April 17, 2020

WILK | The Headline That Hurt the Most

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On Wednesday I woke up late, and to bad news. But I guess that second part isn’t unique from Tuesday, or Monday, or Sunday or whatever number of days came before that since this started, during which each day’s “good morning” is in the form of a new distressing headline that becomes weirdly indistinguishable from the last.

You know this if you have the privilege of spending this mandated isolation period in constant search of entertainment, rather than in the much more dire, enduring circumstances which are a reality for millions of people across America. You’ll likely also understand the re-invigorated, childlike inclination to make games of nothing. So, let’s play. What headline hurt the most last Wednesday?

It wasn’t the headline about the racial disparity that has made itself more apparent as the virus rages on. It wasn’t a link to an article detailing the deeply troubling, imbalanced effects of this pandemic on different communities, which shouldn’t come as a shock when you account for the fact that, coincidentally, national issues seem to always hit the hardest where people have been historically disadvantaged and since been ignored and unaided, with centuries-old obligations to them left unmet. And those (carefully and mercilessly architected to be) vulnerable populations anticipated their own especially morbid reality amongst all this, with black and latinx people being twice as likely to fear infection as whites. 

My undead eyes glossed over that grim, yet, unsurprising outline of comparative death and infection rates earlier in the week. 40 percent of coronavirus deaths in Michigan were the lives of black Americans who make up only 14 percent of the state population. In Orleans Parish county, just over 60 percent of the population is black, and the infection rate is higher there than the combined rates of Miami, Los Angeles and all of New York City. That black and brown people saw this coming speaks to underlying American conditions that are in no way a symptom of the virus, but an agent that increases susceptibility and worsens its effects. As Ibram X. Kendi put it in this article:

“Time and again, a state or county releases racial data. Time and again, those numbers reveal a sizable racial disparity. Time and again, black Americans are overrepresented among the infected and dead. America’s newest infection seems to be mating with America’s original infection.”

The headline also wasn’t the one about ICE’s sustained vigilance in capturing families from their homes and detaining them in centers that practically welcome the virus in and beg it to take lives. That article only came out this Monday, when I realized how many undocumented immigrants will be forced to suffer, and die in silence, surrounded by families who are helpless because seeking out testing or treatments means risking detainment and ICE’s network of jails. Because something as arbitrary as a green card is worth sacrificing people to a pandemic over.

Nor was it the particularly confusing, and all at once very telling, headline about our stock market doing the best it’s done in almost half a century, despite America’s coronavirus deaths seeing an increase of 161 percent the same week. That article was published on Sunday, and thankfully explained to me, in layman’s terms, the stock market’s total apathy to the 16.8 million newly unemployed Americans and the ever-increasing death toll resulting from the virus. No, it wasn’t this article, though my memory of this article came in handy when I encountered the next one, about what might seem to me and you like an illogicality within the issue of “food shortage” we’re experiencing with the onset of Corona. Apparently, economists say it’s good for the health of The Line that 10,000 households in San Antonio would wait in hours of traffic lines under the sweltering sun for a food bank, whilst farmers are pressured to dump 60,000+ gallons of milk, crush masses of eggs and otherwise destroy perfectly good food.

None of those sickening headlines was the one. They all hurt, badly, but they’re not really new. Just, worse: The COVID versions of their past and long-existing iterations. And it’s important we notice this, that the problems that are rising to the catastrophic surface during this pandemic are in no way as novel as the virus. Capitalism, in its snowballing adulteration,  created them, willfully worsened them and irresponsibly ignored them afterward. Burnell Colton, a grocery store owner in New Orleans now struggling to protect his community from complete food insecurity without going out of business himself, describes how these headlines were written in invisible ink before the virus hit. “Life in this neighborhood is an underlying condition: hard jobs, long hours, bad pay, no health insurance, no money, bad diet. That’s every day … We were made more vulnerable to this virus down here because of what we’ve had to deal with. Wearing a mask won’t protect us from our history.”

In response to these issues, our government has impressed on us the idea of uplift politics. It insists not to ask for handouts; instead, will yourself to work harder, be better, overcome the obstacle like an American. But what now? Will they realize the absurdity of preaching individual responsibility and self-sufficiency in a nation shut-down, littered with disease and lacking in testing, treatment and leadership? Or is it on us to transcend our “neediness” and “beat” this virus with uplift-distancing? Uplift-healthcare? Uplift-survival tactics? Uplift-immunity?

We are a nation literally made sick and tired by capitalism, and not in an equal distribution. When the call is finally made for non-essential laborers to return to the workplace, a call that is almost guaranteed to be made prematurely and out of a desire for productivity and not out of consideration for the lives and safety of citizens, when the streets are once again busy, when we return to our typical American lives, recall that in the apocalypse the stock market was of more value than every one of us. Hundreds of thousands of people died and will continue to die from this country’s backward priorities, from its carelessness, from its greed.

That was the headline that hurt most on Wednesday. The confrontation with the fact that this way of not dealing with things, of not helping, would continue as it always has. The news that Coronavirus and its domino-effect of disaster probably wouldn’t change anything. That the status quo responsible for so much senseless suffering would remain intact. The headline was the one that told me the ideas and policies that Bernie Sanders had been a face for would be suspending their campaign for the presidency. This isn’t an ad for Bernie, or an attempt to say that his campaign suspension was a comparable disaster to the rest, or even even that his presidency could have ended it all. But his campaign’s suspension is an implication of something much larger, of America’s failure to recognize the solutions right in front of it, as it vows loyalty yet again to capitalist tradition.

I didn’t want to believe in the American system. But something about a candidate who had long committed himself to the problems of all those other headlines made me want to have hope. And then, when the need for him, for his policies, for change, was most strikingly apparent, the choice was gone.

I’m fed up. I’ve been fed up since before I could even vote and now that my age has earned me that right it feels more and more useless by the day. Because if there’s one thing that it seems clear will remain certain no matter how hard we hope — America abuses its people, it does so disproportionately and mercilessly and reliably. And it can’t let up this habit even when things are at their worst.

When the worst of this is over, remember how our country stayed committed to that vile tradition. Remember how the entire month of February was spent stagnantly, moving shares and protecting stolen wealth. Remember how quick the government was to pour trillions into the stock market, and how tardily they decided to try and fail to gather supplies and prepare facilities. Remember how hotels lit up empty rooms in the shapes of hearts as homeless people slept unprotected in the sick streets beneath them. Remember how your school refused to suspend the semester, adopt universal pass policies or mandatory S/U grading systems despite students being forced to rapidly relocate, often into homes devoid of resources and surrounded by chaos. Remember how state officials preached the importance of staying inside and avoiding social contact at all costs while the federal government concurrently refused to provide voting accommodations for the primary election. Remember how they spent years suppressing a presidential candidate in favor of universal healthcare and left thousands of people worried about medical bills to their last breaths.

We need change, desperately, even if the government will not provide us with that option at the (hopefully virtual) voting booth; that needs to be our mission if we want to address the amalgamation of the disasters that brought us here. Because once it’s safe to go outside again, when we can finally come together without masks and without fear, when life goes back to what we call “normal,” I say we plan to seize more than just the day.

Alecia Wilk is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.