Surviving This Pandemic Isn’t Enough

We need to remake the world we left behind. And we need to start with how we care for one another.

Gregory halpern/Magnum

My partner’s been making a verbal note every time he comes across a sign of hope. He calls these signs “seedlings.” A friend’s listless nonprofit finds a new purpose delivering boxed meals to isolated elders in an immigrant community. Seedling. A man runs bare-chested along a road beside the ocean, waving aloft a blue flag with a picture of the Earth. Seedling. We meet a group of our neighbors, who gather at a safe remove in the long yard we share, for what has come to be called “BYOB social-distancing happy hour.” Seedling.

My partner knows, more than many, how bad a spot we’re in. He’s worked in emergency medicine his entire adult life, most of it as a tech, usually one of the first people you see when you arrive at an emergency room. As the disaster coordinator for an urban hospital, he spent weeks in FEMA training in Alabama, drilling for an eventuality exactly like this pandemic, learning how to retrieve the right medication from a cage that notifies the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it is opened.

He’s not in an emergency department anymore, thank goodness for me. We moved across the country to California last year, to the Bay Area, and for the first time in his life, he’s taken a job that does not place him among the first responders. Yet he’s still primed to see that the federal response has not gone the way it’s supposed to. One of the unquestioned premises of my partner’s training was that the federal government would have the best answers on what was unfolding and what to do. This makes the daily White House briefings difficult to watch, knowing now that the only thing possibly more lethal and more viral than COVID-19 at this moment is a president’s lie.

Lately, I find myself thinking about the book Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, which has enjoyed a resurgence amid the pandemic, for good reason. I have enjoyed postapocalyptic novels for the bulk of my life, and Station Eleven is one of my favorites. The focus of the book is a troupe of performers called the Traveling Symphony, who go from town to town in a hollowed-out world and furnish the residents with delight and enrichment through art. One side of the lead caravan carries a motto from an old episode of Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.”

Americans are being asked to answer this question: Which parts of us will survive? The disease cannot kill all of us, but it’s already wrought too much loss for us to escape this calamity whole. The losses have been squeezing in on us in tightening circles of grief, choking those who’d lost the most before. A colleague’s wife. A neighbor's income. My mother’s goddaughter. Now, we are told, we must choose what to save: Our comfort? Our humanity? Our elders? Our jobs? Our voting rights? Our lifestyle? Our community?

We’re being asked to choose how we prioritize the things we value. This question of how we “open the country,” as it’s being put, is also a question about what and who survives. It is not merely for the president to answer, or for governors or mayors or bosses either. It is a question for each of us, in the most individual sense, about how we engage with one another, about when and how we go to the grocery store, about how we value the people who spend their days enriching our children and giving us rides, about what we are and aren’t willing to compromise for our employers. And yet the most difficult questions we are asking ourselves are still too small, because survival is insufficient.

Mark power/magnum

I dread what the pandemic has in store for us, and yet I find myself with little nostalgia for the cheap conveniences of our life before it all evaporated. Just a few years ago, in Washington, D.C., my partner and I were living in an overpriced shoebox, one of the city’s many sprawling new apartment complexes that made up for the exorbitant rent and plastic fixtures with rooftop pools and fire pits and a tiny gym filled with industrial fitness machines that make exercise feel like factory work. We liked the few neighbors we knew in the building, but it was difficult to build community there, where one could count on a concierge being on duty at all hours to receive the endless Amazon packages and meal-assembly kits, but not on that concierge being around for long. The concierge was always the best person in the building—that’s the job: to be chatty yet hyper-organized, seamlessly navigating 60 people’s needs at once, like an orchestra conductor. They made the building feel fancy, helping obscure its relentless transience and ephemeral conveniences. Any nostalgia I feel for a building like that is tempered by my regret at how short a time it was built to last for, and how little it did to link the people who spent their life there.

Our largest cities have become overstuffed with cramped yet unaffordable buildings because those cities have become the winners-take-all centers of American life. Jobs for journalists have clustered in select metropolises, with thinning outposts in most other cities around the country. This flight to bigger cities has afflicted many professions beyond mine, inflaming a housing crisis that was really a living crisis, the beacon of good jobs drawing us like moths to places that burned us out. Long before the coronavirus, right outside our doors, people without houses were massing under highways because they couldn’t get anywhere better, despite the immense patchwork of emptying cities across the country where life persists because it will. The tendencies of the nation’s mass media and technology platforms, coming as they are from the largest metros, often nudge us toward the loudest versions of ourselves, so the people we watch on television and in our apps reflect mostly the narrow range of storytellers who can amass the largest audiences.

When I left D.C., it was in part because I knew I needed to listen for meaningful voices lost in the cacophony, including my own. And now I hope that quiet voice within you is telling you, as mine is telling me, that there is no going back.

“Normal” is off the table, for the moment, as an option. Perhaps it was a fiction we made together, day by day. And perhaps we now really have to figure out what our part in that fiction can be. Our lives have been knocked fully off-kilter, however much we pantomime a normalcy that grew abnormal years ago. Normal, from here on out, is the world we are able to make together.

I hope to one day reflect on the irony that at the very moment in my lifetime when I thought the nation could not be further apart, we were instructed that our best defense against an invisible, capricious assassin would be to distance ourselves, to the greatest extent possible, from one another. And then, across that chasm, to figure out whether to widen it, or somehow find a way to draw together.

Now is far too early to begin marking any sort of turning point. And yet if signs of hope can’t even be witnessed, hope becomes impossible. That’s a conundrum. I fear even to speak the word aloud, because I feel I cannot be allowed to have it. Not now. Not with so much peril near at hand. Hope was a thing from an old campaign of yesteryear, when America had leaders. What’s left to us if influencers are all we have?

The virus is leaving a great many of us in voracious need, amplified by grief. It cannot kill most of us. But it can turn us against one another. It can induce us to use bits of doublespeak, such as essential workers, the term now being applied to those who seem to be treated as the most disposable. It can make us even more cruel to one another than we have become these past many years.

I grew up in the shadow of a virus that ravaged outcasts like me while the world looked on in indifference. HIV and SARS-CoV-2 might have more differences than similarities, but I find an odd familiarity in a virus that preys on the primal human need for connection.

The disease this virus causes seems to feed on hope. It gets better before it gets worse, by degrees, lulling us into a moment of relief before digging the knife in farther. Numerous patients have described bouts of seeming to be on the mend, followed by a new, more horrible stage of illness. The fever, fatigue, pain, and shortness of breath start to subside, but just then, some desperation of the lungs takes hold that cannot be managed. My partner and I heard a story of a man in his mid-30s who had been intubated, improved, was deemed fit by doctors to be taken off the ventilator, and then began to crash.

I try to imagine what it would be like to be that man’s family, and to hear that outcome. I imagine the fog of the pandemic, suffering without access to a relative who’s dying, picturing that loved one in the back of a refrigerator truck. I imagine the temptation to damn the doctors rather than the virus for the fate of the patient.

And then I try to imagine the medical staff, making impossible decisions about where to direct scant time and resources that are disappearing by the minute, witnessing unimaginable numbers of people in their final moments, under sedation and alone. I imagine the hospitals, suddenly starved of revenue they’d once gorged on, considering whether to close at the very moment the need for their services is greatest. It’s difficult, given these visions, to justify hope.

And it’s easy to imagine the despair, because it’s happening to my industry too. Journalists are both dying of and losing jobs to this virus, at the same time the public is desperate for information about it. People are pledging dollars they can scarcely afford to help reporters stay afloat. But because so many of the dollars that kept these journalists in business came from advertisers, the news organizations—even those with healthy audiences—are dying. Heavyweight newspapers are falling left and right. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, a 180-year old paper that once had a newsroom hundreds of journalists strong, is down to a handful of journalists, to cover a city of nearly 400,000.

Why is it, one might ask, that services such as hospitals and news organizations are closing when the public seems to need and want them most? The answer isn’t that we have bad nurses or bad reporters, or that people have turned away from medical authorities and the press has grown too liberal to gather a mass audience. The answer is that our economy had come to rest, over the years, on the cheap, endless consumption of things whose true costs were carefully hidden from us, a sleight of hand we called financialization. Amortize the cost of your phone over the course of a year, and it would almost seem affordable. Amortize the cost of your health into an insurance plan, and it would give you comfort until you needed it most. Amortize the cost of your career over the duration of a student loan, and only as you age would the price begin to grow. Amortize the cost of your house over a lifetime, and at least you would have something to pass on to your children. In this way, we became a nation of debtors, the prices for our lives set by the true owners of our phones, our houses, our health care, our education. The things we get without paying their full costs come from subsidies. The costs are all hidden. As long as people’s incomes are stable, the system works for almost enough people to keep it going.

My industry is largely built on the subsidy of advertising, although the size of the nonprofit sector has been growing, subsidized by philanthropy, which is itself subsidized by government. So the true costs of journalism have largely been obscure to most of the public, even while the internet has expanded our audiences mightily. More people read more journalism than they may ever have before, yet it’s been decades since we’ve had as few people making that journalism as we do today. The press has come to include fewer and fewer people over the decades, while the country itself has grown. More journalists are getting laid off by the day, even as hundreds of people reach out to each of us with information they desperately want to get or send to the public.

Local reporters and the communities they served thrived and starved in symbiosis. As more of our collective attention turned to purveyors of information and entertainment in New York, D.C., Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, less was devoted to the people in our physical and virtual neighborhoods—those in our grocery stores, those we share the roads and transit lines with, those bringing us goods from across the world. Not only the costs but the people were hidden from us, by screens and apps and self-checkouts. A faceless service somewhere would enable passengers to avoid the messy business of discussing what sort of tip they might want to pay to a driver who was up at 4 a.m. to take them an hour’s ride from where that driver hoped to spend her day.

And now we’ve been asked to be alone as much as we can bear, and decide what part of any experience we most value. There’s no choice here between “human lives” and “the economy.” Only a possibly endless series of choices about how we will live with others, and then how we will live with ourselves.

Perhaps it’s a stroke of grace that this war is against a dumb enemy—a virus that knows not even itself, that has neither the agency to be called life nor the strength for the death it brings to be total. Perhaps it’s to prepare us for a war against a smarter enemy, one that thinks it knows what living is, and decides it has no value. Perhaps that war is being fought inside us.

The virus can use any number of weapons against us—fear, lies, greed, hunger. Until most of the population is tested and immune, whether by vaccine or exposure, we’ll seemingly continue a slow and painful chess game with the pandemic, its moves only becoming apparent weeks after we make ours. A moment of carelessness gives the assassin an opening. So perhaps the best force on our side is care.

We’re having to take care with evidence and probability. We’re learning that taking care of ourselves means, on some level, taking care of those around us. We’re being asked to care not merely for the things in our lives and their impact on our world, but for the people who made them and gave them to us. There’s no guarantee to any of us that even if we take this care, we will survive. But because the virus, as it spreads, is also spreading awareness of the deep and long-standing brokenness in our society, I find myself hoping that we might strive for something greater than survival.

Hope can be agonizing. It makes me wonder if those circles of grief just aren’t wrung tight enough around my neck yet, to pull me back into reality. It keeps me up at night, this hope, wrestling endlessly with this fear. But hope, I realize, does not have to accrue a debt of grief or fear. That’s zero-sum thinking, taught to me by a society that processed every aspect of human experience in market terms. If I have the privilege to feel hope, I think I may have a responsibility to share it.

Last month, the show Radiolab played part of an interview with the musician Esperanza Spalding, a person somehow daring enough to face the world with hope blazing in her very name. It asked her to think of a sentence that she might want to pass on to the next generation, that could pack the most insight into the fewest words. Before she said the sentence, she told a beautiful story that might help her contemporaries understand the sentence’s meaning.

Spalding’s story was about what happened when conservation biologists reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park. First, the uncontrolled populations of elk and deer, feeling the threat of a new predator, stopped overgrazing the low grasslands and started foraging higher in the hills. This let trees and other more robust plant life start to grow, strengthening river banks to the point that beavers started building dams. Larger animals and songbirds started returning to the park as these new ecosystems flourished. “So basically,” Spalding said, “this one species that had become dominant and very comfortable and at the top of their food chain—just the presence of them having to confront regularly and respond creatively to a little fear completely changed the health and the landscape and the sustainability of the ecosystem."

"So maybe it’s just that," Spalding said, offering at last her sentence: “the willingness to respond creatively to fear, without trying to eradicate the source of the fear.”

Life may require fear, as a prompt to safeguard our survival. But humankind, I think, is not content to merely live in détente with our terror. We invented hope to propel us forward, to understand the source of our fright and learn how to take care with it.

My uncle on my mother’s side recently asked me to transcribe and edit an essay he had written by hand about my father, his brother-in-law. The essay describes my father’s successes as a farmworker turned entrepreneur in Guyana, which my uncle attributes to my father’s relentless zeal for positive thinking. It makes me feel proud of my parents, and it allows me to roll back time and peer at the community of friends who raised me, and what they accomplished when they were younger than I am now. I’ve been interviewing my parents, and at the end of a recent interview, my father asked to state something for the record. I told him to go ahead.

Love yourself, my father told me. When you think a thing about yourself, that part of you knows what you’re thinking, and comes to view the world that way. So if you are grouchy with yourself, you will be grouchy with the world. But if you love yourself, you’ll see the world through the prism of love.


Caring is sufficient, I conclude. Surviving is the subsidy, and the cost.