Late last week, I was waiting for takeoff on a short connecting flight from Chicago to Flint. A middle-aged, heavy-set woman came aboard and sat directly across from me, while one of her companions sat with her and the other directly behind me. Immediately upon sitting, the woman pulled the top of her shirt over her nose and mouth and succumbed to a pretty intense coughing fit. It was at this point that I noticed how labored her breathing was. Her two companions were offering whatever aid and succor they could, while I found myself tensing.
Their tone was compassionate and supportive, but it seemed as though they were outliers in that regard. The virus-induced tension, already palpable, increased dramatically. The guy just in front of her, who’d visibly winced everytime she had another coughing spurt, rummaged through his carry-on until he found something to wear over his face. As the flight took off, the woman began quietly sobbing. I only noticed when her friends began asking her what was wrong, to which she assured them it was nothing and quickly regained herself.
As a flight attendant approached her, a small part of me was hoping he’d ask her to move. When he offered her water instead, I was both disappointed in his non-draconian response and ashamed of myself for wanting it.
Fifteen minutes into the flight, I’m wearing my headphones and working on my laptop, when I heard something hit the floor and realized she’d dropped her bottled water. And in the space of a few seconds, I had my “coming to Jesus” moment. It felt as though what I decided then and there spoke volumes about how I would move forward during this crisis.
Do I pretend I didn’t notice, and trust that someone else will help? Do I bend over to grab it and risk what feels like EVERYTHING?
I liked myself in that moment, as I handed her the water bottle–and immediately sanitized my hands. I made a decision that aligns with my values…that time.
I imagine I’ll have to confront such moments countless times as this pandemic continues to unfold. I imagine there’ll be times where I don’t like myself as much– where I make decisions that do not align with my values. I imagine we all will.
If history is any measure, (which I believe it can be), some of us will thrive while others will flounder. Most of us will do a bit of both in the course of any given day. Overall, some of us will cultivate greater empathy, compassion, and courage while others will not only close themselves off to such sentiments in the name of survival, but will seek to do harm to others and/or to themselves out of fear.
As individuals, communities, organizations, and other collective bodies, we’ll have a lot of decisions to make in the immediate future that will reverberate long after the current crisis has subsided. Decisions made in groups often result in policies, which once made, can be difficult to unmake. De-centering the stories of those who are historically marginalized in favor of “the bottom line”, or the imperative for rapid response, will further marginalize and harm those very communities.
By the time these communities are again prioritized, post-pandemic, they’ll be all the more vulnerable, and we’ll be spending far more resources to compensate for yet another “inevitable systemic” failure which was, in reality, quite preventable and thus all the more insidious and malicious.
The most vulnerable among us are bearing the brunt of this crisis, as history has always demanded. Scarcity begets scarcity. How we treat each other, advocate for each other, organize for each other–in this moment especially–will help define us for generations to come.
If we are not mindful, fear can drive us to forget who we are individually and collectively. Fear can reduce us to people who steal medical equipment from medical providers. It can lead us to hoarding a plethora of household goods for what some suggest is, ostensibly, the “comfort in knowing that it’s there.” Fear can usher us back to old tropes about the “diseased other” in the hopes of laying blame. This is true for both individuals and institutions.
Meanwhile, the anonymity of the internet has already proven fertile ground for the trolls amongst us. As we move into this unknown territory, it’s easy to imagine this deplorable behavior will only increase as we become ever-more locked into our digital worlds. A close friend suggested to me recently that if we stay in this digital place long enough, many of the ways we are currently used to interacting may change forever.
This is a brilliant observation and I couldn’t agree more. This virus, and our response to it, could fundamentally alter who we are, and it’s very difficult to foresee those implications right now. However, one thing is clear: we could ALL stand to do some soul searching at this moment. While we could always benefit from taking the time to ask ourselves some foundational questions about our values, this is especially true in times of hardship.
Crisis holds a mirror before us. It forces us to pay more attention to who we are, and encourages us to ponder who we want to be. No matter our station, we will have a tremendous impact on one another. As individuals go, so goes our communities, organizations, and institutions.
Fear around personal and/or institutional security during a crisis is real for all of us. However, giving in to the anxiety when you have plenty of resources and hoarding what you can means fewer resources for those with less. Such conditions breed desperation, vulnerability, and in this case, greater exposure for us all.
We need shelter to shelter in place. We need clean water to wash our hands in clean water. If I can’t find basic needs at the store, I’ll keep going back until I do–further exposing myself and thus everyone else.
This virus is a great equalizer. Ignoring the most vulnerable among us leaves us all more vulnerable. A pandemic is the great hall of mirrors. Selfishness will be rewarded by a prolonged crisis, and who we are will be reflected back to us immediately–whether we want it to be or not.
Buying ALL the toilet paper won’t save you. Stealing masks from health care providers won’t save you. Dumping your stocks while remaining silent about the looming crisis won’t save you. De-centering marginalized communities by discontinuing to engage in equity work won’t save you. If equity, community, and sustainability was a value before the crisis, it REALLY needs to be a value now.
Otherwise, it never was.
Delma is a Senior Fellow with CWC. His focus is on facilitating system change on campuses and in institutions through transformative practice and the power of story. He received his undergraduate degree in African-American Studies and Psychology, and his Masters in Liberal Arts with a concentration in American and African American Studies at the University of Michigan. He regularly lectures on a variety of socio-political topics with a special emphasis on intersectional approaches to social justice.