At the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic, writer Arundhati Roy wrote a brilliant piece in the Financial Times titled “The pandemic is a portal.”
With her usual grace, biting wit and masterful command of language, Roy covers a range of topics: the meaningful social interactions we took for granted pre-pandemic, the ways COVID-19 both caused and exposed economic inequalities, the absurdities of Narendi Modi and other world leaders scrambling to deny the impact of the virus, and the solidarity that could come from the shared disruption to our lives.
At the end of the piece, Roy gives her central entreaty. She wrote:
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
It’s been a little over a year since Roy’s piece was published and after re-reading it, I wonder how well we did at acting on her wisdom. Did we take the opportunity and use the pandemic as a portal. And if so, where did we travel to?
As far as I can tell, the world has been a bit conservative in response to Covid-19, trying to figure out the best way to get back to the status quo. At the time Roy wrote the piece, the number of cases was over a million and around 50,000 people confirmed dead from the virus. Since then, there’s been over a million cases in my home state of Illinois alone.
In Roy’s home country of India, more than 18 million cases have been reported. India hit the 400,000 mark in daily new cases, all while the government faces allegations of undercounting. While the people of New Zealand are enjoying stadium concerts, Brazil is about to cross the 400,000 death threshold.
Numbers can get so big that they start to lose meaning. But at this point, I would surmise that none of us need exact figures to know the human toll of coronavirus. As Roy wrote “People will fall sick and die at home. We may never know their stories. They may not even become statistics.” But there are plenty of stories to be privy to — friends, loved ones, neighbors, colleagues and more around the world have tragically passed due to health complications augmented by the virus. Social isolation had made the grieving process more challenging. Our reliance on digital technologies like Zoom has felt like food with little nutritional value, especially for young kids who need in-person social interaction.
Rich countries jumped to the front of the line to get more vaccines quicker than developing countries. Companies like Pfizer have been accused of “bullying” Latin American governments to put up sovereign assets in negotiations to get vaccines. The flight attendant tells you to put on your own oxygen mask first, but we are seeing how “save yourself first” logic can play out in neoliberal geopolitics, particular as “vaccine nationalism” has backfired.
On the issue of economics, Roy wrote that the pandemic brought “the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.”
In hindsight, the temporary nature of this halt was predictable. Over the course of the pandemic, the fortune of billionaires grew by more than half — a $4 trillion boost. While many working class Americans found relief in stimulus checks as they struggled to keep food on the table and a roof over their head, an assortment of cryptocurrencies and NFTs became prominent in economic news. We aren’t any closer to paying essential workers essential wages, but 500 people became billionaires.
But the more quotidian part of the pandemic that makes me suspect that we did not rise to Roy’s challenge is mask-wearing.
When coronavirus first spread, public health officials were giving mixed messages about whether we should wear masks. But once it became clear that the virus was spread through aerosols, wearing a mask became a directive to protect yourself and others. Yet I was genuinely disappointed at how wearing a mask became petty and absurd valence politics.
Mask-wearing seemed to be a simple but salient opportunity for bi-partisan national unity; a combination of patriotism and “love your neighbor as yourself” ethos. Across the world, folks blamed the pandemic on a Chinese conspiracy and immigrants. Now we have anti-lockdown protesters wearing yellow stars of David on their clothing to voice their dissent against wearing masks or getting vaccines. It’s hard to fathom the unconscionable affront this is to our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Instead of a transformative future, we generally did things the way we usually do them. A year later, the present is marginally different for that masses, worse for the marginalized and more monopoly for the wealthiest. As we move towards mass inoculation and try to outpace variants of the virus, I wish the world had taken Roy’s advice and jumped through the portal the pandemic presented. And yet in some ways we did, maybe just not in the way she wanted.