The “Fat Lady” Hasn’t Sung Yet

“We are all in this together.” That hollow phrase has rung throughout the halls of this pandemic. And even if some of us at times were actually with and for others, there were a whole bunch of people that never really felt they were part of that bigger whole — the community’s, the state’s, the nation’s, or the world’s. I am afraid that any semblance of that sentiment is now fading ever quickly, as folks post their “I’m vaccinated” selfies and plan parties in celebration. Meanwhile, shop keepers in East LA, and farmers in India continue to struggle mightily due to this pandemic.

I, for one, never felt “we” were all in this together. I saw my life, one where I could easily choose comfortable isolation, where my children did not have frontline jobs, where my excellent health kept me even further away from the possibilities of contracting COVID, as far removed from so many others’ realities. This year has spanned two coasts for me, and both times spaces of comfort, where walks could be taken free from crowds, and fresh air was plentiful. I am not “in it” with the men and women who clean the hospital rooms of COVID patients, nor the doctors and nurses who approach these bodies daily. I am not in it with the many, many families whose furloughed jobs brought them homelessness. Nor am I in it with my students who continue losing family members to the virus because they belong to at-risk groups of many categories. When folks back East were begging me to be careful during Southern California’s spike last year, I explained that I was, and that, also, I was not living in the same LA as others. Later, when an article in the LA Times covered the glaring differentials of pandemic experience, entitled, “The Two LAs,” I had a catch-phrase to explain what I meant.

Some say we have learned to think more collectively this last year, we Americans. That this has been a year of truly understanding that when our fellow humans are not well, then no one is well. We often quote/post bits and pieces from Dr. King’s letter written in his Birmingham jail cell. For example, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But we tend to neglect the following sentences which project an air of implicit responsibility upon the reader. (This was something King was so good at doing, and thus his words are often truncated in pretty memes before we get to the part where we’re called to action). The Birmingham letter goes on to say, by the way, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Right now, because of the pandemic, which is not over, people are dying from this virus. Countries like Italy and India are dealing with new surges and we have to pay attention. One reason is simply pragmatic, that if people are carrying the virus somewhere in this world then all of us are still at risk. And then there is the affective reason: these people are our brothers and sisters, the ones we watched in videos singing from balconies, or whose food has been a mainstay of our take-out orders this past year. We are all connected. Yes, it feels good to be vaccinated, to have my one body in a sea of so many, allegedly immune to this killer disease. But there are so many at greater risk than I who have yet to receive a vaccine. They are ringing us up at grocery stores, delivering food to our front doors, and living unhoused because they cannot afford shelter due to a waterfall of COVID-related circumstances. I mean, I qualified for the vaccine as early as I did because I volunteer at a food pantry. That is privilege.

So what do we do? We keep paying attention to everyone. For example, after checking in on the bogus trial surrounding the murder of George Floyd, we pay attention to the fact that Minnesota’s COVID cases are rising. We learn more about the lingering effects of this disease so as better to understand our neighbors, students, and friends going forward. We read articles that look at the bigger picture, like one in Medical News Today regarding the inequity in vaccine availability. It reads in part, “Such vaccine nationalism perpetuates the long history of powerful countries securing vaccines and therapeutics at the expense of less-wealthy countries; it is short-sighted, ineffective, and deadly.”

It’s not that we cannot celebrate the progress. I, for one, am relieved to have been vaccinated, that my children, and so many friends, have been vaccinated. And I am glad for those small-business owners who somehow survived this catastrophe and are once again serving their communities. I am thrilled at the prospect of students returning to campuses, and eager to return to a physical classroom myself. All that. And yet, we cannot forget this time. Our country has a history of forgetting, of pushing news out of the way because it’s killing our vibe. During the darkest times we pay attention, take solace in the fraternity of people across the land. But now the light is shining again, more brightly on some than others, and we shift to the “hopes and prayers” phase of that inevitable march towards blissful ignorance.

In my religious tradition we are reminded to look to God in all circumstances. Don’t just praise Him because life is going great; and don’t only come to Him when you need help, but be in His presence at all times. (I will at some point write about that He pronoun). If you don’t include a concept of higher power in your life, then consider simply resting in the presence of humanity. Yes, we must all heal, seek shelter and solace and fellowship right now. Those of us fortunate enough to have access to such things must use those gifts — that is how we show gratitude. But then we need to, I believe, duck out of those caves of comfort and step into the glare of reality. Stay informed, send a check, go to a rally, sign a petition, call a representative, write a letter, tell a friend. These are actions that make the air move, that can gather momentum if enough of us are performing them.

According to NASA’s explanation of Newton’s Laws of Motion, “The property that a body has that resists motion if at rest…is called inertia. Inertia is proportional to a body’s mass, or the amount of matter that a body has. The more mass a body has, the more inertia it has.” The United States has a lot of mass. Some of it has been in motion this past year, but a lot has remained inert. Imagine if we created, through collective action and love, a giant body in motion. Like pebbles cast onto still waters, the ripples would multiply and things would change. Change is needed. Big change. Each of us can affect some change. It has never been easy or comfortable or even obvious to do this. It requires consciousness, something I continue to practice and am far from mastering. I remember my dad used to exhort me and my sister to “pay attention to the world around you.” It didn’t really resonate with me much back then. It sure does now.

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