medicate anxieties. We go on internet surfing sprees, surrender our souls to doomsday narratives, try pharmaceutical fixes, gamble and game ourselves to distraction, and entertain ourselves to sleep. Still, we want the queasiness to end, and we quietly long for composure and the company of good friends.
COVID-19 will take many lives, and we hope to outlive it by hunkering down. But do we banish the thought that business is suddenly unusual? Can this dangerous virus invite us to go inward in unprecedented ways, toward deep understandings of how to renew ourselves? Can we begin to see the virus as a “natural” necessity offering us a potentially positive outcome, the opportunity to pause and rethink priorities that may open new doors for us? A lockdown is imperative, especially of our aimless youth, if we are to limit the virus spread. But after the lockdown how long will we survive a return to business as usual?
COVID-19 invites us to reinvent ourselves with innovation based on back-to-basics premises. The old party’s over, but a new and better one may begin. Political parties would have to distinguish the wasteful and useless from what the new facts of life will require over the long term. We will need a new economics based on an appraisal of how localized supply and demand needs will be satisfied. We will need new modes of transportation. We need ways to deny incentives to businesses that are wasteful, trivial and dirty, in favor of projects that create community solidarity and prosperity. We will need new educational approaches and goals, healthier ways to play, religious institutions that foreground social justice, and family life that extends its interests beyond individual home privileges. We need meaningful work. And since the virus is pandemic, we need a clear-minded and prudent foreign policy that emphasizes collaboration and compromise.
These are broad suggestions, but I suspect we’ll pay dearly if we pretend that COVID-19 is not telling us we need to slow down, rethink our priorities, imagine new economic, educational, and social models, and clean up the way we live. Perhaps “social distancing” is step one in bringing us together.
Emilio DeGrazia, of Winona, has written several small press books of fiction, creative prose and poetry. “What Trees Know,” a new collection of poetry, will be published by Nodin Press of Minneapolis in late spring.
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