“I hope that by the time you read this …” So would end many notes and letters I used to write to the people I love, before email and text existed. If it was a letter to a sick friend, I’d write, “I hope that by the time you read this, you’re already feeling better.” If it was a note of condolence, I’d write, “I hope by the time you read this, your sorrow has been lifted, just a little.” Because there was a delay between the time I’d scribble my handwritten note and put it in the mail and the time the person on the other end would receive it, I expected some change to have already occurred, some shift to have taken place, and I always hoped it would be for the better. Never did I think to write, “Things might have fallen apart by the time you read this.” Time, I always wished, would improve terrible circumstances. This too, I hoped, would pass.
Like perhaps a great number of people, I used to think that the phrase “This too shall pass” was from the Bible, a Bible I spent my childhood listening to my minister uncle preach from when I was a girl in Haiti. Perhaps this saying, which some, including Abraham Lincoln, believed originated with King Solomon, is so often cited as a biblical verse because the Bible, in so many instances, offers similar advice on the impermanence of suffering. Growing up in a family, and in a country, where people were suffering – from poverty, illness, and political strife – I would often hear my uncle quote from Corinthians: “But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day” (2 Cor. 4:16 CEB).
“This too shall pass,” friends kept telling me, and writing to me, and texting me, when word of the novel coronavirus began to make front-page news in the United States. Living with my eighty-five-year-old mother-in-law and an immunocompromised teenager, I was of course worried. Should I stop traveling for work? Should we all self-quarantine? Should I pull both my daughters out of school, even when the danger still seemed far away?
For clarity I began to read. There was plenty of community to be found in new and old stories. There were the biblical plagues in which my uncle had always sought parallels for the suffering around us. Water turning to blood could have also been water infested with microbes. Frogs, lice, flies, and locusts had kin in dengue- and malaria-causing mosquitoes. Livestock pestilence could be some fever wiping out cows, pigs, or chickens that had taken lifetimes to save for. Boils could be skin diseases caused by contaminated water. Hail could be hurricanes, and the death of firstborn children indicative of a high, scarcity-driven infant mortality rate in our corner of the developing world. It wasn’t that my uncle didn’t believe in the singularity of those stories. He simply thought that pestilence could manifest in different ways in different communities.
This is why I thought of him while recently rereading Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague. Set in the Algerian town of Oran, in the 1940s, The Plague describes a community coming to terms with its possible destruction. Initially, the plague is not taken seriously.
“A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure,” Camus wrote (via an English translation by Stuart Gilbert), “therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away.”
“I can’t explain it…but it’ll pass,” says the narrator, Dr. Bernard Rieux, early on in the book.
This desire for things to get better, to quickly improve, is perhaps our most immediate expression of hope, even when that hope is unjustified, and disasters, as Camus wrote, keep coming, seemingly “out of the blue.”
For every disaster that has taken place in my lifetime, communities have rallied. Communities with few or no means or resources have no other choice. After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, before we heard that 300,000 people had died and over a million had been made homeless, Haitians dug their neighbors out from beneath the rubble with their bare hands, and when it was impossible to reach them, they kept vigil and spoke to those trapped.
After the earthquake, Haitians dug their neighbors out from beneath the rubble with their bare hands, and when it was impossible to reach them, they kept vigil and spoke to those trapped.
In Haiti, we have a concept called konbit: a gathering with a shared goal. Members of a community come together to accomplish something that benefits the entire community, or a single person in need. Konbits initially began in agriculture.
“Today I work your field, tomorrow you work mine,” the Haitian novelist Jacques Roumain wrote of konbits, in his 1944 novel Gouverneurs de la Rosée, which was translated into English as Masters of the Dew by the scholar Mercer Cook and the poet Langston Hughes. “Cooperation,” Roumain added, “is the friendship of the poor.”
To the poor and the rich, COVID-19 has shown that we were always in need of those konbit-like networks, even when some of us were not fully aware of it. Suddenly we need our neighbors to leave behind a pack of toilet paper or a loaf of bread, even if they can afford the whole shelf. We need health professionals to selflessly show up for work even when it means risking their own health, and that of their families. We need our possibly infected neighbors to quarantine themselves so they won’t infect us and cause us to infect others.
When we need our neighbors most, and when community matters the most, is when we are hungry or sick.
How do we define community in a time of crisis, which is in many ways what community is for? We don’t need our neighbors as much when we are healthy and wealthy and can pay for all the assistance we require. When we need our neighbors most, and when community matters the most, is when we are hungry or sick, or when good Samaritans are our only hope.
At a time when we are all experiencing different degrees of the same biological horror, some have weaponized our differences by scapegoating regions or nationalities. Many Asian-Americans are being verbally and physically assaulted across the United States, just as some Muslim Americans were after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. White supremacist “accelerationists” have called for a “system collapse” through acts of violence. Gun purchases have spiked. Acts of kindness have also increased. People shop for their sick, elderly, and immunocompromised neighbors who cannot go into grocery stores. Restaurant owners, who are already at risk of being closed, donate free meals. People sing from terraces and balconies around the world, and clap for health workers on the front lines. Birthday parties turn into birthday parades.
I became tearful when my daughter’s best friend baked her a cake for her fifteenth birthday after schools closed. Her friend put the cake in front of our door, then ran back to her mother’s car so they could chat from six feet away. A few days later, my daughter and her friend asked her mother and me to drive by the house of another friend who was also celebrating her birthday. They made signs that we held out of the car windows and we sang Happy Birthday as the girl clutched her chest in surprise, and choked up with tears from some distance away. Many of these same teenagers are also sewing homemade face masks for their neighbors, or are building mini-libraries to share free books on their street, or are signing up for phone banks to make wellness-check calls to the elderly. I thought that, since so many young people were “digital natives” and had spent most of their lives communicating through devices, they’d miss human contact much less than those of us who have had it longer. However, the young people I know miss seeing their friends even more, and are also looking for tangible ways to help others.
Soon after schools and universities closed around the United States, I had to teach an undergraduate creative writing class on the video conferencing platform Zoom. I had little experience on the platform and didn’t know what to expect. I found it both disorienting and intimate, watching one student eat breakfast in bed and another’s mother walk by with an armful of laundry. One of my daughters’ teachers had pleaded with her class not to allow him to see their relatives in any degree of undress, and I was almost tempted to make the same request before these online interactions became even more revealing. Instead, at the end of the class, I asked my students to share what they planned to do post-pandemic.
“Post-pandemic, I will . . .” began the writing exercise.
Post-pandemic, many of them wrote, I will visit my grandparents in the nursing home. Or I will give everyone I meet a hug. Or I will kiss my mom who is a nurse and self isolating for our protection. Or I will stay outside as long as I want. Or I will eat in a restaurant. Or I will fly in an airplane. Or I will go to church, a concert, a play, or visit a museum. Or I will have my birthday party. Most of the students were hoping to do something they’d planned to do, or had done the week, month, and year before, and never imagined would now be beyond their reach.
We don’t yet know what post-pandemic life will look like. Thousands, including doctors, nurses, and other first responders, have already died. We now see daily mentions of the virus in the published obituaries of famous and non-famous people, both old and young, including infants. In some places, people have died in such large numbers that ice rinks and refrigerated trucks have been used as makeshift morgues. Now, what Camus once called “lightning” – or quick, minimally ceremonial – funerals are streamed online, and are attended by no more than ten people in person. People in prisons and immigration detention centers, where they are unable to practice “social distancing,” are becoming infected, and many will die. Longstanding disparities in access to medical care have also led to a larger percentage of African-Americans and people of color dying from the disease.
Millions of Americans have already lost their jobs, and as a result could end up losing the homes they are either renting or have mortgages on. Communities will be disrupted as many might be displaced or have to move. Inequality will increase as those with savings and reserves will rebound more quickly than those who have lost crucial wage earners, or were already living precariously from paycheck to paycheck.
The inability to reach for the hand of someone who’s mourning makes me yearn for some other tangible exchange that’s not screen time, which, though I am privileged to be able to access, still feels like prison glass.
In addition to demonstrating the fragility of life, COVID-19 has also shown us how fragile community can be. The regular gatherings, including church, that many of us counted on – once, twice, or thrice weekly – for community and comfort are no more. The inability to reach for the hand of someone who’s mourning makes me yearn for some other tangible exchange that’s not screen time, which, though I am privileged to be able to access, still feels like prison glass. I miss my church family. I even miss their off-key singing and the occasional squeals of their young children. I miss the surprise visits of my husband’s nephews and nieces from another state. They used to think nothing of driving between eight to twelve hours to come and see us, or better yet, to experience our area’s beaches. I miss hugs and kisses, which I can’t help but wonder if we’ll ever be allowed to give, or receive again, from anyone who’s not been living within the same four walls as us.
In Camus’s novel, when all signs of the plague have vanished, “when the time of ordeal ended and the time of forgetting had not yet begun,” everyone comes out into the streets to celebrate and reunite with loved ones. Only Dr. Rieux remains cautious as he observes the euphoric crowds; only he realizes that not everything always fully and completely “passes” after all.
“The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good,” he knows. It can lie dormant for years, only to reappear when we least expect it.
When this particular plague has at last gone dormant, I hope that, given its stark reminder of our interdependence, we will not only become better custodians of our planet, but also of each other. I hope that we will, as Camus also wrote, rise above ourselves and realize that “this business is everybody’s business,” and that whatever affects one of us, affects us all.
I also hope that by the time you read this, you are – and remain – healthy and well.