i don't know how to make you care about other people
Like so many others, I’ve spent the week thinking about Democratic politics (exhausting!) and COVID-19 (also exhausting!) As many have noted, America is particularly susceptible to a burgeoning pandemic because of our broken health care system (specifically: the number of people who are un- or under-covered by insurance, and thus will opt not to seek care) and the number of workers who lack paid sick leave.
But it also challenges the very American cult of the individual: the idea that you take care of you and yours, but also the idea that if you’re fine, then everything’s fine. My personality (not alarmist, just knowledge-hungry) has led me to read dozens of articles, observed all the science journalists’ commentary in our company Slack room, read all of the long tweet storms from public health officials, and the agreement seems to be that regardless of the precise mortality rate, millions of people will get sick, the vast majority will be fine, but many elderly and otherwise vulnerable people will indeed die — either directly due to COVID-19, or because they could not get the care they needed for another ailment due to an overwhelmed medical system.
You can’t contain the virus, but you can work to lessen the extent of the spread: to “flatten the epidemic curve.” As Zeynep Tufekci put it in her excellence piece for Scientific American last week:
"We should prepare, not because we may feel personally at risk, but so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone. We should prepare not because we are facing a doomsday scenario out of our control, but because we can alter every aspect of this risk we face as a society.
That’s right, you should prepare because your neighbors need you to prepare—especially your elderly neighbors, your neighbors who work at hospitals, your neighbors with chronic illnesses, and your neighbors who may not have the means or the time to prepare because of lack of resources or time.”
But I think most Americans are conceiving of “preparedness” merely in terms of how to amass the goods necessary for one’s family to live for several weeks. That’s certainly the main way I’ve been thinking of it, in part because it’s the easiest (and, as Americans, we’ve been trained that the best way to make ourselves feel better about a vague fear = buy things). But that mindset reinforces a deeply unhelpful, un-civic-minded attitude: if I’m fine, everything’s fine.
There are so many intertwining ideologies that have contributed to this mindset (Protestantism, Capitalism, Reaganism!). It’s the source of so many of our societal ills — and is a major reason for the broken, piecemeal state of our current healthcare and sick leave systems. If I’m fine with my healthcare, why would I care about others? If I get paid sick leave, why should I care if others not in my position don’t? Any good economist can tell you why you should — you eventually take on that burden in some way — but so many people cannot divorce themselves from the understanding of personal responsibility for, well, everything. You provide for and defend for yourself, and I’ll do the same for mine. Within this paradigm, if something bad happens (addiction, illness, disaster, poverty) you simply haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t cared enough, haven’t planned enough. The fault is yours, not the reticence of others to conceive of themselves as part of a larger social organism.
This mindset makes it all the easier for a disease to spread — and to wreak societal havoc in so many other ways. And it’s the hardest to combat in moments like this one, when the most important actions are preventative ones. Buying toilet paper — but not so much that no one else can get any — sure. But also thinking about how your habits, your compulsions, your desire to keep living your life completely as usual, because there’s (seemingly) nothing wrong with you, will have ripple effects that will almost certainly lead to other people’s death or significant illness.
Does that mean canceling daily life? Not yet. Every single action has to be weighed against its larger ramifications: so many kids in New York rely on food from their schools that canceling school, at least right now, would create a massive hunger problem — and thousands of the New Yorkers who provide basic services would be forced to stay home.
But — and I say this as much to myself as to all of you — you can channel some of that anxious energy away from reading articles on the internet and towards thinking about who in your life and in your community will certainly need help or assistance. Who can you talk to now to make a plan to help them later? (With supplies, with groceries, with their pets or children) If you’re able, can you donate to your local food bank, or donate additional supplies to the homeless shelter? Can you buy things from local businesses, restaurants, and artists now, so that things might be less lean for them in the months to come? If you’re someone who’s high risk, how can you be honest with yourself and others about it? If you’re able to work from home and still pull your normal salary, can you commit to still paying someone who provides you with a service (a housecleaner, a dog walker, a hairdresser, a yoga teacher, etc) even if they have to stay home?
Can you understand how making the next few months better for as many people as possible will also, by extension, make it better for you?
Things I Read and Loved This Week:
“When we’re young, a love song can seem like a beacon. It translates the mystery of feeling—the erratic moods and palpitations associated with growing up—into the stability of language.”
The composters of South Korea
The Miracle of Moving a Piano in New York
Exploring the architecture of Texas gentrification
How the experience of reading online has become so intolerable
This week’s just trust me
If you have additional ideas for how to help your community in the weeks and months to come, you can comment below and/or reply to this email. As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and link to it) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please excuse typos or weird sentences; inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to get this thing out in the world for free.
In a weird chain of thought- I keep thinking back to a phrase that crept into my vocabulary from The Good Place. Our response to the outbreak is a matter of what we owe to each other. And I'm glad to see that being a more prominent part of the discussion than I expected.
I just read this again, 7 months on. I'm a little bummed about how...evergreen it is. And also (this is the same statement, but positive): it's still good advice! :)