The value of collective experience

New Orleans A couple of random comments have gotten me thinking a bit about the post-coronavirus world.

One thing that stuck with me was a young man’s take on hoarding in New York City that was a throwaway line in a New Yorker piece. In his opinion it was evidence of the destruction of a sense in society of the common good and decisive proof that deep-down people believe now “it’s everyone for themselves” with no sense that the community or government will in fact protect and sustain people. Another was a Facebook posting from a dear old friend saying that he usually enjoyed being part of history, but didn’t like being part of the history being made now.

Certainly, being part of a global health catastrophe involves sharing a terrible reality and living through our worst nightmares. There’s nothing good about it. At the same time, these comments made me think about whether, once this is all over, if there might be some value we can harvest from this historic, but very collective experience. Working in countries around the world as varied as France and England and Honduras, Kenya, and India and having conversations and exchanges with all of them during this global crisis has felt weirdly unifying. I can’t immediately think of any other experience we have shared so universally. The fear and reaction to the virus is truly global in a way that the globalism of neoliberalism could never embed so deeply. Everyone speaks from their own country’s crisis, dysfunction, and fear of disease and dying, but for once they speak, even if in different terms and situations, of a truly collective experience.

A contributor to ACORN from Switzerland reacting to a report from ACORN over BBC about the situation in Mumbai, replied to my thanks for her donation this morning, saying among other things that she was “heartbroken” and the situation in India seemed like “another world.” Of course, she’s right, but is it possible that our collective experience will bring our worlds closer together in an understanding that in fact a crisis in India or China or Africa might be a crisis for everyone, not just someone else’s problem. As a public health catastrophe, coronavirus is a universal killer even if its impact is hitting African-Americans and lower income families worse, even in the United States. This isn’t like AIDS where we could pretend just needle users or gay men were hit hardest, or Ebola or SARS, that happened to those “other” people in Africa and China. This one hits home for everyone.

No one hears a word from anti-vaxers now. Health is once again a public good, not simply a private preserve or individual choice, despite the inequity of access and delivery. Divisions of work, the invisible infrastructure of the service economy, and the risks of lack of preparedness and less than full health coverage for our people, are impossible to ignore. The list of gaps here and around the world are growing and sharing this historic experience might make inaction unforgivable.

Another world might now be possible, even if improbable, and perhaps the young man’s observation that the pandemic has laid bare the terrible truth of our aloneness, might be translated into a deeper commitment to the common good. We are already seeing community arise locally in many areas and rigid political ideologies forced to bend to popular service and support, even if uneven.

A collective global experience, though both different in its reach and impact, simply has to teach all of us something that creates permanent change.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International

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