Love in the time of COVID-19

The time for US to change has been long overdue, but now it just might be unavoidable. Change must come, or change will come, one way or another.

A lot will be said and written about these times, especially about how each country came face to face with its own choices of self-government.

History will record, through its dispassionate looking-glass, who governed us and how. What sort of social contract were we promised? What type of social contract did we formally adhere to, and by which social contract were we bound in reality?

History will record what type of people our leaders, our role-models, our thinkers, and our influencers were. As a reflection and a measure of that, it will record to whom and to what we ascribed value, voice, opportunity and importance, and what our most fundamental principles and guiding values were.

More importantly, and perhaps less dispassionately as stakeholders, future generations will scrutinize how we dealt with our greatest societal struggles and how we balanced our different moral imperatives during COVID-19, such as freedom - be it political, religious, social, and economic - and the demands of human dignity and of compassion.

I firmly believe however that the historical review of COVID-19 won’t start in January 2020, or even in December 2019. It will necessarily have to go back much further than that, to be able to understand and to explain the true impact that this pandemic had, especially in countries like the U.S.

It is easy to think of COVID-19 simply as, what it seems to be on course of becoming, one of the worst pandemics we have suffered in recent centuries. But crisis events like these usually do one of three things: they create, exacerbate or, more commonly, both create and exacerbate challenges and hardships.

The medical challenges COVID-19 has created are staggering and overwhelming. This pandemic is literally unlike anything that we have had to face in our lifetimes, and, seen from that point of view, this yet untreatable and deadly virus falls into the category of a new challenge assailing humanity.

Seeing it solely from this perspective, some have labelled COVID-19 as the greatest equalizer of all time, for no one is immune to it. Everyone, regardless of race, creed, political affiliation, social status, and how much money they have, can succumb to it (the equalizer paradigm).

But the greater impact of COVID-19 is that it is laying bare the structures of privilege and inequality in our society, leading a growing number of us to realize that COVID-19 is not the greatest equalizer of all times, quite the contrary, it is the greatest magnifier of all times (the magnifier paradigm).

COVID-19 is the greatest magnifying mirror into our inequities, our inadequacies, our moral and social infrastructures, our true qualities, our lies, our values, our compassion, our hate, and our humanity. It is also the greatest magnifier of the success and the failures of our political structures, the true state of our social infrastructures and of our economy, the greatest magnifier of our social inequalities, of racial disparities, of how we value life, and how we determine value in general.

From within this second paradigm, COVID-19 does not threaten all of us in the same way. Some of us are already aware of the fact that “staying at home” is a privilege, one which many of our fellow citizens simply cannot afford, as they are faced between having to go to work at the grocery stores that feed us, at the warehouses that supply us, or risk not being able to afford food or to pay their bills. I appreciate the increasing awareness of this fact, but it barely scratches the surface.

Do you have a home?  Do you have access to running water and electricity? Do you have access to drinking water in your own home, or is your tap water contaminated? Do you live in an overcrowded apartment complex that makes it challenging at best to keep recommended social distances when entering or leaving your building? Are you safe inside your home, or are you subject to domestic violence?

If you are fortunate enough to be able to work from home, do you have a laptop, high-speed internet, and your own private work or study space? Or are you working from your bedroom or a shared living room, with no resources other than your cell phone?

Can you afford to follow all CDC recommendations regarding COVID-19, for instance can you afford to buy the recommended cleaning products that are effective against the virus? 

Do you have health insurance and access to good health care? More importantly, have you had access to good healthcare your entire life? As our ability to survive COVID-19 hinges so much on the state of our overall health and our immune-system, these questions are paramount. Have you been able to afford to eat well, to buy healthy food, to enjoy a life of little stress and anxiety, to have access to fitness centers? During your life, did you have time for self-care? Many of us take for granted the privilege that is self-care, starting with the basic awareness of its importance.

COVID-19 is the greatest magnifier because it not only highlights all of these inequalities, but it does so with severe consequences. If you have enjoyed a life that has afforded you good overall health, then you are theoretically in a better position to overcome the virus, even if infected. But good overall health is increasingly a privilege.

It is very easy for us to forget how hard life is during what we have come to accept as “normal times''. It has become far too easy for us to ignore, to become numb to, the fact that in “normal times” we live in a society with increasing job insecurity, income insecurity, housing insecurity, immigration insecurity, health insecurity.

I have recently been reminded of Philip K. Dick’s quote, “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

COVID-19 is like a relentless tidal wave, beating again and again against the shores of our society, eroding away that which we have come to accept as unchangeable, laying bare many injustices, disparities, inequalities that can no longer be denied, and with a force that no amount of daily briefings, of alternate facts, of conspiracy theories, and of news spinning can stop.

So what does law have to do with all of this?

From a legal and political point of view, each country has been wrestling with two important questions, and how to solve them within their own normative frameworks: first, how do you lockdown your cities to combat a deadly pandemic, and then, how do you reopen your society to avoid economic hardship potentially more devastating than the pandemic itself?

Regarding the first question, how to lockdown society, some countries have been struggling with legitimizing what are perceived to be draconian measures in the interest of public safety and public health. They have been struggling with choosing more or less authoritarianism versus more or less democracy and freedom, by imposing and enforcing more or less stringent lockdowns and quarantine measures, such as mandatory curfews and restrictions on free movement.

Anecdotally, it should be known that these “draconian” measures and emergency powers are an important, normal and necessary fixture of any mature democracy. They were designed precisely to face extraordinary challenges such as these, and to do so within a normative framework that is aligned with our most fundamental values and principles, or in a simpler way, to do so in a balanced way that we can all live with when all is said and done. So, is it really our own constitutional framework that we fear and do not trust, or our political leaders?

Two of the greatest constitutional scholars I know and respect have addressed the legal framework, possibility and scope of such measures, in the U.S., and in Portugal, and I couldn’t improve on their analysis.

Recently however our collective focus has  shifted significantly towards the second question: when and how to “reopen” our  cities and our businesses, framing that choice as a trade-off  between risking more or less lives over depressing our economic future and the livelihood of coming generations.

Within both sets of questions we can find a recurrent theme and discussion, the dialectics between freedom on one hand, and human dignity and compassion on the other. Freedom from restrictions on our personal liberties, freedom to preserve our way of life and secure our economic future, versus curtailing those freedoms in the interest of maximizing human life.

Legal scholars and philosophers might interject here, and argue that freedom is an essential and necessary mandate of human dignity, and I have no qualms with that assessment. Freedom when construed within the framework of self-determination is an essential and necessary mandate of the normative construct of human dignity. However, the scope of all our enumerated constitutional freedoms are, more or less universally, broader than that mandate, and at times in conflict with it.

Jurisprudential issues aside, the trade-offs that we are balancing both legally and politically have a very different outlook depending on which paradigm you accept - the “equalizer paradigm” or the “magnifier paradigm”. If we accept the “equalizer paradigm”, that all things are equal, then the balancing act is straightforward and can and should be addressed by solutions within existing social, political, economic frameworks.

If we accept the “magnifier paradigm”, then the dichotomy between freedom and human dignity is a false one, precisely because of all the disparities, inequalities and insecurities afflicting a great number of our citizens. From within that paradigm, the balancing act is between human dignity and compassion against unethical politics, unethical capitalism, the subversion of religion into the service of hate, and the masking of structures of privilege behind the fake promise of the American dream, all under the guise of freedom.

COVID-19 has in fact created a new challenge for humanity, an untreatable virus, but hopefully in a year or so we might have a vaccine to combat it, and the equalizer paradigm will subside. The hardships and challenges that it has exacerbated will take much longer to heal. My hope is that we become increasingly aware of what these challenges truly are, and start addressing them once and for all. And I do have hope.

In recent months we have seen so many heartwarming and inspiring examples of love and of selflessness from so many people. My own brother, for example, checks in daily on his two elderly neighbors, each of them living alone, afraid to go outside, and leaves groceries and prepared food on their doorstep. They talk by shouting at each other through closed doors and are reminded that they are not alone.

I have seen how this pandemic has softened so many hearts, created so much compassion and empathy, sometimes from even the most unexpected persons, and I have hope. I have seen corporations and businesses acting selflessly, museums streaming their galleries for free, community movie theaters making their movies available online, performers sharing their music freely through zoom, fitness instructors and yoga teachers live-streaming classes for free. And not to mention our health care providers, from nurses, doctors, technicians, and the support staff that take care of them, of our patients and of our health facilities, all of them giving their last measure of devotion, and of service to us all.

Love in the time of COVID-19 is recognizing that the task of overcoming this moment rests on all of us together, and no one should be left to face it alone. In one of the most challenging times humanity has ever faced, no one should be abandoned to their own luck, or abandoned within the structures of inequality in our society. 

I hope we all have the compassion, the wisdom, the strength and the humanity to heed this sentiment, for this pandemic has shown us that it will take all of us acting together to overcome it.

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