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The term “apocalyptic” is used quite a bit these days, as we confront the staggering death toll from COVID 19, eerily empty streets, cataclysmic weather patterns and unprecedented joblessness. But while the “apocalypse” is usually associated with mass destruction and dystopian societal breakdown, the actual root of the word comes from the Greek apokálypsis, meaning “to uncover, reveal.” The apocalypse is a series of events that have blown off the cover of what was there all along.
We are all facing stark truths – in ourselves, our households and our society. This pandemic has revealed injustices and inequities that have been brewing for years. It has also revealed our ability to change habits and systems that before were thought to be unyielding.
I spent Easter – a holiday that represents rebirth – on a Zoom call with friends who are working on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. Some of them are physicians, fearing for their own lives and families as they report for 12-hour shifts. One is a prominent pastor and NAACP leader who moved his church services online a month ago, and has mobilized his congregation to take care of the elders, making sure they receive groceries, prescriptions and regular phone calls to help them endure the loneliness of this time. One is offering trainings in disrupting prejudice against Asian Americans.
One is facilitating partnerships between small businesses and social service organizations. She told us about local restaurants that are paying their employees to make food and then donating it to local homeless shelters, ingeniously caring for two vulnerable populations at once. Another is working on food scarcity in Chicago, and reported on charitable gifts that will provide 1,000 meals for children at her school, 40 percent of whom are homeless. Another is doing urban farming on the South Side of the city, growing the produce that will help to feed these communities.
All of them noted that things that were deemed impossible before COVID-19 are suddenly becoming possible. One works as an advocate for juvenile defenders, and is seeing fewer incarcerations for youth, and more restorative justice. Before the outbreak, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker pardoned some elderly non-violent criminals to allow them to leave the jails, which have become the worst hotspots for COVID-19 in the state. For the first time, we are seeing that the economic growth can be curtailed in respect for human life, that relief checks can be deposited, that debt forgiveness, so long pronounced impossible, could be made attainable.
The fact that systems and individuals can change comes as a hopeful revelation. But this crisis is also revealing longstanding inequities, including the poverty, food deserts, low wage work and lack of health insurance that make African Americans 72 times more likely than white people to die of COVID-19 here in Chicago. They include a for-profit criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color, who often serve natural life sentences for non-violent crimes like unarmed robberies. They include a divestment in public health and a corporate takeover of medicine that has privileged executive salaries but left doctors to work without personal protective equipment. They reveal a rising nationalism that increases big pharma’s profits while limiting access life-saving prescription medications.
Listed like this, these challenges seem daunting, and can send us back to fear or complacency. They can also lead us to ask, like writer Rebecca Solnit in her piece “Who Will Win the Fight for a Post-Coronavirus America?” whether we will come through this crisis with a more egalitarian society or a more authoritarian one. Ms. Solnit, who has studied activist movements and disaster response around the world, notes that such crises always “disrupt the old older” and often lead to lasting change, but the nature of that change is not guaranteed. Oftentimes, such crises lead to the strengthening of authoritarian regimes, but they can also wake us up to the value of human life. “Will this catastrophe bring back the social safety nets we’ve been gutting for 40 years?” she asks. “Will it make the case for universal health care? Will a universal basic income seem like a more reasonable idea? … .Will addressing climate change seem different in a world where air travel and consumption of consumer goods and of fossil fuel has been significantly curtailed, a world in which it is more possible to imagine sweeping change because so much is already altered?”
For now, these will remain questions, possibilities brought on by a terrible tragedy. No one would praise this pandemic, with its horrific suffering and devastating losses. But this time has brought out the best in humanity. It has revealed the importance of strong leaders, particularly the governors who are creating coalitions to share ventilators, purchase medicines and provide resources for their citizens. And it has revealed the gaps between those leaders who serve the greater good, and those who are primarily self-serving.
Ultimately, what this Easter conversation revealed to me is that we can each choose a way to help our community now, and that these acts do not need to be seen as local stopgaps, but can become the foundation of a future that responds to the facts that have been revealed. We do not survive without one another, a fact that has become clear as we rely on social distancing, while depending on first responders, grocery store clerks, delivery people, hospital staff, nurses and doctors. Grief and shock reveal that we are all vulnerable, mortal, and that nothing matters more than the care we give and receive. The shock of this time offers an unprecedented opportunity for clarity, for sitting with the truths that have been exposed, and then insisting that our governments, corporations and communities better serve their people. We can demand that our institutions show the kind of care that individuals are showing, whether they are public servants, teachers, social workers, doctors or philanthropists.
The world will not go back to normal after this pandemic. Too much has been shifted and lost – but more importantly, the old normal will seem outmoded. We have seen too much in this uncovering. Instead of waiting for the old normal to return, we could, instead, access the process and metaphors of spring. We could confront this apocalypse as the kind of wrenching uncovering that happens whenever a seed sheds its husk to grow. We could use this time to germinate ideas, spread connective root systems, and then return to the world changed – humbled and more clarified in our ways of taking care of one another, and in co-creating the world we want.
Rachel Webster is Associate Professor in the English Department of Northwestern University, and author of four books. She is currently a Kaplan Fellow in the Humanities, and was a 2018-19 Op Ed Public Voices Fellow.