The Social End Matters

We know that pandemics have a social end and a scientific end. Increasingly, we are told that Covid-19 may not have a scientific end, at least not for a long, long while. Increasingly, I see a social end to the pandemic.

My common pantry items are in stock and available. Headlines have veered toward politics and social justice and other goings on in the world. I spot fewer people walking, running, and biking in the neighborhood. Mask wearing in public spaces has steadily decreased from its own peak. The church I attend will begin offering an in-person worship assembly soon. I’ve received emails begging me to send my children to baseball camp and arts camp and Bible camp. There’s a schedule for the local high school to resume marching band activities. The sun shines. The birds sing. The Starbucks serves. And the world has moved along.

I read recently these words, though I could not find them again to link: society has decided that there are things more important than public health.

In other words, public health matters but other things matter more.

That statement was both convicting and convincing. For a minute. But the statement sees public health as a one-dimensional matter based in Covid-19. Cancer screenings are a matter of public health. Vaccinations are a matter of public health. Both have receded in the past few months.

Preventive medicine of all kinds are matters of public health. Loneliness, isolation, depression, and anxiety are matters of public health.

Racism is a matter of public health.

Whether considering the mortality rates of black women who give birth or black men who drive cars and walk on the street or the disparate impact of Covid-19 on black populations, public health is implicated and racism cannot be avoided.

What if we who have the privilege to do so presumed positive intent? What if we presumed that the mother with her children at the grocery store without masks is doing her level best? What if we presumed that the guy wearing a mask isn’t judging the one without a mask? What if we presumed that protesters made informed decisions about their protest activities?

What if we presumed that saying “I can’t breathe” means a person cannot breathe?

What if we never even got to that point?

I don’t have the answers. I don’t even have all the questions or the right questions or best questions. I only know that thinking on these things helps me put in perspective the social end to the pandemic that is Covid-19.

It is not that people have forgotten. Not that they are unaffected or ignorant. Not that they do not mourn. Not that Covid-19 or its devastation stopped mattering.

It’s not that risk tolerance for Covid-19 has magically ballooned.

It is, I think, that risk tolerance for everything else re-entered the equation. We remembered that things besides Covid-19 also matter. Can we now and indefinitely risk the job? The chance that cancer is back? The black hole of isolation in depression? Can we now and indefinitely risk a generation of lost education? Or mostly eradicated diseases rebounding for a whole generation? Or the death of citizens at the power of police?

Can we now and indefinitely risk more avoidable deaths from the sum of all things not Covid-19?

So Covid-19 becomes one more risk we hope to avoid, we teach against, we practice against. It becomes one more biological threat in a world full of biological and social and other physical threats.

I have trouble discerning threats. Anxiety skews my vision so that mundane events and tasks sometimes feel highly threatening. My internal relative threat index is broken. When everyday things seem to carry enormous risk, there’s no good scale for extraordinary things.

A trick to empathy is to recognize that your threat index won’t match everyone else’s threat indexes and that is the point. Mine looks different because of mental illness. It is very subjective to my mental health. Another’s will look different because of factors such as age, race, compromised immunity, disability, socioeconomic status, or a billion other variables. Our threat indexes will look different given different scenarios based on lived experiences, constructs handed down generationally, and the threats themselves.

But an individual threat index cannot be invalid. It exists. It impacts words and actions. Whatever influences it, the threat index is real. The work is in what we do with the index.

It has taken me a long time to accept that my threat index is valid simply because it is mine. And that my work is to remove the lens of anxiety (and other lenses of bias) so that I see more clearly.

Some people have a variety of lenses that skew their threat indexes, make them see threats that are not objectively discernible. Others have more objective or evidence-based lenses crystallizing their threat indexes. The first group would do well to pull away those skewing lenses and reassess. The second group sees more clearly the path to safety.

What lenses are currently skewing your perception of threat in the world?

What are you going to do about it?

Because there is no contest. Not in threats and not in things that truly matter. Cancer screenings matter. Preventive healthcare matters. Octogenarians matter. Jobs matter. Covid-19-avoidance matters. Black lives matter. They are not in competition. No one should be stacking them side-by-side and comparing how much each matters. They matter intrinsically.

Saying one thing matters does not exclude other things that matter. Saying I like ice cream does not preclude me from also liking cookies. Saying breast cancer funding is important does not imply funding for other cancers is unimportant. Saying black lives matter does not exclude other lives from mattering. In each example, the speaker has a subject. Don’t expect them to include every other similar subject in their talk. Respect the subject, don’t change it. Respect the speaker, don’t silence them.

If I work on me–my hangups, my biases, my prejudices, my lenses–and you work on you and yours…well, we become two fewer threats in the world. And becoming less of a threat matters.

Additional Reading:

Vox, 20200606

Racism Review, Syllabus Project

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