What is Coronavirus Saying to Us?

Amid all the hubbub about coronavirus, ventilators, stimulus packages, distance learning, and the crisis in prisons and concentration camps, are there a few lessons we can discern about this tectonic shift? What has the pandemic done to shake up our common-sense assumptions? What is coronavirus trying to tell us?

Through my own confusion, denial, and self-medicating, certain perspectives have clawed their way into my consciousness. Here are a few of them:

1) The end of white American exceptionalism. Generally, people of privilege, people whose existence is held up by centuries of colonial theft, live in a bubble. Bad things happen out there, to others. There are wars, famines, diseases, refugees — but these are stories on TV and the TV can be turned off. The pain of others is sad, terrible really, but it would never happen to us.

As coronavirus sweeps the world, it strikes down rich and poor, white and black. The US fought in World War I and World War II, fought against colonized people rising up throughout the Third World for the last 75 years, but never a war on American soil. Now we have a world war which will not spare us. The narcissistic denialism of partiers, worshipers, and the president are all running up harshly against reality. We have seen this before. Seventeenth century British aristocrats continued to order tea service at 4:00 even as they and their servants were collapsing with plague.

What do I hope we learn? Let’s make it crystal clear that the suffering of humans, the suffering of the natural world, is our suffering. Now is the time for those with privilege to actually understand the challenges that most people of the world face. This is not a TV show. We are not exempt. We are of the world.

2) Rethinking the economy. For all the talk about getting “back to normal,” now would be a good time to reflect on what is meant by “the economy.” Somehow, we are told, the economy has to come back, has to fire up again. But let’s be clear. The economy, the study of economics, is a human construct. “The economy” is simply the collection of some data points, data related to production of commodities, to goods and services, to financial exchanges — but not related to actual needs of people or the planet.

But this pause may allow us to question the fundamental importance of human endeavors — life systems, culture, and creativity. Never again will we see these taken-for-granted terms making as common sense or making the lives of the majority of people of the world better: competition, achievement, leadership, success. How do we forge an ethic of meaning after we have shed the shiny accoutrements of fever-pitch economic activity — gorging on fossil fuels, creating mountains of plastic and toxins, working 24/7? How should production, how should life in schools change?

My own hope would be that we would move to a more collective, sustainable, people-centered social organization. Still, even if we don’t have the capacity to storm the heavens, I can certainly imagine local initiatives, cooperatives, solidarity projects that turn away from the capitalist beast. As Grace Lee Boggs said, let’s not beg the capitalists for “jobs” in their enterprises; there is plenty of “work” to be done for our community.

3) Nature bats last. Finally, if coronavirus is trying to tell us anything, it is a warning. Nature is saying that enough is enough. We have certainly had signs and portents: hurricanes, floods, tornados, fires, fracking-induced earthquakes. The pandemic is another slap back from nature. We cannot continue to desecrate the earth, poison and destroy the atmosphere. In our privilege, we could shake our heads sadly with the disappearance of whales, the dying of bees, the destruction of kelp forests, and on and on. But somehow that was elsewhere, something to ignore, a reason to change the channel.

But coronavirus is saying, “This is the cost, this is the extinction. Before it was someone else. But the fire next time: it will be you.” Will this be the wake-up call? Or will humans rush back to the destructive habits in an orgy of selfish indulgence?

Who knows? The future is up to us. I hope we are paying attention.




Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.

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Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.

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