A couple of years ago, I was chatting online with a writer I admire, when he suggested that my expectations for how people were dealing with the Covid pandemic were too high. The thrust of his comments was that humans are self-interested creatures who will always prioritize their own survival, even at the expense of others, and that this was especially true during bad times. In that case, I asked, what we were supposed to do with that knowledge, as we saw the death toll mount week by week? “Despair,” he said.
Readers of my Nation columns during this pandemic may think I’ve succumbed to that advice. One can take an unsentimental look at this life and see that my friend’s diagnosis of our world is, at least in part, correct. I once took a class on primate models for human evolution with the Yale anthropologist David Watts. We read about the lethally violent wars that break out between chimpanzees, and I remember thinking, maybe all of this is bred in the bone—this is who we are down to the roots of our phylogenetic tree. But this can’t be the sum of it. We have to ask, as the great American philosopher Peggy Lee once did: Is that all there is?
One of my other pandemic pen-pals was the late Lauren Berlant. We never met in person, but we shared a few quick DMs and e-mails, and in our last correspondence hoped to meet up at Yale during a visit they had planned to New Haven. And one morning, I woke to the news that they were gone. Lauren was a brilliant thinker who skewered the fantasy of “cruel optimism,” the idea that the good life was just around the corner, that our lives add up to something, which operates as a powerful political fantasy pulling us forward, even as it constantly slips out of reach.
This might make it seem like Berlant was another one of the people preaching despair. But they had a more complicated interpretation. In an interview they did with The New Inquiry in March 2019, they said: “People are looking hard for something from anyone who’s sustaining a thought, a pedagogy, an orientation toward resistance and attachment to life. This is why my epitaph is, ‘She did what she could do at the time.’”
This shouldn’t be read as a surrender, a call to sink into the gloom. It’s a rejection of the fantasy of the “good” life but, as a profile writer of Berlant in The New Yorker in that same month in 2019 suggested, one that does not lead “to absolute darkness.” Instead, Berlant wanted, as the profile put it, to “[come] to grips with different possibilities of communion, figuring out who benefits from our collective weariness.” In other words, there is a way forward, but it is with our eyes wide open to the constraints we face, and the ways in which our expectations are managed and shaped by the culture we live in. It is, too, as Berlant wrote long ago on their blog, a statement of persistence: “We refuse to be worn out.”
It’s tempting to be worn out right now, more than three years into Covid. It’s tempting to despair. The catastrophe of the pandemic rolls on, even as those in charge put out their hands to block our way and try to direct us away from the scene of the crime. Please, sir. I’ve really got to ask you to move on. Don’t make me ask you again.
The indignities pile up. Last week, CDC director Rochelle Walensky stepped down, leaving the White House without anyone at the highest levels of leadership with any real public health experience or clinical expertise. Covid policy is now fully centralized under White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients. Zients has, first and foremost, always managed this as a political crisis for the president; everything, even the best scientific advice, is filtered through the needs of the next election. When Walensky blurted out that she had a feeling of “impending doom” about a potential new Covid surge in the summer of 2021, Zients was mostly frustrated that she went off-script. Within a few months, of course, we would have the Omicron surge, with the White House dragging its feet on any new approach to the pandemic, even as deaths soared. Covid has always seemed to be an inconvenience for Zients, because you cannot manage it away, and his skills honed in the consulting industry are only for what can be bent and twisted under human control.
It’s crucial to understand that Biden’s Covid policy was never about stemming the tide of deaths but rather about making you care less about them—about managing the carnage out of your field of vision. Last week, the CDC announced that special, dedicated Covid tracking efforts would come to an end. From The New York Times:
The data the C.D.C. still plans to collect will not provide enough actionable information at the state and local level, said Sam Scarpino, a public health expert at Northeastern University.
As with other pathogens like influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, state and local health officials will need to make decisions based on limited data, he said.
“The C.D.C. is shuffling Covid into the deck of infectious diseases that we’re satisfied living with,” Dr. Scarpino said. “One thousand deaths a week is just unacceptable.”
Like a magician trained in misdirection, the White House wants to distract you and make you think the pandemic is over, that all this death is acceptable, a part of life. And plenty of journalists, politicians, even physicians and public health experts are willing to go along to get along in a mix of their own collective weariness, a need to sidle up to those in power, and an eagerness to show that they can play the game and perhaps land an appointment in the administration, though the most qualified now aren’t interested in the game the White House is playing with pandemic preparedness.
The Covid-19 emergency has been declared over, but now, as my colleagues Esther Choo, Anne Sosin, and Martha Lincoln wrote in the BMJ last month, it “ joins the ordinary emergency that is American health.” What we’ve seen over the past three years, and in particular under the presidency that brought “normal” governance back to Washington after the Trump years, is only a heightened version of ordinary life in America:
Societies have choices, but political leaders and the public health community in the US have repeatedly behaved as if there were no options—beyond resignation—for addressing our accumulating failures.… It may indeed be challenging for our leaders to view Covid as an emergency given that nothing currently qualifies as an emergency in the US: not the nation’s mental health crisis, not daily mass shootings, not plummeting life expectancy, not devastating health inequities, not the collapse of rural hospitals, not expanding maternal care deserts, and not the fact that emergency departments—the safety net of last resort—are at a breaking point.
You see, our leaders gave up a long time ago. The incentives in American political life are too strong for them to really give a damn. They’ve got other, more important, things on their minds. For Berlant, the dilemma is far more fundamental, and a kind of “slow death” is baked into modern living. It’s what drives the engine of 21st-century capitalism. It’s an embodiment of our way of life. While we focus on the disaster of the Covid pandemic, this world was wearing us down all along.
Which brings me back to despair. Everything I just mentioned—the continued death toll, the official indifference, the expectation that there is nothing to be done but to get used to it all—is a reason to feel helpless. But where then does this leave us? If we give in to despair, we allow the people in power, the ones who want us dispirited and defeated, to declare victory—and at that point, whatever chance we have of creating a better world is snuffed out. That is surrender.
What can we do? In their book with Kathleen Stewart, The Hundreds, Berlant suggests a kind of solidarity: “Then there are the people, my peeps, who turn their faces to the world to say this and make that because what they see is what they have to give.” What they see is what they have to give. At the very least, we bear witness. We speak out when we are mocked, threatened, discouraged, knowing many cannot speak, including the over 1 million dead in the United States, those who have always been hardest hit by “slow death” in America, Black and brown people, the queer, the poor.
And if we can do more, we do that too, not expecting victory, because this has always been about struggle, about persisting, about “refusing to be worn out.” Astra Taylor, at the end of her book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, suggests that instead of embracing the cruel optimism of a better world waiting at the end of the road, we’ve got to realize that democracy is always in the making, and that it is not a “predictable or stable enterprise.” She suggests, “instead of founding fathers let us be perennial midwives, helping always to deliver democracy anew.”
Speak. Organize. Fight. This is so much better than despair.