Journal of a Plague Year On My 26th Birthday

Today is March 16, my birthday. I’m in Bali, still vacillating between staying out here and heading home before the borders get locked down indefinitely. I’ve been traveling around since I left Vietnam in mid February, first to South Korea, then to New Zealand, a roadie on COVID-19’s world tour.

It’s my dreaded 26th, a particularly American milestone that means I get kicked off my parents’ healthcare plan. This, I think, more than your 18th birthday or your 21st or your 25th, when you can finally hit up your local Hertz and rent a car, is the true point of entry to adulthood. No more living in blissful suspension above the comforting safety net of your parents’ care, no more trusting that you can simply go to a doctor when you’re sick and not have to worry about co-pays and deductibles and all that.

Of course, mine is a privileged experience. Many people have to reckon with these facts of life long before they’re 26. I’m very lucky compared to the average American. Still, navigating the online healthcare portals and comparing plans and trying to make some real decisions and judge the accuracy of my supposed mortality is a rather glum experience, and one that does feel like a turning point, an ingress into a kind of independence that is unwanted and unsettling.

There’s nothing ceremonious about this rite. In fact, that’s a key part of the ritual: the absence of ceremony, the mythless and mirthless nature of it. You are now on your own, no longer ramparted from the cruel world by your mommy and daddy. Pushed out of the nest to either learn to fly in mid air, or fledgle and hit the floor.

Welcome to the real world.

Welcome to life in the big city.

As I sit in my villa trying to decide if I have a sore throat because of the sudden shift in humidity from NZ to Bali, I read obsessively about the Coronavirus and envisage global doom from the strangely paradisiacal island, where grass is green, the girls are pretty, and the yoga stores are starting to close and coughs garner glares. No matter where I go these days, I find myself unable to remove myself fully from America. That was the case the whole time I was in Vietnam.  I battled with feelings of guilt about leaving the country, I think because it seems like such a pivotal time. So I read incessantly about the politics and happenings there, a concerned citizen removed from his land.

While in Vietnam and Korea, the effort to contain Coronavirus has very obviously been taken seriously by the government, America seems woefully unwilling to view COVID as a genuine threat, and frighteningly unprepared for the consequences of that nonchalance. I have seen people on Facebook and Twitter boldly declaring: “We will not be scared by a virus. We will not give in,” as if the virus is ISIS, or something. If we allow the virus to scare us into staying home, then we let it win. (That’s not how viruses work). In reality, this is selfishness masquerading as some kind of national zeitmotif, a patriotic rallying cry. Land of the brave, and all that.

I have read articles about people in New York and Chicago continuing to go to bars and party in the streets of Chicago, not caring if they infect others, not understanding that they could be a vector for someone somewhere getting the virus, someone more vulnerable than you. This recklessness and entitlement is bizarre and disturbing. It’s part of what makes people hate Americans, and consider us to be boorish and stupid. But the root of this indifference is not, at its core, a shallow sense of entitlement or basic stupidity – I think it goes deeper than that.

I have read about workers having to continue going to work as if nothing is going on, even if they might be carrying the virus, because the boss hasn’t shut things down and frankly they still need the cash,  as the realities of life in the big city are still in effect. I have read about people who are losing their jobs because of Corona virus, but still have to make rent. No reprieve is imminent.

In a country where toughness is the national virtue, and rugged individualism the ethos – where nothing is freely given, everything must be taken, and so rapacity and avarice are celebrated – there is little room for community, or empathy, or consideration for others. And that works out just fine for the companies that run the country, for whom unity is a threat to profits (see: unionization).

The US government is doing its part to ensure the safety of corporate profits, as usual, at the expense of workers. This week, the House of Representatives passed the Families First CoronaVirus Response Act. The bill calls for companies to provide two weeks of paid sick leave for employees, and up to three months of paid family and medical leave for those who contract COVID-19 or have to take care of a family member who has.

But that only applies to companies of fewer than 500 employees, which represents 46% of companies.  According to The New York Times, 59 million workers in America are excepted from these modest offerings. In addition, the Labor Department can choose to exempt some companies with fewer than 500 employees if it determines that these measures “would jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.” The bill offers three months off only to those who are sick or are taking care of a sick loved one –  it does nothing to keep workers who might carry the virus at home. It isn’t designed to contain the spread of the virus at all – it’s designed to make sure the machine keeps running.

Nancy Pelosi, the blue-no-matter-who crowd’s queen, tweeted: “I don’t support U.S. taxpayer money subsidizing corporations to provide benefits to workers that they should already be providing. House Democrats will continue to prioritize strong emergency leave policies as we fight to put #FamiliesFirst.”

She followed that up with:

“Large employers and corporations must step up to the plate and offer paid sick leave and paid family & medical leave to their workers. Both now as we fight the #coronavirus and in the years to come. #COVIDー19″

This idea that the government stepping in to provide aid to its citizens is stealing from U.S. taxpayer money – a pool that is routinely siphoned from to fund illegitimate wars and tax breaks for the rich – is nothing less than a right-wing talking point. It’s the same point used to critique Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All platform (bUt It WiLl RaIsE tAxEs). Pelosi says she doesn’t support it because corporations “should already be providing” these benefits, and that they must “step up to the plate and offer paid sick leave and paid family leave to their workers.”

That’s some real tough talk. I’m sure CEOs of health insurance companies are quaking in their boots at the suggestion that they should do better.  A mighty finger wag indeed. Walmart and Target, in their beneficence, have offered two weeks of paid sick leave. A BBC headline – “Coronavirus: Amazon offers unlimited sick days to halt spread” – doesn’t tell the whole story; these unlimited paid sick days only apply to those who contract the virus, and so does nothing to reduce contagion. That comes after Whole Foods, owned by Amazon oligarch and the richest man on the planet Jeff Bezos, encouraged those of its employees with extra days of PTO to donate them to other employees in need.

I, for one, am not satisfied by this meager admonition. I don’t imagine that demanding that these corporations ought to gain a conscience overnight and offer some PTO out of the kindness of their hearts will be a particularly effective gambit on Frau Speaker’s part. Isn’t it time that the government subsidizes taxpayer money for something that would benefit taxpayers? Isn’t it time that we have a government that is for us and not the corporations? Isn’t it time that we stop relying on the munificence of billionaires, and realize that we have the power – that without workers, the machine will grind to a halt? To recognize that the forces compelling us to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and go to work – student debt, mortgages, threats of eviction, need for food and Internet and health care – are illusory?

That’s what this strange period represents, the opportunity to understand that we have the power, that we always have had the power, and if only we could see through the obfuscations of the machine, we could seize that power, and take back our lives. That if we came together, we could right the ship in a moment and do away with the imaginary forces that make our lives brutal and despairing.

But the machine is sophisticated, and it is equipped for catastrophe. It’s greatest weapon is ideology. Louis Althusser wrote: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The ideology of American-ness is rugged individualism, toughness, a masculine obstinacy that rejects community and compatriotism. The American mantra is that we’re all on our own, and it’s better that way.

 

In America we are doers. We are earners, entrepreneurs and go-getters, risers and grinders – not whiners, deservers, querulous entitled welps as the media calls us. We work hard and we play hard, too. And if they’re going to make me work, if they’re going to throw me into the water at age 26, or 20, or 18 and tell me sink or swim, then I’m damn well going to do what I want ; if the show must go on, then I will continue to play. Those people who call me selfish for carousing in the streets don’t know me. They aren’t my friends – what do I owe them? They’re just triggered that I’m living my best life.

I read a tweet a few days ago from Roseanne Cash that said: “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”  This tweet unnerved me deeply. It pissed me off and made me more anxious than other Corona-related tweets, even the much direr ones. Because it resonated with that voice in my head that told me I was never doing enough to achieve greatness, to become someone worthwhile, someone “successful.”

That fear of failure is both caused by the precarity that austerity causes, and the feeling that motivates those who continue to champion austerity. If I get sick or hurt, no one ‘s going to help me. If I can only rely on myself, I must constantly work to accumulate enough capital to have security – and if I had to work for everything I get, so should everyone else. This totally ignores specific circumstances and the disproportionate resources that certain people have. Dr. Emily Friedman (@friede) tweeted:

“Please stop. I’m a literary historian who specialized for a time in scented objects (used during plague). Dudes who got a ton done got stuff done ALL THE TIME, because they had massive amounts of domestic staff (up to but not always including a wife).”

That’s the ideology that encourages us to isolate, to focus solipsistically on ourselves and ascribe our value to our individual achievements, not our contribution to a collective – not just in an economic sense, but as a unique person, the ways that we contribute to our friend groups and enrich each others lives.

There are bright spots. Stories of people giving to others, strangers, when they don’t have to, of taking care of each other. Those are the stories that I cling to.

Like Mrotzie’s tweet: “Friends canceled their son’s Bar Mitzvah this weekend but decided to keep the contract with their caterer, a tiny Hmong-owned business. They delivered the food to friends in quarantine & sent pans home with others. Grateful for stories like this and for community in a bleak time.” Or the viral video of Italian people on their balconies, singing Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” together. I’m sure there are more examples of people doing the things that they don’t have to do, that they, themselves, likely felt ambivalent about doing because it meant losing money, risking their own security, making their lives that much more precarious.

Isolation is important right now. But how much better would it be if we knew that we had each other’s backs? How much safer would you feel if you weren’t accused of entitlement for wanting to avoid contracting or spreading a deadly virus? That you are lazy for not writing Fucking King Lear? And that if you happen to get sick and have to be hospitalized, you won’t be left with a hospital bill that could potentially ruin your life?

We’ve got two candidates for President, one of whom said “the younger generation now tells me how tough things are—give me a break… I have no empathy for it, give me a break,” and one who wants to eliminate all student debt, make college free and give free health insurance to everyone in the country – things that Coronavirus is revealing to be very possible, and not, as Joe Biden said, “pie in the sky.” Coronavirus should make this an easy decision. But we will still probably flub that, and things probably won’t go the way that they should. It’s not entirely that we’re stupid. The ideological apparatus of capitalism that has sought to isolate us for so long – it’s tough to beat. As a result, this plague will probably be much worse than it could have been. Still, every second of every hour of every day, the power to change the future is in our hands. It never leaves, that potentiality; a better future is always just a moment away, if only we would reach out and grab it.

Well, I had better get to work on King Lear 2: the Shrekkening. Wash your hands and don’t touch your face. We are the many, they are the few. A better world is always possible.

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