Thinking back on the months since March 15, 2020 – the Sunday of the week that ushered in Ohio’s COVID-19 pandemic restrictions – we can say we are all in this together; but, surely, we are not all together in this. For too many, this has been an exceedingly lonely time filled with grief, self-doubts and self-criticisms, and frightening despair. Suicides and suicidal thoughts are at a record high nationally.
The shattering of 500,000 deaths related to coronavirus just days ago has been met by a strange mixture of shock, shame, scare and social outrage. There is no doubt that we all are in this together now, but are we all together in this?
As a person who engages with a congregation and ecumenical/interreligious colleagues seeking meaning during this shared global pandemic, I find several metaphors have been used often over the past year: war; pop culture; economy; family; community; and the body, to name only a few.
One vivid metaphor widely used says that “we are in the same storm, but in different boats,” suggesting pernicious inequities of economic and social resources, and urging needed reckonings with America’s “original sins” of slavery, Jim and Jane Crow segregation, and institutional racism.
The “we” that is assumed in these examinations of “being together” has been unveiled as a happy fiction of indifference for some, and a cruel deception for many others.
The COVID-19 pandemic is with us all. There is no escape from its deadly presences; yet signs of potential personal hope are on the rise with news last week of a promising new vaccine coming to the public this month*. As Dr. Anthony Fauci said just before the Thanksgiving holiday, “the cavalry is coming” (note both war and pop-culture metaphors) and encouraging all Americans to follow “simple public health measures that we all talked about.”
But did we all talk about such measures?
Here is our essential revelation from this pandemic: It is an epochal shift, not a commonsense adaptation. Like the national responses to the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack and the terrorist-hijacked flight attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, who among us can miss seeing the significant changes coming from this year’s pandemic restrictions?
However, unlike these past moments of memory, who among us does not feel the shared daily weight of viral infections, potential communal spread, untamed inequities of basic health care, hospital resources and underfunded public health providers that bring us all together morally if not experientially?
We might be in different boats, as is said, regarding the meanings of this first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic epoch, but we still must find a way to talk about our differences and our commonalities. And this brings us to another important – maybe our most important – metaphor: language.
In her 1993 lecture receiving that year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, American novelist and the pride of Loraine, Toni Morrison, said:
“Word work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Moving toward a safer, more equitable and more morally truthful second year together in this pandemic epoch, what will be the measure of our lives? And will it be counted as all together this time?
*This piece was originally written and published as an op/ed in the Columbus Dispatch on March 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission of the author.
The Rev. Richard A. Burnett has just retired after 24 years as rector of Trinity Church on Capitol Square, Columbus.