James Baldwin once said that he was “terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart” that he witnessed from his own countrymen. Being a Black gay man born in 1924 certainly guaranteed for Baldwin that he would experience a two-pronged prejudice, a hatred of an insidious and endemic sort, a hatred woven into the fabric of the American ideal. This ideal disenfranchises, stigmatizes, ostracizes, redlines, segregates, colonizes, abuses, rapes, and murders all that deviates from it; all that is not lily-white, heterosexual, capitalistic, and Christian is hewn down and cast into the fire. James Baldwin saw the truth, and he also saw his isolation within that truth. I cannot help but imagine that he must have been an incredibly lonely man.
We still have systemic racism and homophobia, but there’s a new beast in town rearing its ugly head to expose our inequalities: COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic is now in its third year of ravaging the world. Because we’ve not reached herd immunity, we’ve cycled through two known variants of the disease, Delta and now Omicron. Don’t misread me: I am not comparing social ills to a global pandemic. However, there is a stark similarity between the former and the latter in terms of the lack of care shown to marginalized groups.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say something along the lines of, “Well, they were elderly, they probably didn’t have long to live anyway.” Or: “They had underlying conditions, so it wasn’t just COVID that killed them.” Or: “I’m not wearing a mask because I’m vaccinated and I’m not high-risk anyway.” These sentiments reach across political and socioeconomic lines. I’ve seen sentiments like these from both Republicans and Democrats, older people and younger people, well-to-do and poor people, etc. The apathy extended toward the immunocompromised, toward the disabled and sick and otherwise vulnerable, is appalling to me. I am disgusted by it. And I cannot condone it. I can’t stay silent about it any longer.
I mean, what is it about taking basic precautions that causes people to be so cavalier with not only their own lives but the lives of countless strangers? Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands. Are we really, as a society, so heart-deadened as to not be willing to do these simple things? The evidence tells me yes.
I understand that part of it is the lack of centralized and non-contradictory guidance from public health authorities, yes, but a larger part of it stems from a bootstraps ethos which prioritizes the needs and wants of the self above the common good. There has to be something wrong with a country, with a world, in which the majority of people can’t be bothered to so much as cover their face to protect an unknown stranger from an agonizing death, alone and isolated from their loved ones. Like Baldwin, I am terrified at the moral apathy and the death of the heart I have seen since this pandemic started.
Those of you who keep up with my blog know that I recently contracted COVID-19. I tested positive on January 15th. I gave it to both of my parents, who live with me and are disabled. We live in a small two-bedroom apartment so infection was a foregone conclusion. I cannot put in words the terror I’ve experienced wondering if I might kill them by proxy. For more than two years now, I have taken every possible precaution. I’m vaccinated (as are both of my parents). I always wear a mask when I’m around people I don’t live with. I sanitize and wash and disinfect. All of that wasn’t enough to protect me because so many other people failed to do their part. So many other people failed to practice a baseline level of care to keep me safe, to keep my family safe. I don’t know if I am capable of forgiving them for that.
The old adage says that it takes a village. Usually it refers to child-rearing, but I think it can equally apply to stopping the spread of a deadly disease. In this case, the majority of the other villagers are off enjoying a feast until they’re plucked into the woods and tied to a tree to die like the rest of us. Forgive me my labored metaphor, but if you’ve been with me here for long, you know how I love to labor my metaphors.
After writing the preceding paragraph, I left this post in my drafts for several days before I was emotionally capable of returning to it. After writing the preceding sentence, I stopped to watch a couple of films with my mother. You see, I am hesitant to finish a piece with an unhappy conclusion. I feel like a positive quip here would be disingenuous if not rude and unfeeling. Perhaps it is those of us who feel such palpable rage during this time that are the only ones who are truly living in the world as we know it. Everyone else, it would seem, is floating in a dream.
I want everyone to do the right thing. I want everyone to perform a series of correct actions which would render the pandemic all but null. But unfortunately, I cannot make people care who do not. I cannot bully someone into having empathy for other people, inconvenient though that fact may be. The only thing I can do is bear witness—stay awake. We owe the dead our consciousness if nothing else.
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