Very very early in the pandemic, I started saying - in written memos and out-loud on Zooms - that it would be inaccurate to describe the adjustments of 2020 as “working from home”. People were, are, trying to not die. Trying to figure out how to be simultaneously responsible for elder care and childcare and ~ self care ~ and holding down jobs that became even more than full time, if those jobs didn’t disappear out from under them.
I think, I am convinced, that we keep glossing over the “trying not to die” part. And if we can zip glibly past the deep and deadly overhang of the past few years than we can skip right over all the rest, too.
“People aren’t dying of this thing at the same rate” is not the same as “people aren’t dying of this thing”. Endless time and energy and effort and money spent on trying to “rethink the office”, hundreds of thousands of words on “the challenges of hybrid”, so little attention to the experience of loss and the reality of grief.
Over 10.5 million children around the world have lost a parent or other caregiver living in the home, a staggering and heartbreaking figure. For comparison, it took 10 years years to create as many orphans as Covid-19 created in just two years - Stat News
Perhaps it is because it feels less fraught that we make everything about work, about “return to the office”, about box office returns vs streaming, about the “greater magnetic force of people’s couches”. How many of those people not buying tickets anymore just…died? Or have become disabled? Or are now taking over caretaking duties on behalf of someone else who did? Or are just reassessing every part of their priorities and their spending in an environment of ongoing uncertainty, virulent rhetoric, violent action, and economic distress?
We have turned people asking for accommodations at conferences into another example of how some of us don’t want to “get over” the pandemic; we have painted people asking about better ventilation in schools as scolds (hilariously ahistorical, if nothing else); we raise our collective eyebrows at people who still want the outdoor dining option if they go out at all, asking “what, haven’t you been vaccinated?” but rarely asking, “hey, how are you holding up?”
My default is to be in the office, to go to the show, to mask up and test regularly. My reality is that I have rubbish lungs, that I spent years in and out of hospitals with variations on asthma and pneumonia and bronchitis, that I am still exceedingly prone to getting the worst version of whatever is going around. I think about how relatively little things would have saved me so much time and energy and illness even during the many years before pandemic - things like people choosing to take advantage of abundant sick leave and paid time off. I think about how many people do not have anything close to abundant sick leave or paid time off.
We make thinking about people other than ourselves seem either like a sign of weakness or of damnably exorbitant privilege. What a time, indeed.
For kicks, we'll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.
The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned
To a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.
And yes, we'll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we'll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe.
— from Sci-Fi by Tracy K. Smith