coronavirus, climate change and community care

coronavirus, image from naked science

Contradictions. Even if the name-changing coronovirus becomes a sweeping pandemic, most folks reading this will range between not feeling sick at all (even though you test positive for the virus) to having fevers and aches like the flu. Like all viruses, this is not an equal-opportunity attack. So far, men die at greater rates than women (there are no stats, of course, outside of the binary). And those who are elderly and/or live with compromised immune systems have staggered death rates: 14% for those who are our elders, those who are carriers of the stories of our past. We can’t afford to lose them, and yet we will. Additionally, numbers are much higher for a range of pre-existing conditions including diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease. There are a lot of people I love with diabetes, asthma, and other immune-compromising things. I know you do, too. When you lump those statistics together, you get the overall 2% mortality rate. And you also get the contradiction between those who are rolling their eyes and saying COVID-19 is not a big deal, those who are buying out cases of air masks and bottled water, those who feel the cold-caution of how their already labored breathing and virus-cautious bodies will respond to this new thing and those who are wondering exactly how to be with all of this in a way that doesn’t add more chaos to already chaotic times.

We weren’t always at the mercy of epidemics and viruses. As much as folks can tell, up until about 12,000 years ago, we died and got sick for all kinds of reasons, but being collectively overwhelmed by viruses wasn’t one of them. Epidemics evolved along with cities and domesticated animals and concentrated agriculture. Those of us whose people come from places where cities have evolved got squished together, our food supplies got less diverse and tempered by wilderness, and we started living hoof and foot alongside the animals we were raising for food and clothing. Viruses high-fived each other, smirking at how their hosts had made the world a much richer — and moister- place. And so they spread. While the oldest record of viruses is something like 80 million years old (and yes, that would be herpes), epidemics are still recent within our lineage. They existed rarely on this Turtle Island where I live, until colonizers brought them intentionally and unintentionally as a primary weapon of genocide. The earliest viruses, these ancient life forms, are still wafting around the planet: smallpox, mumps and rubella. The coronavirus is a younger ancient one, the first strain of it identified in some really old birds about 10,000 years ago. It wasn’t until the 1960s that some scientist with a microscope peered at a slide and said, um, what’s that?

In my house, we’ve been reading the headlines and asking the same questions a lot of you have been asking: should we be worried?

I talked with a doctor friend, actually a few different doctor friends, asking them this question. I apologized first, of course, because in moments like this, all of us with doctor friends are probably exhausting those doctor friends with the same questions, repeated hundreds of times. But I asked them anyway. A bunch of folks said bits and pieces — 2 to 3 times more contagious than the flu, yes you should worry, no you shouldn’t worry, it’s changing shape so we aren’t sure where or how it will end up, more people die from the flu but this one will get more people sicker, your family is not in the most vulnerable group so you will be fine, don’t worry, we don’t know how far it will spread, we don’t know how far it will spread. And then that changed to, well, it will definitely come here, it will probably be in your town, but we don’t know how far it will spread and your family is not in the most vulnerable area so you should prepare for and deal with this as though it was a particularly bad flu season.

It was a more recent conversation that helped me start to understand something different. My friend explained to me that yes, the coronavirus is more contagious than influenza and so it is likely that, wherever it spreads, more people will get sick. This is worrisome, especially for those who are already vulnerable, but that’s not the only root of the worry. She explained that, at least in the United States, we have a kind of steady state of care available for those who do not have compromised immune systems when it’s time for the annual run of colds and flu. From gas stations to drug stores to supermarkets, you can find ibuprofen and other basic pain- and fever-relief medications on the shelf. We also have food at the grocery store and, while many of us get sick at least once during the year, most of us are connected in some way to family or neighbors or friends who can drop off soup if we need it or answer the phone when we call in sick to work. This is not counting the many people in this country living in poverty, without access to stable housing or healthcare or a decent wage. This is not counting those who are isolated in their homes when they have them. And this is not counting those with deeply compromised immune systems for whom viral infections can be life-threatening. And still, most of us, particularly you who are likely reading this, can get some of this over-the-counter care without too much of a problem.

Many many years ago I talked with a cousin who, having not been particularly Catholic growing up nor interested in the church, started attending mass regularly after she had kids. I thought it was the “I want to raise my kids in the church” focus but she said it wasn’t that. As a single mom, she said, the church was the only place that had free childcare and showed up when the whole house was sick. She started going to church again for the care and then, over time, became more and more part of the community. Her opinions and worldview began to be shaped by those who cared for her children and, over time, her political beliefs became aligned with the church that was now the center of her life. It’s a basic-survival thing: all of us will shape ourselves, consciously or not, to the people or systems that are most likely to ensure our survival and, especially when we have them, the survival of our young. It’s just a true thing. You can follow the shape of culture by looking at the expectations that surround accessible care. We shape ourselves to ensure our own survival, every one of us.

This is still true but looks very different if you are young, if you are able-bodied, and/or have no dependents, have enough money to have some extra, are not under attack, and so on. We could have a days long conversation about the shape and flavor of resistance when you don’t have to figure out how to access care that will support your life and the life of your kin to continue versus when you do. All resistances are not equal. But that’s not the point of this piece.

My doctor-friend explained that her colleagues are worried about what happens when too many people are sick to care for each other. That’s when other things happen: an inability to go out and get food, to stay clean, and to keep quarantined from each other to slow down the spread. This, then, is how secondary infections begin to emerge. This, then, is when “just the flu” turns into something else. And oh oh, this is how, even with the best and most loving intentions, the hyper-individualism of ableism hooks itself even more securely into the piled up fear of the usually-well.

I have a friend who lives in Milan, Italy. Milan is currently quarantined, due to the coronavirus. This means the schools are shut, public transport is stopped, and people are ordered to stay in their homes. My friend is able-bodied, healthy and very young which means she is very bored with staying at home. They don’t know when the quarantine will lift and already, her words, the shops in the city are low on food and people are anxious and mad. The quarantined area is small so food and supplies are getting to people, but what would happen if the quarantine spreads? If the truck drivers who supply the grocery stores get sick?

These, my doctor-friend explained, are the layered concerns of a pandemic. How those who are most vulnerable to the virus will fare and what the impact on daily life will be if a lot of people get sick at the same time. It’s guesstimated that we have three to four days of food in grocery stores at any given moment. At least within the US, there are a lot of people who don’t know the people who live within a few blocks of their homes.

In Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, she contradicts the idea that, in moments of large scale disaster, there is a frenzy of competition and violence. Looking at the aftermath of earthquakes in California, Nova Scotia and Mexico; Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, she shows story after story of how people come together during times of disaster, until the military or police come in to “re-establish order.” That’s when the disconnection and push back begins.

As a bodyworker and someone who used to do a bunch of community organizing, I often repeat to myself: we don’t create transformation, we create the conditions that support its emergence. I don’t take lightly the fact that there are people who are dying and people who will die from the coronavirus, any more than I take it lightly that people die because they are homeless in Minnesota winters, because their partners are violent and take that violence out on their bodies, because in the country where I live, the police walk around with guns and have the right to use them if they feel threatened. Changing all of these deaths is about deep cultural change and systems change.

An elder in my community, someone I deeply trust, talks about climate change, or the potential for climate collapse, in a way that feels really helpful when thinking about the coronavirus or any other potential pandemic. She says that it doesn’t make sense for us to spend a lot of time worrying about climate collapse. We know something is going to happen, but we don’t know what will happen. We don’t know what is happening now. Feverishly reading headlines and feeling powerless won’t do much except rise our stress levels and burn us out. Instead, she says, we should support each other to feel what is underneath that stress and panic. Let ourselves keep moving the feelings through ourselves rather than getting stuck. Rage? Grief? Confusion? Feel them and keep them moving. Who among us is vulnerable, not just during the future chaos, but right this second. How are they safe now? How are we ensuring that they are cared for and supported, not isolated but loved? How do we make sure that when the chaos rises, as it will, we don’t forget them in our panic? Keep the feelings moving and turn them into action, into relationships, into commitment.

At the same time as we have these conversations, we make other plans.

In the case of climate catastrophe, it is past time and it always-time to talk with our friends and neighbors about how we will care for each other and how we will care for climate refugees when they show up in our neighborhoods. Now, not later, is the time to identify where the food is growing and begin to prepare to grow more. Who has what kind of skills for care and tending, who has extra rooms, who can hotwire a car or make gas out of vegetable oil? Who knows the plant medicines that can bring down a fever and strengthen an immune system? This, says this elder-friend, is where we should put the energy of worry and stress about the things we can not change and the things still unknown that are in the process of emerging. If we don’t know, learn these things and then share the knowledge.

So should we worry about the coronavirus? I keep being struck by how the things we should be doing in response to the coronavirus are really the things we should be doing as a way of being alive. They are about caring for ourselves and for each other, about building and supporting ongoing collective strategies of safety and wellness rather than staying isolated until and if the shit hits the fan when we then have to rely on infrastructures that don’t know our names (and too often, carry retraumatization alongside supported care). So what does that mean?

Here is one of those basics that I didn’t realize I needed until I watched it (although my partner and daughter would tell you I needed it). Hand-washing, it’s an always-thing. Oh and by the way, the whole “Europeans brought sanitation to the dirty native people” story line that is woven through the colonization of the Americas and empire-building across Africa and Asia is a false one. Evidence and more evidence shows that folks living in traditional land-based cultural practices have higher rates of hygiene or cleanliness or whatever you want to call it. As written above, epidemics emerge alongside close clusters of people; clusters where we live out of balance with the pace of the land around us.

I am grateful for this piece by Dr. Diana Inlak’ech on holistic support for immunity and virus prevention. Again, this is what we do always, with and without compromised systems. It’s why indigenous food culture is about food that nourishes in the deepest ways, including in strengthening our immune systems without ever calling it that. It’s why food justice and food sovereignty are part of creating the conditions needed to support all of the things that surviving a pandemic demand.

And it’s about the way we imagine and live in to collective care. Able-bodied folks, here is one of those moments where radical gifts have been shared with us, gifts that are central to helping us remember and recreate care networks if they are not already here or woven through our kin and cultural ways. If you haven’t read it yet, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha’s book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice is a mix of theory, story telling, and practical strategies for building and supporting care networks, including reflections on deep consent and how to be with folks who cause harm.

Whether it’s a coronavirus pandemic or climate change or any number of increasing natural and military-based and disease-based disasters, we create the conditions now for the communities we want to live in tomorrow. I have lived in Minneapolis, and even more specifically in my neighborhood, for over 25 years. Not everyone has access to staying put for the long term, but I have stayed. I love that no matter where I go, I see people that I know. I love that as our daughter was growing up, she knew that when she crossed the park near our house, she would inevitably see someone she knew and/or who knew her name. We have had a small-town experience within a very large city. And we still have to do more of the things I write about in this piece. I am watching as local beloveds put out different calls for coming-togethers, conversations about survival and interdependence and building physical-space networks. We are talking with those we raised our kid with, with those we live in proximity to — where are we now and how do we weave in tighter? Not just for ourselves but also in relationship to those around us? There is no confusion. Spirit or practice measures, whichever most talks to you, are both very clear: stresses will increase and the most vulnerable among you will suffer first, but all will be impacted.

Western scientists shift arguments across generations as to whether or not viruses are alive. They can’t live or replicate on their own; needing hosts in order to live. As part of that living, they then deeply impact the hosts they live within. Reading this makes me shake my head. How, then, are viruses different from any other life form? As humans, we can’t replicate or live on our own. We need the living force of this planet, this complex web of relatives, each impacting the other. And here is the other thing: we are who we are because of the impact of viruses. It is guesstimated that up to 30% of the genetic truth that makes us human exists because of how we have been impacted by and integrated the outside-lives of viruses. We are co-creators of life as we know it. I have no idea if what we call human would have been better or worse if we had not virally co-mingled. It happened, and here we are.

Those of us living in dominant cultures that are hyper-individualized and privatized are a species in need of some deep change. We are killing the planet and projection-destroying those we perceive to be “not like” us. If our response to the coronavirus would be to support collective strategies for our shared safety and wellness, as well as remembering to wash hands, cough into our sleeves, and support our immune systems, as well as remembering to care for those of us whose bodies are more vulnerable to viral attack, then perhaps this would be another time when, as a species, our evolution was changed as a result of the life of a virus? Perhaps it would shift how we are steamrolling towards climate collapse? I don’t know how to get from where we are to the place we can’t yet imagine, but I do know that any practice that moves at the pace of relationship, at the speed of trust, and at the centered pace of those who are most vulnerable, is a pace that won’t kill some of us to save others of us along the way.