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As COVID Spikes, It’s Normal to Feel Helpless. Let’s Turn Fear to Activism.

This will be a long, hard winter. Let’s also make it a busy one.

Registered nurses at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, hold a nighttime vigil on November 23, 2020, to alert the public about patient safety concerns as COVID-19 hospitalizations spike across the county.

I sat by my office window this morning and looked without seeing at the robin’s-egg blue house across the street, framed by a distant pine-green hill and the last gray sky of November 2020. Beside me at a tandem desk sat my daughter, headphones on for the Monday morning Zoom meeting with her class. They talked about what their favorite Thanksgiving food was, and she said “cranberry sauce!” with entirely appropriate gusto; she ate half a bog’s worth on Thursday and sighed heavily when we ran out.

My daughter couldn’t see how afraid I was, because I didn’t let her. I looked without seeing at that blue house, and across the screen of my eyes ran scenario after scenario that could lead to someone in my family on a ventilator in the COVID wing of an overflowing hospital. If we could even get a bed. How might it happen? In a country where the virus has spread from coast to coast like butter on warm bread, let me count the ways.

I also fear I may be beginning to lose my faith in people’s ability to stem this spread, which was already a desperate faith in the face of a health system that values profits over people, an economy that routinely forces the most vulnerable into harm’s way in the name of rapacious almighty capitalism, and let’s not forget the reams of bad advice from the highest echelons of state and federal government.

The numbers: 13.3 million infections to date, 200,000 new daily infections, almost 270,000 deaths, and roughly 2,000 new deaths per day. Millions of Thanksgiving travelers have motivated medical experts to tell any who will listen: If you traveled and gathered with others for the holiday, assume you are infected and get tested.

“There’s no way that the hospitals can be fully prepared for what we’re currently facing,” emergency medicine physician Dr. Megan Ranney told CNN. “This is like a natural disaster occurring in all 50 states at the same time. There are not adequate beds. There are not adequate staff. And because of the lack of national preparation, there are still not adequate supplies.”

According to NBC News, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend alone — Thursday through Sunday — saw more than 600,000 new infections and nearly 5,000 COVID deaths. All of that in four days, and before the impact of mass travel rolls across the land like a line of thunderstorms.

Yet here is Republican Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who has regularly scorned and rejected levying a mask mandate in her state, tweeting a plea for residents to go shopping. On that same day, South Dakota endured its largest daily death toll since the pandemic began nearly a year ago.

And meanwhile, this news report comes in from New York City: “Sheriff’s deputies arrived at a building in Midtown Manhattan just before 3 a.m. on Saturday and found almost 400 people drinking and partying inside,” reported The New York Times on Sunday morning. “Few were wearing face masks. Deputies shut the party down and arrested four people. The episode reflected the way that, despite the onset of a second wave of the coronavirus, people are continuing to gather at large events in New York City in violation of public health safeguards.”

Hence my fraying faith. I can halfway understand people in rural portions of the country, which until recently were largely unaffected by the pandemic, being slow to embrace the suck. Compound that with President Donald Trump’s influence in those regions, and the surprise factor plummets even further. But New York City? Epicenter for springtime COVID horrors so bleak as to be nearly unspeakable? Do these people think COVID won’t catch them if the cops don’t? Magical thinking is clearly not a regional affliction.

I feel utterly helpless before this bilge tide of astonishing official malfeasance and self-destructive ground-level stubbornness, and this sense of helplessness is the fuel that feeds my fear. I wake each day awaiting some guiding voice with enough authority to slap this runaway train back on the tracks. Instead, I get Trump’s new ultra-conservative Supreme Court. On Friday, a majority of that court ruled that religious services can be performed at the expense of life and without consideration of public health, a muscle-flex aimed at the religious right who labored long to see a court like this come together.

Despair is not an option, not with that little student diligently working one desk over from me, and I know there are many who feel the same for their own myriad reasons. We can’t fix COVID, we can’t drag masses of people back from the abyss of their own poor decisions, so we must do what we can within reach of our arm and with all necessary precautions intact.

“It’s in the face of this systemic failure that communities all across the country are rising up and stepping in to fill in some of the gaps,” wrote Robert R. Raymond for Truthout all the way back in April. “Many of these responses take the form of mutual aid — community-led, horizontal efforts that have arisen spontaneously with the aim of aiding those impacted by the pandemic.”

Like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we can devote time and creativity to ameliorating the exploding crisis of hunger. “Food insecurity” is the numb euphemism of the day that neatly obscures the growling in a child’s stomach or the image of cars parked for miles and waiting for hours at food banks all across the country. Assisting established food banks and supporting or creating neighborhood-based grassroots efforts to deliver food is just the start of what the situation calls for.

We can lend the reach of our arm to yet another deeply damaging crisis — housing — as the expiring eviction moratorium threatens as many as 40 million people with the loss of their homes in winter and amid the raging pandemic. For this, we must be a strident emergency siren in the ear of an utterly failed Republican Senate until they deliver the stimulus — including eviction protections — this country desperately needs. This may feel futile, given the grim reality that is Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, but a loud enough siren amid this deepening calamity may just turn all sorts of heads. Meanwhile, we can also lend our labor and resources to the grassroots housing justice activism occurring across the country.

Finally, we can devote ourselves to keeping soon-to-be President Joe Biden from wobbling off into the mire of center-right “moderate” capitulation to the Republican right. Biden’s dowser-like instinct is to take 10 steps toward the GOP in the hope that they might take one step toward him. They won’t, not ever, not under McConnell and with the long shadow of Trump still hanging low over the Capitol dome.

The fable of the scorpion and the frog is instructive here, and progressives are tasked to remind our presidential frog not to forget, or deliberately ignore, the nature of the creature he’s inviting onto his back. This, again, promises to be a frustrating slog, but it is one that must begin on day one, lest this incoming Democratic administration get itself lost in the same fog as the previous one.

“In this context of social isolation and forced dependency on hostile systems,” writes author and activist Dean Spade, “mutual aid — where we choose to help each other out, share things, and put time and resources into caring for the most vulnerable — is a radical act.”

We are afraid, and we are isolated, but we are not alone, and we are hardly powerless. This will be a long, hard winter. Let’s also make it a busy one. Stay safe, and stout hearts.

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