The Absence of the Virus Doesn’t Equal Wellness; A revolving door of ziti dinners (Part 1)

This is the Climate Clock, a timer, counting down how long it will take, at current rates of emissions, to burn through our “carbon budget” — the amount of CO2 that can still be released into the atmosphere while limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This is our deadline, the time we have left to take decisive action to keep warming under the 1.5°C threshold. Check out climateclock.world. Photo by Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Imagine you woke up tomorrow and mysteriously, COVID-19 was gone. How would you feel?

For many, if not all of us, there would be a huge sense of relief. You might even jump out of your bed, throwing off the sheets saying something like, “We can finally go back to normal!”

Collectively, across the globe, we all want the virus to disappear. Sadly, we know no amount of wishful or magical thinking will get us there. Although we are approaching potentially the worst of the virus devastating our communities there are signs that hope is on the horizon with the development of an effective vaccine looking promising.

We hold both these two things to be true:

1) the worst is yet to come and 2) it won’t be like this forever.

The truth is we have no idea how long it will be. Originally we were told to hunker down for two weeks and then we would all be back to work. Here we are almost nine months later still locked in and when out we are wearing masks. Well, I don’t want to speak for everyone. I know based on where you are in the country, the type of job you have and/or your personal level of risk taking your routines and habits may vary.

I have come to realize that what I originally thought was a universal experience during this time is wildly different for everyone for different reasons whether circumstantial or because of personal choice.

During a time where the mundane routines of life have been taken from us like getting on the train or grabbing coffee on our way to work it is easy to want things to “go back to normal.” It can be those small routines that provide us with a sense of security and stability in our daily lives. They are what anchors us in a world of constant change.

Humans have an amazing ability to adapt. We are resilient. So resilient in fact that I think we forgot that there was a lot that was not great about our society before the pandemic we just…adapted.

These last few months when I hear people talk about when we get rid of the virus can “go back to normal” my mind immediately goes to a passage I read during graduate school.

“The premise of positive psychology is that the absence of a weakness is not in and of itself a strength and further that the determinants of strengths versus weaknesses are not simple obverses” (Peterson, 2000).

I repeated it to myself,

…The absence of a weakness is not in and of itself a strength….”

Just by getting rid of what we don’t want is not a sufficient strategy to create what we do want.

I grew up in a small town. I vividly remember driving by our town hall and there would be a big wooden sign advertising a ziti dinner fundraiser for an individual of our town that either had cancer or got into an accident and now has medical debt.

An actual sign for a Ziti Dinner fundraiser for medical debt in my hometown that came up in a Google search.

We sometimes volunteered to help cook or serve these dinners because they took place at the fire department and my mother was a volunteer firefighter. One moment stands out to me. My dad was exasperated with how ridiculous the whole concept was, a revolving door of ziti dinners. We were all buying plates of pasta so a family could pay their medical bills while living in the richest country in the world. Did our $8 plates of pasta really make a dent? Now, with more advanced technology, the ziti dinner fundraiser has moved online through sites like GoFundMe. The American rhetoric of personal responsibility and pull yourself up by your bootstraps at its finest.

I think about where I live now in a city. So many people who grew up here can no longer afford the housing prices and are having to move out. This is a trend in cities across America. Now with the pandemic 30–40 million Americans are at risk of being evicted across the country*. So many of my friends are burdened with student loan debt. Student debt has surpassed credit card debt totaling $1.5 trillion**. We have approximately seven years to save the one and only planet we have from the impending doom of climate change and that is if we acted yesterday. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009.

To try to jazz up any of this and make it sound better than it is is dangerous. This folks, is bad, very bad, and not at all normal. I didn’t even touch upon other systemic inequities such as racial injustice or tragic trends in society such as mass shootings.

The last four years of Donald Trump and particularly the last eight months of COVID-19 including the renewed activism in support of Black Lives Matter that spanned the nation this summer has awoken many people in this country to what we don’t want.

However, we can’t mistake what we don’t want for what we DO want. Getting rid of a Trump presidency and vaccinating ourselves against COVID-19 might move us a bit out of the negatives but we wouldn’t even be at a 0. What would it take to move us into the positives, from surviving to thriving?

When we say we want to return to normal, what do we mean by that? Do we want to return to ziti dinners to inefficiently tackle medical debt one person at a time? Fundraising a couple hundred dollars to throw at thousands of dollars of debt? Is this the world we want to go back to? Or, do we want to use this moment of disruption to think about the world we want and be courageous enough to make it so?

What if, during a pandemic that has so far killed 284,000 Americans and counting, we enacted bold and sweeping policies that would make healthcare a human right for each and every citizen as a first step? Then, imagine we cancelled medical debt for everyone in this country. That’s just a start.

Who do we have to be as a country to create a society our future selves will thank us for?

When COVID-19 ends, if life returns to normal that wouldn’t be success, that would be settling. Settling for an unsustainable future for our planet, and for our lives. Settling for a society that treats people with contempt rather than dignity.

In the video, “A message from the future” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Another world is possible. Close your eyes. What do you see?

*Covid 19 and Evictions

**Student debt has surpassed credit card debt

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