Part of the Series
Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19
Kelly Hayes talks about organizing for change while socially distanced and what we ought to be doing with ourselves.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Copy may not be in its final form.
Like many of you, I’m exhausted, and this won’t be a regular show. We didn’t have any interviews recorded that felt right for this moment. All of our lives are being turned upside down and, like everyone else, we still need to reconfigure some things. When we launched this podcast, what I wanted most was to bring you all lessons and insights from people on the frontlines of struggle. One of the reasons I love working at Truthout, and I really mean that, is that we publish the kind of news and analysis that fuels movements. Strengthening that bridge between information and action is one of my primary concerns. After all, knowing we’re in trouble doesn’t help much if we’re not doing anything about it. Well, right now, the vast majority of us know we’re in trouble. Some people are already grieving their losses and we know much more of that is on the way. We know that Trump and other white supremacists are promoting violence against Asian people with their racist rhetoric. We know that crisis magnifies inequality and that so-called solutions often do as well. At the same time, people around the country are doing mutual aid work to make this crisis more survivable for others. People are delivering groceries, doing remote volunteer work like tutoring, and even making cloth masks for medical personnel.
My sister is a nurse and I am deeply afraid for her right now. It’s okay to be afraid. What’s not okay is acting like this isn’t happening. Personal Protective Equipment, or PPEs, have been on back-order at facilities around the country for weeks. Doctors and nurses won’t simply run out of safety supplies as things escalate — many will be out of isolation gear before the mass influx of COVID-19 patients even begins at their facility.
I’ve heard some people criticize the use of war metaphors when it comes to this virus, but I’ll tell you, I don’t think there’s a more apt metaphor. Doctors and nurses and other clinical staff are going to fight this thing, and a lot of them will get sick, either from the coronavirus or from some other health issue brought on by exhaustion. And some will die. Our next line of defense is retired health care workers who have agreed to mobilize if they are needed. So when people like my sister become sick and can’t work, they will be replaced by people who are even more vulnerable and likely to become sick and die. Next, we’ll see health care workers who haven’t completed their coursework, exams or internships being rushed into service. We’ve seen that in other countries, and it is probably inevitable here. Because a flawed line of defense is better than no line of defense at all. These people will endure so much for us, so that we might live and so that others might heal.
And that is why, if you know people who are still leaving their homes for social and recreational purposes, part of your activism this week has to be saying whatever it takes to keep them home. I don’t like shaming people because it doesn’t yield constructive political action. But shame can have stopping power, so if that’s what it takes, shame people. Remind them of the elders and people with underlying conditions in their lives and ask them if those people are expendable. Tell them about my sister and the doctors and nurses who are already running out of masks.
I will say right now to anyone who is listening who might still be going out for kicks: There have been moments throughout history, after an unfathomable loss, when people have had to live with knowing that they allowed it to happen — or even helped make it happen. People tell me that selfish people won’t care. Some won’t. But it would be ahistorical to assume that everyone will escape the guilt of knowing you didn’t listen. Some of us have already been ordered by our state governments to shelter in place. But there are a lot of people out there for whom reality hasn’t sunken in yet. And once it gets real for them, and people in their communities or even their families start dying, there will be no take-backs. It’s not too late to save lives, but you have to take this seriously. We have to fight for every life, and that means fighting to keep everyone we can at home.
The people who have to go out in this no matter what do not need anyone creating more links in potential chains of infection. Staying home is an act of solidarity. It may be one of the most important collective asks that has ever been extended to any of us, because millions of lives are at stake, and we, as a society, have not been getting this right.
I know it can be hard to talk about these things. I know some of you are just trying to stay busy, and that some of you are just trying to zone-out — and some of us are doing both. It’s okay that you don’t have this situation figured out yet. I don’t either.
I created this show to try to strengthen organizing and to help folks find a path to that work, and now that work is being radically reimagined. What will we do in place of rallies, sit-ins and marches? How will we cause disruptions while practicing socially distancing? Those questions have answers, and it will take a minute to sort through it all, but I believe the answers will be profound. Protest has always required us to dream up new configurations of disruption, in spite of all impediments, and somehow make it work.
I see a lot of people talking about “when things get back to normal” and others saying that things will never be the normal we once knew, or that we shouldn’t be trying to get back to normal because we need to learn and grow, and for things to be completely different. I think there’s truth in all three of those ideas. For people who’ve accepted the severity of things, wrapping our arms around our friends may seem so far off that it doesn’t feel real anymore. But we will hold our friends again. It’s true that some things will never be as they were. How could they be? Catastrophes leave their mark on societies — which brings us to that last part, about what we should want to see happen. This catastrophe, however long it lasts, will have a permanent impact on who we are and how we live. It’s up to us to decide what that transformation should look like and how we fight for it.
Right now, politicians are arguing about what relief we should be offered. A lot of that is about keeping commerce afloat, but our political leaders aren’t just afraid of economic collapse. They are afraid of us. Because there are a lot of us, and if we suddenly decided that we weren’t willing to politely suffer and die on this government’s terms, they would have a serious problem. The worst thing we could do is sit back and let this moment be something that simply happens to us. Make demands. Leverage whatever you’ve got, whether it’s your labor or some form of disruption that you can carry out at a distance — this is not a time for resignation or to hope for the best. Disaster capitalism and authoritarianism are looming threats that we simply cannot ignore.
We have to find ways to act now.
One of the only acceptable reasons to leave the house right now is to do mutual aid. People who aren’t high-risk are driving food to people who can’t leave their homes even as we speak. Shout out to all of my friends who’ve been doing that work — Emily and Carly, Delia and Tanuja and all the rest of y’all; thank you for showing everyone who we really are in Chicago. People talk trash, but I love my city and the people here love each other. There may be an organized mutual aid situation where you live, or you may need to build relationships to make one happen. Fortunately, there are great resources out there on how to build connections for the sake of mutual aid, even in these difficult times. And I will be linking to some of that stuff as well.
There are also things you can do from home. I recently connected some volunteers with a tutoring program that serves refugee children. Some of the folks who are making cloth masks for medical personnel will be dropping some off with my sister tomorrow. By the way, if you’re thinking “cloth masks aren’t good enough,” you are 100 percent correct. Nurses who are running out of respirator masks in some cities are asking for cloth masks for a better-than-nothing effect. And to me, it’s kind of like someone asking you for a hoodie during the polar vortex. It’s not going to save them, but it might help them hang in a little longer, and it might do a little bit of good. And it also shows that you care and they need to know that right now. But if you make them, be sure they are accompanied by messaging that makes clear that they are a small gesture of solidarity in a larger fight to get workers the supplies they need, pressure officials, every level of government to work with manufacturers to get more PPE into the hands of health care workers. There is no substitute for that advocacy right now.
Some people have asked me what I think people should focus on right now, so I want to make some suggestions on that before we part ways for the week.
Last week we talked about the fight for emergency decarceration. Unless you believe that everyone in pretrial detention deserves to die, or that children in cages deserve to die, or that people in immigration detention and prisons all deserve to die, you should be demanding the release of as many incarcerated people as possible. Those campaigns are ongoing. Demands are being made and call-ins are happening. Find one of those efforts and get behind it. You can also contribute to bail funds that will be working up to the last minute to get people out.
There are ways to help, and there are helpers out there. Some of them are probably friends you haven’t met yet. I’m already connecting with new people for the sake of the projects I’m working on, and while I wish we had met under different circumstances, I’m grateful to have them in my life and will continue to be.
We were already up against a lot as people living in an era of collapse, and we have consistently failed to adapt in the face of that knowledge. COVID-19 is forcing us to adapt quickly in an effort to survive, and we don’t know where that will lead. We could emerge from this with a radically transformed society that values people’s lives and labor, that prioritizes care and everyone to having enough. We could also emerge under a more fascistic state, where the virus has been exploited to make heightened surveillance and social control permanent. The Department of Justice has already made a very disturbing play to get Congress to more or less suspend due process for people the federal government opts to detain. And while Congress is unlikely to cooperate, the administration is setting up another scapegoat for whatever comes next — and when things get worse, they will argue that the administration could have prevented various tragedies if Congress had given the administration extraordinary emergency powers that the DOJ requested. On a long enough timeline, if we wind up in a cycle of shelter in place, pressure to give Trump whatever he wants could mount. Fascists win frightened people over by promising them a return to prosperity or that their lives can remain the same in a time of tumult. Americans are very vulnerable to demagoguery right now. The politics we practice now could determine what our struggles look like on the other side of this thing. We cannot afford to embrace helplessness, even if we feel helpless. We have to find ways to act.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing some thoughts as usual, and also talking with guests who I think can help steer us in the right direction. I’ll be talking with Shane Burley about how we can fight fascism while constrained by this contagion. I’ll also be talking with Mariame Kaba about digital organizing and with Lisa Fithian about how we can take direct action in our changing world. The purpose of this show is still what it was in the beginning: for us to get our collective learn on and be better prepared for the work ahead. I think that objective is more important than ever.
We have something to say about how many of us make it through this and what our future looks like, so even though we’re afraid, we have to ask ourselves, “Who do I want to be in this moment?” No one’s identity is fixed, and there are no good or bad people. Our lives are an ongoing series of choices. Personally, I believe in us, and I believe that a lot of you will choose to do good and to remember that the good you do matters.
Until next time, be kind, be brave, and take care of each other.
Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.
Truthout is widely read among people with lower incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.
We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we have just 7 days left to raise $45,000 in critical funds.
We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?