Last Monday, I woke up to the news that Calvin Munerlyn, a forty-three-year-old dollar-store security guard in Flint, Michigan, was shot and killed after he told a customer that a mask was required to enter the store. The woman argued with Munerlyn, spit on him, left, and then later came back with her husband and son. Her son then shot Munerlyn in the back of the head. Munerlyn is survived by his wife and eight children.
There was another story in another dollar store, this one in Holly, Michigan, where a man was asked by a worker to wear a mask in the store. In defiance, the man wiped his nose on the worker’s clothes and kept being disruptive until he finally drove away in his van.
The requirement to wear a mask in public spaces is part of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s policy to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Michigan so far has had nearly 47,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and over 4,500 deaths.
Also last week, armed protestors moved inside Michigan’s Capitol building in an attempt to intimidate the governor into reopening the state. They were part of a greater wave of protests across the country, which have been promoted by conservative groups. These gatherings reframe the current problem into one of rebelling against the shelter-at-home orders, rather than fighting against the virus.
Rather than demanding that the government provide people with financial help until this pandemic is under control, the protesters are instead demanding that social and economic restrictions be lifted. For workers whose employers were temporarily closed, this means the awful choice between returning to their jobs in an unsafe environment or losing their unemployment benefits.
Detroit in particular has been one of the cities hit hardest by the virus. It’s a city full of poor black people who have all the health problems that come with poverty, the inability to afford care, and the understandable distrust of the medical world that comes with being black in America. The history of the medical world abusing and neglecting black people is a very long one. A virus that preys on the sick and old was always poised to do terrible damage in a city like Detroit.
Even in such a vulnerable area, there have been plenty of stories of people violating the shelter-at-home order and social distancing rules. Some have reportedly been throwing secret “coronavirus parties,” and other people are openly meeting up and circulating their defiant videos on social media. There seems to be an endless supply of stories of individuals proudly being inconsiderate: some are disregarding rules about masks as if it makes them somehow heroic, others have decided that the pandemic has gone on long enough and they’re getting back to their normal lives, and then there are those who follow the lead of politicians and groups who are focused on the economy at the expense of human life.
Throughout this pandemic, I’ve been so angry at everything and everyone. The reality of thousands of people dying each day is such an absurd and harrowing notion, a level of suffering that is hard to reckon with. I’m shocked that anyone can even manage to think about anything else, and every complaint and demand to return to normalcy seems so inconsequential in the face of this great unfolding tragedy.
The reality of thousands of people dying each day is such an absurd and harrowing notion that such a level of suffering is hard to reckon with.
It is understandable that many are struggling with the shelter-at-home orders, that there is concern for individual and collective economic futures, and that it feels that there are no clear answers on anything about this pandemic and how the public should behave, but more than 284,000 people are confirmed dead worldwide and thousands more are dying each day. To me it seems obvious that the saving of lives should be the immediate concern and all plans for moving forward should be created with that objective in mind.
Most of my anger has been directed at individual actors and their careless behaviors, even though I know that is not the proper way to understand the failures of our society during this time. Most people are obeying the shelter-at-home orders and will support them until the virus has slowed. The problem comes from the fact that one person’s actions can lead to the infection and possible deaths of tens of others. This virus turns our bodies into bioweapons; openly defying efforts to slow it down seems to signal acceptance of the abstract suffering of others.
Anger has also been a way out of sadness. I live next to one of the many funeral homes in Detroit. I have never liked that building nor the fact that there are a lot of them around here. I understand that they are necessary, but the business model is so grim, their presence anticipating deaths in a poverty-stricken city. These days when I drive past the funeral home, it’s always packed and spilling out people in masks. Back in March I noticed the services once or twice a week, but the longer the crisis has gone on, the more frequent the services have been.
At first, I was angry at the mourners for not following social distancing rules. They’re potentially infecting even more people by having a service that will lead to more funerals. I’m still disappointed, and wish they could stay away, but at this point I’m more sad for them than anything else.
This pandemic has affected some of my own friends and their families, most of whom have, thankfully, recovered. But a few weeks ago, one friend posted online about his father being admitted to the hospital and testing positive. In subsequent posts over a few days, he asked for everyone to pray, then he pleaded for hope, and then he reported that his father had died and asked for donations for the funeral. The service was streamed online.
I can’t begin to comprehend the pain of having a loved one get sick and die alone in the hospital, and then be prevented from even seeing his body and properly burying him. To me, it was bizarre to click a link and look at the dead body of my friend’s father; it had to have been unbearable for him. The anger that I feel about the carelessness of people is not strong enough to overcome the deep sadness for those who have lost loved ones and whose grieving process has been interrupted by the virus.
Anger was also admittedly a way to try to gain a sense of control in what is a deeply powerless situation. By focusing on individuals, I had tangible enemies, which provided a distraction from the larger truth. In an illuminating article about why this pandemic has been so distressing and confusing, the Atlantic’s Ed Yong wrote:
The desire to name an antagonist, be it the Chinese Communist Party or Donald Trump, disregards the many aspects of 21st-century life that made the pandemic possible: humanity’s relentless expansion into wild spaces; soaring levels of air travel; chronic underfunding of public health; a just-in-time economy that runs on fragile supply chains; health-care systems that yoke medical care to employment; social networks that rapidly spread misinformation; the devaluation of expertise; the marginalization of the elderly; and centuries of structural racism that impoverished the health of minorities and indigenous groups. It may be easier to believe that the coronavirus was deliberately unleashed than to accept the harsher truth that we built a world that was prone to it, but not ready for it.
It is a living nightmare for all of us, especially those made most vulnerable by the way society is ordered. There’s no call to pretend that all of us are suffering on the same level, but this virus has made clear in the worst possible way the reality of how connected our lives are.
After my anger was spent, I was on the edge of hopelessness. By the time that I read about the security guard who was killed over a mask, I was too exhausted to be angry at the people who killed him. I was just heartbroken for his family.
As someone who believes that one must fight for a better and more just future regardless of how futile that fight, despair is not an option for me. But with all of the individual carelessness, the incompetence and arrogance at the federal level, along with the preexisting social cruelties that set people up to suffer more, it’s harder than ever to see a way forward. The evils of the world are not new discoveries, but seeing them in full force has been overwhelming.
The world isn’t as it is by mistake but by design, and this virus seems to be explicitly doing the job that the design was meant to do invisibly. The invisible process meant that the deaths and abuse of those at the margins of society, the poor and oppressed, could be seen as natural rather than avoidable. Now everything has been sped up and put out in the open.
Simone Weil, when she wrote to Madam Albertine Thévenon in 1935 about her experience of being an unskilled laborer, captured my own feelings:
Perhaps later on I shall find the right words, but at present it seems to me that I should need a new language to convey what needs to be said. Although this experience is in many ways what I expected it to be, there is also an abysmal difference: it is reality and no longer imagination. It is not that it has changed one or the other of my ideas (on the contrary, it has confirmed many of them), but infinitely more – it has changed my whole view of things, even my very feeling about life. I shall know joy again in the future, but there is a certain lightness of heart which, it seems to me, will never again be possible.
Being on the edge of hopelessness is still just being on the edge of it. As Adolph L. Reed Jr. once wrote: “Hope must seek its possibilities in the darkest moments of the present; it is despair which hides its head from history and refuses to see the undesirable.” It’s hard to talk about what can be learned from this pandemic as it still rages on, but some things, even on the personal level, have been made more clear.
“Hope must seek its possibilities in the darkest moments of the present; it is despair which hides its head from history and refuses to see the undesirable.”
I’ve been quarantined with my parents since I returned from a trip to Europe in early March. Last month, I had a nightmare about my father. Vivid dreams have become more prominent during the pandemic. During the trip, a friend commented that I talk in my sleep. I told her that it was a learned skill, a way to talk myself out of bad dreams. My nightmares tend to be of a loved one dying, so I remind my dream self that the events aren’t real as I try to wake from them.
In the nightmare, I had an argument with my older brother about him and my father attending an event without me. I stormed out. When I reached my apartment, I received a call from the hospital that my father had been admitted and was infected with the virus. I rushed to the hospital. As I frantically pressed the elevator button, a nurse called my name from behind. I turned around to see my father in a wheelchair, barely conscious and practically drained of life. He took my hand as I bent down, and with the little strength that he had, he asked me not to let him go. That’s when I woke myself up.
He took my hand as I bent down, and with the little strength that he had, he asked me not to let him go. That’s when I woke myself up.
While many young and healthy people took solace that the virus was mostly fatal to the elderly and immunocompromised when it first started to dominate the world’s attention, I felt dread. Since I was at home with my parents, and had been traveling, it meant that I could potentially be the reason for their infection and deaths.
That dread has led to a paradox. I didn’t want my parents going out and putting themselves in danger. Even with masks and gloves, it feels safest for them to be inside. So I chose to run errands and shop for them – which still meant that I could get infected and bring the virus home. The tiny comfort in that absurd situation is that I have some semblance of control within it. A virus that could be fatal to my parents exposes how powerless I am to protect them if they get sick, but I can at least put myself between them and the possible infection. As long as they stay inside.
In one of her notebooks, Polish poet Anna Kamienska once wrote: “We don’t want immortality for ourselves: too scary. We just need it for our family, our loved ones.”
It might not be immortality, but protecting them by taking care of myself is a way to grant my parents more years on this earth. Of course I’m in a lucky paradox. So many people are isolated away from their parents and children, and simply have to hope for the best from a distance, which is its own torture.
Becoming the protector has flipped the relationship dynamic between us. I now behave like the parent.
Becoming the protector has flipped the relationship dynamic between us. I now behave like the parent. Each morning I ask them how they feel, whether either has a cough, fever, or trouble breathing. I go out to stock up on medicine and food. I run all the errands. I scold them for reading conspiracy theories, and I warn their friends to stop sending that nonsense on WhatsApp. I talk to them about the news and clarify anything that might be confusing. I also encourage them not to watch too much news and to do things to take their minds off the horrors happening around us.
Sometimes, before he goes outside, my father asks me for permission. Moments like that have made me realize how exhausting being the parent must be. I have to keep them safe without being domineering, without infantilizing them. They are still capable and intelligent human beings, but this is also a situation that I understand better than they do. With a virus that could be deadly for them and rapidly changing information, I have to be the buffer between them and the world. All of this while also dealing with my own anger and sadness.
Each day without incident has been a small victory, yet I still jump up whenever I hear the front door open or one of them cough. This brief flip of responsibilities is hardly the same as spending years as the protector, but it has given me a deeper sympathy for them. Both for their role as parents and as fragile human beings who also need to be cared for.
Unlike my dreams, this living nightmare of the world can’t be ended by waking up. But they have one thing in common. Just as I try to take control of the story within a dream, the stories we tell about ourselves and our world can direct events within it – even change its whole design.
The true history of a society must be constituted by starting from the “scraps and ruins,” writes Nicolas Bourriaud in his 2016 book The Exform. He argues that the best way to understand a world is to look at what that world is built on and the things that it leaves out. These scraps and ruins include people who are seen as refuse, the vulnerable and oppressed, who are relegated to the edges or out of the world and whose misfortune and deaths are understood to be part of the normal order of things.
Bourriaud writes that a materialist historian must be like Baudelaire’s ragpicker: “Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot, he catalogues and collects. He collates the annals of intemperance, the capharnaum of waste.”
Detroit is a city full of people who fall in that category of waste, those whose suffering is deemed acceptable by society. The virus has simply sped up and deepened present inequalities. My parents, African immigrants, can be included in that category, locally and globally.
A few weeks ago, two French doctors suggested using Africans as guinea pigs for potential vaccines. As angry as this made me, for many Africans, the statements weren’t shocking, since they simply displayed a long-running colonial attitude by France and other Western countries of seeing Africans as subhuman and disposable. When I showed the video of the doctors making the suggestion to my parents, they simply laughed at it. It is the norm.
Bourriaud emphasizes that there is nothing natural or permanent about this social design, which he calls “nothing but a pure construction – an ideological arrangement.” The world has changed before and it can change again. We just need to build a new world, tell a new story, that includes those now on the margins. Our world “stands as the theater for a struggle” between these different stories.
Our current system has failed in such an utter and embarrassing manner that there’s no way to undertake the project of a more just world from within it. A virus threatened the people of this country and managed to kill so many because we live in a society that’s meant to extract from and see people as objects rather than human beings to be protected. We cannot live like this anymore. That the conversation has shifted to sacrificing even more people for the economy only emphasizes that point.
In Gravity and Grace, Weil also challenged the despair that comes from witnessing so much evil in the world: “To say that the world is not worth anything, that this life is of no value, and to give evil as the proof is absurd, for if these things are worthless what does evil take from us?”
Amid my anger early on, I was also trying to plant a garden of hope. I tried to collect the joys of life which this present evil is threatening and the things that the normal cruelties of the world regularly take away. At the center of this garden is life itself, the miracle on which everything else depends.
What we have now is a world that makes people vulnerable and then punishes them for that vulnerability. But I’m looking forward to building a new narrative of humanity, beginning with society’s scraps and ruins. Any valid conception of a just world must center on respect for human beings and their inherent dignity. As interconnected as we are, this is our only hope.