The spread of COVID-19 across the world and throughout the U.S. has proven two things: Human lives are deeply interconnected, and political rifts supersede even global pandemics.
We have witnessed the overwhelming speed with which an infectious disease can impact lives across state borders, oceans and political divides. We have seen, too, that forces like systemic racism function in much the same way.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that one person’s actions can have an enormous impact on the lives of many others, this has not been a time of great unification. In fact, the ideological divide between left and right in this country has only seemed to grow.
In the spring, grocery stores taped out 6-foot-wide spacers, playgrounds donned bright yellow caution tape and public gathering places shut down. The fundamental elements of human interaction had to change in order to limit the virus’s spread. These actions felt alternatively comforting and alarming — measures designed to keep people safer that also kept us from some of our favorite sources of entertainment and joy.
Nonetheless, after months of adjusting to social distancing, the country began to open up again. This was a shift that, for some, has been no less disorienting. How do we make decisions about what is safe when so much is still uncertain? How do we take care of ourselves and our communities?
Perhaps most notably, the choice to wear a face mask in public has come to feel like a political statement, an indication of affiliation akin to a team uniform. When I decided to wear a mask into the Walmart in Sheridan for the first time, I wondered if I would get looks of judgement from strangers. Would they feel threatened by me? In the early days and weeks, I was just worried about looking like a weirdo.
But everything felt strange at first. Adjusting to new habits of cleanliness, it was hard for me to do the calculus: Do I apply hand sanitizer before or after going into the store? Both? More times than that? Am I trying to protect myself from other people or other people from me? Where is the line between appropriate protection and overreaction?
Gradually, wearing face masks has become more common, lessening the feeling of social awkwardness — Walmart and many other businesses have transitioned to requiring masks. But now, even as I feel less like a weirdo in a face mask, I feel more like I am perhaps wearing my political beliefs on my proverbial sleeve — which, I guess, is my face.
At times, it has felt like a risk even to ask people to observe social distancing guidelines in public. My mother stopped to chat with an acquaintance at the dog park who derided the idea of standing 6 feet apart — a physically easy task in a place like a Wyoming dog park, but evidently a socially uncomfortable one.
Then, a few weeks ago, after the start of summer was signaled with the tremendous response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I took my car to get an oil change.
Upon driving my car away from the mechanic’s garage, I discovered something had gone very wrong: my exhaust pipe was emitting plumes of smoke, and my car would not shift gears. The garage responded promptly when I called them for help, and they sent a mechanic over in his truck.
The polite mechanic quickly discovered the issue with my car, apologized, and offered me a ride back to the garage. At first, I declined, based on some kind of instinct. But he was pleasant and insistent, so I agreed to get in his car.
As I opened the passenger door, my eyes fell upon the AR-15 tucked between the middle console and passenger seat. Then, he motioned to a bottle on the floor and instructed me to throw it in the back. I was bemused to realize it was an empty Absolut vodka bottle. He shrugged it off.
I settled into the seat with the feeling that it was very important to hide my discomfort. I let out a chuckle about the bottle as we pulled away, and another driver swerved in front of him. He remarked about how terribly some people drive — a relatable, universal statement!
Then, he added, “This coronavirus has really brought out the crazies.”
I responded with a simple and vague, “Yeah.”
He went on, “I mean, I don’t even know where some of these people come from. I look around and I didn’t even know some of these people live in this town.”
It was impossible to determine whom he was talking about. But it felt like a real possibility that, if I affirmed his statements, he might have referred more overtly to the “crazy” people who take precautions against the virus, just like I do — and maybe even the 500 people, which included many of my friends and family members, who attended the Black Lives Matter march along Main Street in Sheridan a week before.
The car ride ended without incident. But I was shaken by the combined power and recklessness I saw in the gun and the empty vodka bottle. I was greatly relieved to be on my way.
The pandemic has caused me to wonder, as so many have, whether I can responsibly socialize with anyone — let alone people who seem to outright dismiss safety measures. This has made me realize that even though I previously felt distant and disconnected from the people with whom I disagree politically, I am now even more removed from them. My physical safety and the safety of my loved ones seems to depend on it.
What does that mean for our local communities and our country at large? The political divide was largely considered abstract and ideological, but the pandemic has made it concrete; we are separated by a distance of at least 6 feet.
What also feels new about the divide are the stakes. It is no longer an issue of lacking the patience or feeling too uncomfortable to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you. Now there are health risks: the threat of contracting COVID-19, and the danger inherent in callous indifference at the sight of violence and injustice.
The threat is not imaginary or theoretical — it’s urgently tangible. Just so, the similarities with systemic racism extend this far as well. While the threat of white supremacy might feel theoretical to the majority of white Americans, it has catastrophic corporeal effects on the lives of people of color.
But it is because the stakes are so high that we cannot turn away from each other. The consequences of yielding to fear, dismissal and dehumanization are even more devastating.
We have to take care of ourselves and each other. So, in this time of uncertainty and isolation, we are left with a contradiction: While we have to put social distance between ourselves, we must also work together.
The world, this country, are experiencing a crisis, and we need each other to make it through.