When vision fails
Direction is lost.
When direction is lost
Purpose may be forgotten.
When purpose is forgotten
Emotion rules alone.
When emotion rules alone,
Strange Things Are Happening
In 2020, we lived through screens, bombarded by commercial messages professing how corporations were here for us, how we were in this together, that we should be optimistic about the present and the future. Jacob Brogan of the Washington Post observed, “these commercials are alike in their refusal to acknowledge with any specificity why things are so strange. They mention…the broad fact of illness, but not those who have fallen ill; our ‘heartbreak,’ but never the reality of death.” Meanwhile, people were forced to normalize deadly working conditions for the sake of having meat on American tables and profits pocketed by the powerful. The government perpetually wavered in acknowledging COVID-19 as a real danger. “Essential workers,” praised as heroes, were left to fend for themselves.
This is strange, indeed.
Now, messages are even more reassuring but no less deceiving. We are reconnecting with family and friends. We’ve slowed “shopping to safety” through disinfectants and toilet paper. Pleasure and freedom are recurrent themes driving 2021 COVID capitalism. Leaders preach “it’s up to you” to get things back to normal. At the same time, they also champion austere policies slashing funds from emergency preparedness, public health, social services, food assistance, education, and economic support programs.
Of course, to be more specific about a global pandemic’s root causes would not sell products and would not reassure people to go back to normal. Still, many aspects of “normal”—capitalism, climate change, poverty—harm and kill us, especially the most vulnerable.
Such misinformation campaigns are pervasive, powerful, and subtle, tricking us into ignoring the sources of our collective suffering and teaching us to individualize hardship. They shame us when we question loosening public health regulations that were arduous to institute in the first place, even as millions of people died without them.
Beyond commercials, other cultural outlets nudge us, distracting us from our realities. For example, in The Atlantic’s “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown,” those concerned about U.S. COVID-19 regulatory rollbacks are described as “hypersensitive,” “neurotic,” scientifically irrational, and blindly led by fear and anti-Trumpism. Counternarratives to this stance have appeared, arguing that those continuing to mask are, instead, transfixed by trauma.
While comforting in their ability to provide rare clarity within social confusion, these Manichean framings are both dangerously manipulative, and they are both wrong. Public health conditions have improved markedly under the new administration. Despite this, commoners in the U.S. remain subject to decades of deregulatory disinvestment within what Ruth Wilson Gilmore terms “organized abandonment” while carrying the burdens of outsourced risk. Berating and pathologizing people for caution atomizes logics of public health. Instead, we need “sociological imagination” to understand survival amid and beyond COVID as dependent upon structural variables, not mere personal optimism, wellness, and effort.
Naming hesitancy to return to pre-COVID life “irrationally oppositional” demonizes personal acceptance of vulnerability within systems led by leaders who brag about moving fast and breaking things. It shames those unwilling to own the invincibility profiteering capitalism requires for efficient extraction and identifies masking as political rather than responsible. Judiciousness, caution, and reason wrenched from their typical definitions become strangely partisan and anti-American. This has a chilling effect.
When Illinois schools announced plans to hold in-person classes last fall, some hesitated to voice concern. For example, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the area’s main employer, provides wages, stability, and benefits beyond what most can access locally, especially following years of former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s economic austerity and deregulation. Some unionized and tenured workers have basic rights to due process, but most receive no such labor and economic protections. Good jobs are hard to find, and they are hard to keep both within the pandemic-spiked economic downturn, and as workers standing up to defend the public good are defamed, called “insubordinate,” and easily fired.
In this context, advocating for safety required significant individual risk. Speaking out against institutional decisions to repopulate campus during a pandemic can brand employees as difficult and not “team players.” As Sarah Jaffee writes, “We love it when teachers care about our kids, as long as that care comes in the form of individual self-sacrifice. Get COVID and die, get written about in glowing terms. Collectively refuse to die (or to spread the virus to your students and their families), and your ‘allies’ will begin to threaten you.”
While acquiescence protected some jobs last year, what elements of continued abuse, coercion, exploitation, and violence flourished within collective silence?
We know more about COVID-19 in 2021, but much remains uncertain. Many COVID-19 survivors live with debilitating long-term symptoms and still not well-understood ailments, including brain fog, cognitive decline, heart, lung, and organ damage, chronic fatigue, pain, and anxiety. Billions remain unvaccinated. Mutant variants are spreading. We don’t know how well current vaccines work against them. Children under 12 still can’t receive vaccines. High levels of vaccine hesitancy persist. COVID is still slaughtering communities unprotected by deregulating leaders and broken health systems.
We are told to ignore this. Global trade, businesses, schools, and travel are reopening full-force. We are told accept more risk, to practice mindfulness and self-care, and we must stay positive. This is the guidance we get…in a pandemic. We are told we can recover now.
For those who have borne the brunt of COVID, recovery remains elusive. Right now, our society remains vulnerable, losing not just pandemic protections but also basic rights.
The Normal Strange
One of the authors of this piece (Saxton) writes in her book, The Devil’s Fruit: Farmworkers, Health, and Environmental Justice, about a farmworker named Mario: a Mexican immigrant and father of three who worked in California’s raspberry fields to support his family. One day at work, he and coworkers experienced a pesticide exposure marked by dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath, and limb numbness and paralysis. Their employee manual instructed workers to immediately report work-related injuries to supervisors.
Mario did this. His foreman told him that he could keep working or go to the doctor but lose a day’s pay.
Countless food and farmworkers face similarly dangerous and impossible situations every day. Their labors are deemed “essential” at the same time that food industry players minimize the severity of COVID-19 and blame workers for high levels of “community spread” and death.
At a Foster Farms poultry processing facility in California, hundreds contracted COVID and nine workers died following the company’s egregious neglect of COVID-19 workplace safety guidelines. As the survivors deliberate what to do next, their labor union was decertified. Food and farmworkers are routinely threatened with termination if they opt to self-protect by staying home or vocalizing concerns. Unions are now legally forbidden from informing farmworkers in the fields about their rights.
Meanwhile, billboards advertise Foster Farms job openings. Getting workers back to work is a central motivation driving school re-openings even as communities most impacted by COVID continue experiencing outbreaks and deaths. Care is direly needed. But much more is, as well. Systemic exclusion from basic rights and protections leaves people “perpetually disposable” and desperate. Those harmed within capitalism require protections without having the violence wrenched from its source and situated within them, further individualizing, and, thus, normalizing, social harm. As Robin D.G. Kelley astutely observes, “Managing trauma does not require dismantling structural racism.” Care is needed. And entitled, oppressive, profiteering systems that thrive on inequity and extraction must be seen and stopped.
Why Things Are Strange
Amidst the savagery and overwhelm, it is hard to remember how we got here. Intentional neglect led to COVID-19 ravaging our country, forcing us into unsafe conditions and impossible choices regarding caregiving and survival: no federal sick leave, family leave, bailouts, PPE, or other humane permissions. Profiteering corporations and their politician puppets worked hard to protect themselves. And they’re not finished.
This summer, we began to thaw following a year in which our leaders lied to us about the severe dangers they knew COVID-19 presented. As the season’s warmth settles in, we yearn for comfort at last, stability at last, sanity at last. We do not want to think about the lack of honesty or guidance within the superficial narratives of “togetherness” spewed from the nation’s top pulpits. We do not want to remember how federal deception and kleptocracy led to over 600,000 deaths so far in the U.S. alone, to deepened surveillance, inequity, authoritarianism, and poverty, to those holding up the world being told they maybe just have to die if they want a paycheck.
As we think back upon the barbaric organized abandonment we faced as a nation, we are being told how to make sense of the history we experienced first-hand. In this, we are, once again, being nudged by powerful profiteers to ignore the well-coordinated brutality intentionally unleashed upon us and to focus upon how we might buy back some of what we lost. We are being reminded of comfort through consumption and encouraged to forget all else.
How we collectively understand where we are and how we got here matters. Indeed, cultural reality exists upon such logic. As deafening consumer clarion calls pitch confidently cavalier pleasure-seeking and denial this summer, we might pause to consider who most benefits from social technologies advocating invulnerability and historical amnesia. As anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes:
We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence. Naiveté is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.
This is not the time to allow highly-skilled emotional manipulators normalizing injustice to tell us to forget what we know in an effort to distract us from “why things are so strange.”
Being sacrificed to a plague by profiteers should feel strange.