Last Thursday in a work meeting I added “pandemic planning” as a last-minute point at the end of the agenda, and after a quick collective shrug we decided to keep an eye on the situation and then figure out what to do if the university closed. 24 hours later the university was closed. As of now only security personnel are allowed inside, and classes are moving online. Things are changing hour-to-hour, and millions of people around the world are trying to gauge the safety of themselves and their loved ones, which risks are worth taking and which aren’t, and realizing what really matters on a daily basis. It turns out, shockingly, that many of the things we’ve been told about the system we live in are wrong.
Some of the most pervasive images circulating of Italy in the midst of this disaster are the clear canals, filled with swans and dolphins who haven’t been seen in recent memory. Though it turns out these images were fake, this draws the usual comparisons that humans are the real plague, and the earth would be better off without us. This is placed alongside aerial images of Italy and China, showing the reduction in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that correlates with the spread of Covid-19 as everything grinds to a halt. Maybe, some say, this is a good thing. Maybe we’re learning a lesson and this will help us in the fight against climate change. All it will cost us are the lives of those who are already sick, vulnerable, homeless, or working on the frontlines.
Yes, this can help us in the battle against climate change, but only if we take it as a critique not of our individual actions, but of the system that relies on those actions. The way we think of “labour” and “value” is inherently flawed and we are finally learning this. People are realizing how much they are willing to change their lives when their children and families are in danger, and if that doesn’t give us empathy towards those whose children are always in danger, I don’t know what else to do.
Many have said this more eloquently than me, but hopefully what we’re learning is that sudden, radical change is possible. The government has the ability to waive rent and halt evictions, and it’s possible for everyone to get money just for existing even though guaranteed basic income has been seen as a pipe dream for years. This virus is creating a lonely, international, general strike the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and we have to seriously look at what that’s telling us. People aren’t destroying the earth, capitalism is. Humanity isn’t the plague, colonial imperialism is. People are still here, making art and feeding each other and finding ways to connect (from phone-calls to posters in windows), but our main financial and labour structures have halted, and that’s what’s giving the earth (and swans, and fish, and monkeys) a chance to breathe.
I keep going back to an episode of the podcast How to Survive the End of the World by Autumn and adrienne marie Brown from April 2018 called Reshaping Apocalypse, where they talk about the social potential of world-shifting scenarios. The Brown sisters believe that “The aftermath of a disaster is a massive opportunity to reshape relationships, political conditions, and structures”. Their main piece of advice is to know your neighbours, which definitely rings true as my life has shrunk to walking distance the past couple weeks. Maybe I’ll get bored enough to figure out how to fix the flat tire on my bicycle with things I have at home, and then my world will get a little bit wider (but just as socially distant). The ice is melting and there’s hope for a more comfortable world that will let us sing on our balconies and read in the sun. I don’t have any answers but I have a lot of questions and now I might have the time and space to think them through (and maybe even learn the trumpet).
All my love and solidarity from a distance,