Today, New York is a city of construction workers, delivery people, drivers, and government employees. Quiet, the streets definitely are, but democratic “shelter-in-place” or authoritarian “lockdown,” this is not. While the middle-class hunkers at home – stealing out only for fugitive dog walks, jogs, or to (mindful of social distancing practices) run an errand – and the rich have mostly departed, for reasons complex and yet in many instances bluntly obvious, out in public, the working class remains.
Perhaps our measures to date will be sufficient to avert a dire crisis. Perhaps they will not. We should know by the end of this week. Yesterday, I reflected on the vertiginous week we’d just lived through. Today, in addition to this longer piece, in which I start to look ahead to what comes next, I’m also posting a brief explanation of the graph below, which shows the divergence between a worst-case scenario and a best-case in NYC as projected from yesterday, and an equally brief outline of best practices for the coming weeks, as requested by my partner.
Now, regarding the future: Does anyone really have any idea at this point? The optimists hope we’ll be through the worst of it in NYC by the end of April; the pessimists expect that we will likely be dealing with this pandemic globally for at least the next year or two, and that in its acute phases, it may trigger social and political collapse in some countries; and Governor Cuomo just announced that the pandemic may peak in New York State in roughly 45 days (which comports with my graph above, more or less, though I hope I’m not his source).
One thing is certain though, this global crisis is a call to action for all, and especially those of us in the younger generations – a call to action because the pandemic has laid bare what our elders have bequeathed to us: Not only global climate crisis and a biosphere lurching towards collapse, but also – now, all-too-obviously – institutions and political systems hollowed out by nearly a half century of neoliberalism. A lesson should’ve been learned after 2008, but rather than look with humility on an order that had failed and redirecting, the powers that be doubled down on a failed ideology, and in so doing, thus opened the door to the global rise of neofascism and authoritarianism which we, today, confront.
People may quibble with my interpretation, but the nice thing about pandemic and global climate disruption alike – if one can say such a thing – is that they don’t quibble and don’t negotiate. Greece may have crumbled under pressure from the Troika, but COVID-19 is not subject to the human logic of economic coercion or violent threat. In the future, people will be able to look back and rightly judge the stupidity, venality, and dishonesty of many of our contemporary elected executives as relates to climate matters, but we have been granted the rare opportunity – courtesy of a humble virus – to witness, in real time, all of the lies laid bare, all of the monumental arrogance, humbled, and ourselves along with it. How can we not be humbled, after all, by something so simple that has brought the entire world to its knees in a matter of weeks?
Where do we go from here? We’re hardly beginning to find out, but in this moment, I see two clear imperatives beyond mitigating the harm and working towards ending the pandemic:
1) To start thinking yesterday about what people will need to get through the coming months; and
2) To devote the unwonted time which many of us now have on our hands to discerning lessons and strategies we can carry forward from this crisis as we strive to make a better world.
With regards to the first imperative, the needs of the poor, the sick, the incarcerated, the unemployed (newly, or otherwise), the undocumented, the indigenous, and the otherwise marginalized should be front and center. Just as those without scruple will no doubt be looking, in New York, to take advantage of the distraction and confusion of the present moment to pursue illegal construction, sneak through pernicious legislation, and the like, we can expect opportunistic actors (governmental, corporate, or otherwise) to attempt to seize this “opportunity” to force forward unpopular and unjust agendas. In short, we’ll have to look out for disaster capitalism, and I’m thinking in particular, for example, of the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en against an ill-conceived and unjust pipeline project and how easily a shelter-in-place order could become a weapon of war against land and water protectors.
Even those less marginal who enjoy the luxury, as I do, of weathering this microbiological storm mostly in the comfort of our own homes will face challenges though, and we should be considering how we build new infrastructures/support systems/best practices around mental health, as many people confront for the first time circumstances of prolonged confinement that incarcerated individuals understand all to well. It’s been nice to see the proliferation of mutual aid work, the flood of people looking to repurpose their skills towards confronting the pandemic, and the creative ways caring folks everywhere are seeking to look out for elders, kids, their neighbors, and each other – even the rediscovery of the art of the phone call can be counted among the pandemic’s silver linings.
On the second imperative, as a friend put it – and I’m paraphrasing – anyone who has definite ideas about what comes next has no idea what they’re talking about. That seems right to me, but even now, we should be monitoring with great care the authoritarians and would-be-autocrats around the world. Only their state of shock and their unsurprisingly-shared propensity for denialism have spared us immediate attempts at power grab from these strongmen, and we can expect plenty of ugliness from DC, Delhi, London, and Manila, among other places. Whenever this ends, and it will eventually, we will encounter a very different world, the shape of which we need to try to foresee lest we get caught off guard by those with agendas opposed to our own.
Otherwise, I’m left so far with a scattershot of notions. As I’ve written before, the pandemic will certainly reinforce the dominance of internet companies (Amazon has announced it’s hiring 100,000 new workers to deal with the pandemic-related surge in deliveries, and as many of us move our entire work and social lives online, I can only imagine the glut of sales, downloads, and user data that dominant Internet platforms and relative newcomers – Zoom, chief among them – will enjoy), and may, we can hope, result in the permanent demise of cruise ships. Perhaps – as we should have, and perhaps were already starting to under the influence of climate crisis – we will start to rethink our relationship to tourism and air travel with significant consequences for an industry which, in the US, is now seeking a $50 billion bailout. I expect we’ll see the partial demise of the just-in-time supply chain – which seemed like such a good idea, until it didn’t – and lots of onshoring, at least for products deemed essential, as we reassess the security of global supply chains. Hopefully, we’ll also reassess the very nature of what is essential and what matters to us. How can we not? We’re living through a rare and world-turning event, and I think my friend Andrew is right in opining: “There will be before COVID-19, and after.”
I expect we’ll see a dip in flu cases after the pandemic finally subsides, as new habits and lingering fear lastingly transform our behavior, and that many of us will carry scars from the disfiguring necessity of social distancing. As a doctor friend put it: “If it makes you feel crazy, you’re doing it right.” That’s right, and it does, and it hurts, and we should acknowledge that. In the name of the greater good, we’re being forced to pervert and reject much of what makes us human, and the pain of these coming months will be followed by the lasting ache of their strangeness.
Barring the widespread social and political collapse that some people fear, I’d say the concern which sits forefront in my mind is how we rebuild public space and public goods in the wake of this catastrophe. Right now, we rightly fear what is shared, but it would be a tragedy if going forward we turned our backs away from everything that is beautiful in our public parks and public transit, our town squares and varied meeting places, our bars and restaurants – these are ancient institutions, and for a reason, and I’m confident we will return to them, but in the face of ongoing climate disruption and neofascism on the march, only concerted global effort by the majority of us – a majority who want to live in peace and justice, and I think increasingly recognize that the choice is actually socialism or barbarism, or, to sidestep, once again, the risk of ideological discord, that we either choose public wealth and private sufficiency, or the world burns – and only concerted global effort will ensure that that burning does not happen.
I thought about starting this piece with this quip, but instead I’ll end with it:
Do you know what isn’t profitable? Pandemic preparedness. Do you know what’s great in a pandemic? You tell me.
And a sober reflection:
Those of us lucky enough to see the other side of this will all know people, probably quite a few people, who die from this.
We’re 50 years into a failed project, and maybe it’s a 50 year fight back out of it, but for the sake of a future – especially for my generation and the generations behind us – it’s a fight worth fighting, and a life’s work worth living. For now, we have to simply take care of ourselves and each other until we come out the other end of this, but as we do, and with the time we have, we should be laying a foundation upon which to build the new world we long for.