One generation ago, my friends and I were struggling to end the US War Against Vietnam. Howard Zinn of blessed memory, the author of the People’s History of the United States, told me that for most of our lives, we walk in the dark. The jagged edges of our society may stab and bloody us, but we cannot see them. Once a generation, a lightning flash may light up the truth. Our job when the lightning flashes, he said, was to see – and to remember.
The war then became, and this Coronavirus moment now has become, a lightning-flash to light up our reality and its failings. Let us emblazon onto our brains what we saw in that moment, so that we can act to heal ourselves, not fall back into a fake nostalgia.
There are two ways to see within and beyond this lightning flash. One is to look at it as if we have never seen a plague and were looking for the first time. The other is to look at it as “the eleventh Plague” -- drawing on our knowledge of the ancient story of the Ten Plagues brought on by a cruel and arrogant Pharaoh.
What we can learn from the Coronavirus Crisis itself:
1. Perhaps the simplest, most obvious lesson of all: We must have universal health care and we must turn far more attention to public health, not merely to health insurance poised for individuals. Long before a crisis, long-view imagination and planning is necessary. Starving an agency so that it can barely meet immediate needs – as much of our public-health system was starved -- leaves it helpless to address an unplanned, unexpected emergency.
2. We really are one planet. Even prohibitions on “foreign” travel have mostly been too late to prevent transnational contagion. This is true even when human travel is the carrier. Can we translate that knowledge to even stronger cases, like the unity of our dangerously and recklessly overheated atmosphere and oceans affecting the whole pl
3.Governments, businesses, and families can move swiftly for profound change when sufficiently motivated. Many of them at first respond antidemocratically, with silence and lies. They may take serious action only when public outcry cannot be silenced and their own power becomes precarious.
4. Lesson from #3: When we face a crisis, make the grip on power of conventional “leaders” precarious.
5. Our response to the Coronavirus Crisis bears two lessons for our response to the Climate Crisis. We can respond to the Climate Crisis. Our response may come too late for many whose lives were lost by delay rooted in greed. And yet our response can save and transform human society and the web of life on Planet Earth. To do so, we must engage more people in active political struggle. For examples: More effort to fill our activism itself with love, celebration, and community. More engagement by the religious communities, especially each year as we approach Passover and Holy Week. New forms of interconnection, like solar co-ops and change-insistent groups that celebrate together (on-line and in person). Increasing our direct challenge to governments, including our own, that they will lose power if they don’t respond to the Climate Plagues as vigorously as some of them have – late --to the Coronavirus Plague
6. Protection for the most vulnerable has become a political issue but not yet a political given. How do the homeless “self- isolate” without homes? How do hourly-paid workers choose to stay home and keep themselves and others safe and healthy, if they have no paid sick leave and no health insurance? How do children whose only daily bread is a school lunch eat when schools are closed? How do asylum-seekers stay healthy when they are packed into filthy detention centers or forced into jammed vehicles and sent back to tent cities? And prisoners and guards in way-overcrowded prisons?
7. The lightning-flash revealed to all of us what some of us knew already: that these specially vulnerable communities over and over had one thing in common: that they were way over-proportionally defined by "race": that Black, brown, some Asian, and Indigenous peoples were killed and damaged by social responses to the Pandemic far more than their “white” analogs. That we do not live in a “post-racial” -- let alone a “post-racist” -- society. That if we want to reshape America beyond its inheritance of genocide and slavery, it will take vigorous action to bring about “reparations” -- economic and political and spiritual. transformations.
8. We must also make sure that special government and other aid goes also to those displaced and disemployed people who are worst affected by the Corona Crisis and by the Carbon Corporate poisoning of air and food and water, and most hurt by sudden great shifts in the economy.
9. “Social distancing” in this crisis must go on long enough to make sure that medical tests and equipment, medical spaces, and trained medical workers are in place, and that the process of contagion has been halted. Any future crisis must be met with thorough healing.
10. Then, as soon as possible, we must make sure that we do not make “social distance” or some other cramping of our lives into a habit. The isolation of our bodies from each other is dangerous to our souls and to the soul of democracy. The open society has to take place in open workplaces, open homes of prayer and Spirit, open visits to open government offices, open vigils and protest rallies, open hugs and handshakes.
11. When deep change does happen, along with death and danger it may swiftly bring forth its own unexpected rewards. The sky above Wuhan, dirty and smoggy for decades, has become blue again during the Great Pause. The waters of Venice, long impenetrably muddy, have become once again transparent during the Great Pause. Though the first motive for the Pause was fear, many people are reporting that the social responses are filled with love and a desire to strengthen community even as “social distancing” strains it.These blessings may more likely come to the more privileged; those already marginal and deprived will probablky become still more so.Having seen the possible joy and possible degradation, many from both experiences can choose to make the blessings universal. We can choosee to make this Great Pause a restful, just, and joyful Shabbat for all – even perhaps a Several Sabbatical Months.
12. And somewhere, somewhen, as with the weekly and the seventh-year Shabbat, but not till we have freed society from the Plague, we must take up the joy and justice-seeking of honorable work for good lives and livelihoods, in physical communities of work as well as celebration. We must integrate into the fullness of our ongoing lives what we have learned from this moment.
13. What did we learn? That all Earth and all Humanity are intertwined, a Grand Ecosystem connected by the Breath of Life and tinged with Divinity. And that efforts by any part to subjugate the rest will destroy us all. That we must transform our biology, our politics, our culture, from the assumption of Hierarchy and Subjugation to the patterns of Ecology: affirming diversity that makes up the larger One.