No one loses a war like the United States. Yet we start them all the time. In fact, if you pause to listen to our language—from “battleground” states in election years to “culture wars” every other decade—it’s hard to believe our nation is not at constant, unending war with everyone and everything, including itself.
This is in part because the United States of America no longer has any idea what war is nor how to wage one. The last time Congress officially declared war was in 1942, against the Axis powers of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Since then, militaristic violence overseas has been deemed as “police action” or “engagement” or “intervention” or “occupation,” and most of our “wars” are waged not against nations but against concepts like terrorism, poverty, and drugs.
Or viruses. On March 28, as New York City’s hospitals began to fill to capacity, Donald Trump tweeted that the pandemic his dithering had deepened was, in fact, a civilizational war:
Six weeks later, he told the press that health care workers going through the doors of hospitals were “running into death just like soldiers run into bullets. It’s incredible to see.” It was, he added in an aside that would have made early fascist war-fetishists swoon, “a beautiful thing to see.”
The virus, of course, is not Trump’s only “battlefront.” In late May, when the murder of George Floyd dominated the news cycle and protesters marched masked on the streets of hundreds of cities, Defense Secretary Mark Esper encouraged state governments to “dominate the battlespace” as Trump himself threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to use the military against peaceful protests.
Two months later, as school reopenings loom, Donald Trump’s all-out “war” against Covid-19 has been—like all other American “wars” since 1942—an unevenly waged failure. We lead the world not only in defense spending but also in Covid-19 cases and deaths. Throughout the United States, people—usually the president’s people—continue to reject social distancing and mask wearing, while covering their decisions by spreading scientifically unsound misinformation and conspiracy theories; in Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp, a white Trump-aligned Republican, has forbidden mask mandates in his counties and cities, going so far as to sue Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democratic woman of color, for insisting that city residents mask themselves.
This was a “war” we were destined to lose. That’s not because we lack the resources necessary to implement the non-pharmaceutical interventions—distancing, mask use, hand washing—that we know work. It’s because a virus, the supreme agent of mass death in human history, will never be dominated. Covid-19 can’t currently be beaten. It can only be lived with.
A new rhetoric of care, empathy, and respect for life is needed to face Covid-19 and survive—a rhetoric of care to be encoded in how we speak but also to transform the institutions and cultures that make our nation run, from our health care and educational systems to our economy, our military, and our impulse to over-policing.
Even when we want to help or to survive, it is too easy to let the rhetoric of war occupy our hearts and minds (see?), to deploy violence-glorifying metaphors to speak of viruses, ourselves, and our nation. War has failed us; consequently, we have failed the world. What America needs now is care, not war, spoken in our words and enacted in our policies.
“Your health” is what we drink to—and who doesn’t want health? To eat well, to exercise, to be thin and fit, and to grow old gracefully before dying out of sight. To feel proud when a nurse calls your blood pressure “perfect” or your body fat percentage “normal.” To smile when they flick the needle and say: “Such healthy veins!”
This assumption of health as an “identity” is one of writer Eula Biss’s many reflections in On Immunity, her critically acclaimed 2015 volume about vaccination and togetherness. “I am healthy, we tell each other, meaning that we eat certain foods and avoid others, that we exercise and do not smoke,” she writes. “Health, it is implied, is the reward for living the way we live, and lifestyle is its own variety of immunity.”
It is virtuous to be healthy in America—just as it’s virtuous to be rich. The healthy and the wealthy, it is understood, have worked hard to get where they are. And now, in a global pandemic, the bodies of the financially well-off and fittest are among the safest. Many white-collar workers are able to work from home and have their groceries delivered; the workers contracted by Whole Foods or Instacart to deliver these groceries obviously do not have this option. Many from America’s privileged work-from-home class are now venturing out into bars and restaurants, choosing to shed the mask for an hour in a public space in exchange for a meal someone else has cooked. The workers who wait on them—and who are disproportionately Black and brown—have no other viable options: They can’t afford to stay home and safe. Much of this health risk, and who bears it, is grounded in our society’s easy conflation of health and financial privilege.
This kind of virtue, flatly earned, can be stifling: If I’m a good person because I’m healthy, you may wonder, what happens when I’m not? Over these long months, as most of us self-isolate at home or with small groups of friends and family, our typical rhythms of bodily wellness may be entirely disrupted. We eat only what’s available. If gyms are open, they’re still among the riskiest places to go. Going on walks and runs and bike rides carries an aspect of shame never present before, as getting out of the house is being reported—and often uploaded online—as singly selfish behavior.
Illness has long been blamed on the ill. Even cancer—once considered a disease of “repressed feelings” but now understood as a consequence of genes, certain viruses, and environmental factors—still carries a hint of its former moral condemnation: A healthy person should know to avoid carcinogens. To get cancer in a society where health is part of one’s lifestyle is a sign of failure, a punishment for laziness, or a lapse in strength. In the popular imagination, what cancer often means is that somewhere in life, you fucked up.
Demanding that sort of health virtue from others is a way to render those who don’t measure up as inhuman, incapable of agency. This is fundamental for the imagination of war, as Harvard professor Elaine Scarry wrote in her 1985 opus, The Body in Pain. Individual soldiers, whose bodies will be injured or destroyed, are rendered invisible: “The overall army or overall population, and not the fate of single individuals, will determine the [war’s] outcome.” Personifying the army as a corporeal creature—“the imaginary body of a colossus”—is a “convention which assists the disappearance of the human body” from accounts of war, “the most radically embodying event in which human beings ever collectively participate.”
War, Scarry writes, “requires both the reciprocal infliction of massive injury and the eventual disowning of the injury so that its attributes can be transferred elsewhere.” Leaders will say the conflict wasn’t about inflicting pain or killing millions of people; it was about freedom, justice, unity. The nation. The national body. The real subject of war—an incomprehensible scale of injury inflicted upon the human body and the places it calls home—not only disappears in the language of political or moral philosophy but is meant to disappear.
This martial erasure is now echoed by the politicians and pundits who argue that it is virtuous to reopen the “economy,” or, at least, the restaurants and bars and schools and universities that keep their constituents busy. Opening the economy protects the “American way of life,” even if individual lives are lost.
With Covid-19, such rhetoric of war is clear. And it’s not just Donald Trump. The New York Times maintains that our country is “armed with some of the most highly trained scientists and infectious disease specialists.” Paramedics in New York call their hospital “a war zone”; their EMTs are “on the front line.” One Times op-ed writer, the war veteran and novelist Elliot Ackerman, was struck in April by the apparent similarity between the estimated share of Americans who may be “ultimately infected with the virus”—70 percent—to “the estimated casualty rate of killed or wounded for my platoon as we prepared for the assault into Falluja, the largest battle of the Iraq war.” Even scientists are prone to characterizing infectious diseases and our immune responses with war-ready metaphors. “Cytokine storm,” the immune overreaction to the novel coronavirus that can lead to death, sounds like a Pentagon lightning operation to topple a foreign dictator. Studies on coronavirus drug treatments position those drugs as “available weapons to fight Covid-19.”
In this “war” against Covid-19, we can also see how society suspends the agency of exposed “essential workers” by constructing them as “heroes.” Doctors, baristas, grocery store clerks are all transformed into a “they” whose self-sacrificing saves “us.” With no one obligated to protect them, these heroes—like infantry soldiers in a war of attrition—can be dehumanized, silenced, and invoked, alive or dead, in bad-faith political cant. Refused the right to imagine themselves as “healthy,” doctors, nurses, and health care workers don’t need ample personal protective equipment—they’re heroes for working without it! Grocery store clerks do not need a living wage and health insurance—can’t they hear us clapping and banging pots and pans from the balconies of our fourth-floor walk-ups? Amazon workers don’t need sick leave; they’re just lucky to have a job at all—and it’s certainly no time to be organizing, unionizing, fighting for worker’s rights, or walking off the job! As the Raleigh, North Carolina, police department put it in an April tweet: “Protesting is a non-essential activity.” Don’t those workers know we’re at war?
There is no “choosing to be a hero” in continuing to work for wages you can’t afford to refuse, yet we’re expected to applaud rather than rage when people get sick and die. Their bodies risk infection with a potentially lethal virus, yet we are not meant to think of their flesh and blood—only their “sacrifice.” If they are “soldiers,” their deaths are just part of the job.
There is no inherent virtue in having a healthy body: Disease is part of the human experience. Viruses have coevolved with us, buried in DNA humans acquired long before we became social beings. We carry snippets of the Neanderthal genome in ours—and why? Scientists hypothesize that these sequences protect us from diseases that existed tens of thousands of years ago when humans still interbred with those more ancient hominids.
And yes, disease changes us—viral infections especially. The human body evolved a molecular memory that protects us against reinfection. The molecules of our immune system also pressure the virus to evolve, and so we alter the virus as well—as a species, not as individuals. As a virus moves from one body into another, it mutates to evade the immune system, and the body learns to again recognize it. Eula Biss described this process on her infant child in On Immunity. “[A]ll the runny noses and fevers of those years,” she writes, “are the symptoms of a system learning the microbial lexicon.” This is not a war at all, but an evolving conversation, one held over weeks, months, years—over lifespans of people and lifespans of species.
To resist the militaristic framework would be to acknowledge this conversation, to engage with it. It would be to acknowledge the horrific “peacetime” conditions of American workers, essential or not, as well as our underfunded and outdated public health system. To see outside the limiting, false parameters of war, we need to reimagine our quarantine and ongoing efforts at social distancing—right down to their language—not as punishment or sacrifice but as community acts of care.
If we are to imagine ourselves as a national body—even a global body—this is a virus we need to listen to, not fight. The fractures it illuminates in our culture and society were pre-existing conditions. The immunity this virus may leave behind in our blood could become a cultural immunity as well, yielding a society more robust to crisis—but only if we learn the lessons placed now before us.
Like viruses and the human genome, diseases get assimilated into our cultural DNA. Tuberculosis, as Susan Sontag pointed out in Illness as Metaphor, changed how the public perceived artists and other “sensitive” individuals, as well as provided the blueprint for the contemporary fashion model: thin, sickly, pale with flushed cheeks, “reduced” to nothing but youth and vivacity. In a more obvious way, HIV has altered our relationship with sexual pleasure, as well as left a lasting, isolating stigma on the queer community. Covid-19, too, will inevitably alter a generation’s experience of social interaction and physical intimacy. It may also alter a generation’s relationship with American capitalism and that old American confusion of freedom from harm with freedom to harm. Social diseases always carry this threat.
Tuberculosis is a disease of the lungs caused by a mycobacterium. Like all bacterial and viral diseases, it has nothing to do with one’s personality, politics, or ethics. Yet as Sontag points out, this was not the going belief when TB was still widely lethal. The TB patient not only became a certain “type” of person, but a psychological type (passionate, artistic, queer) was also considered most susceptible to TB. Perhaps the disease became so overstuffed with metaphorical and moralistic thinking because treatment for the TB patient was removal from society, an exemption not only from labor but from family life and imposed social interaction. The TB patient, wandering from the desert to the mountains to the Mediterranean coasts, from sanatorium to sanatorium, was an economic and social subversive, liberated from the roles capitalism assigns to the rest of us. Their isolation wasn’t just about them but about our protection from their disease.
The best way to ensure the TB sufferers’ extra-capital lifestyle did not become a threat—that is, did not become too attractive or desirable to society—was to cast them morally apart. The psychological TB archetype is capitalism’s way of protecting itself from what it has always seen as a threat: that disease, infecting a wide variety of victims, may expose and challenge our social connections. They may infect us. Once the bacillus and its antibacterial medication were discovered, the TB patient was no longer exiled but treated within, and assimilated by, the same socioeconomic framework as the rest of us. They were no longer morally diseased, only physically sick.
Today, endemic TB cases follow a familiar and effective social response: We test, trace, treat, and quarantine. We do this because TB is not personal. No disease is personal. Even non-infectious diseases like cancer or Multiple sclerosis, whose etiologies are still not wholly understood, are not the victim’s “fault.” Illness is not malice. It is amoral, not immoral. It’s one of our only universal truths as humans that we all get sick.
Treatment and prevention, however, are personal—at least in countries with personalized health care costs like the United States. Our likelihood of dealing with our random, impersonal illnesses depends on our ability to care for ourselves, which makes illness a marker of class, race, and power: Are you insured? Do you have a primary care provider? Do you have time for medical-system phone trees and comparison shopping? Do you have money for deductibles, coinsurance, and tests? Can you afford to stay home for weeks as you recover? Rather than marking you as human and equal to your neighbors, disease in America marks you as rich or poor, coddled or neglected, white or Black, “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
We’re all given bodies that can and will break down. During a pandemic, the risk to the body is even more impersonal. Unlike diabetes, heart disease, and HIV, contracting Covid-19 is not necessarily a visible marker of class; dying of Covid-19 is. What lies between these two events? Generations of health disparities, of structural violence, of legacies of slavery, discrimination, and migrations that are still encoded in law, science, and health. They are evident in the comments of Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who, when asked in April about the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black communities, responded that they should be better people. “African Americans and Latinos should avoid alcohol, drugs and tobacco,” he said. “Do it for your abuela, do it for your granddaddy, do it for your big momma, do it for your pop-pop.”
Health remains a visible “identity” imposed upon us by a political system that pretends to be tired of “identity politics.” It’s not a moral failing to get sick, but an unjust society is at fault when it refuses to take accountability for a social phenomenon like illness, shifting that accountability to the society’s least privileged and most exposed members.
Statistics in times of plague are cruel. A small percentage of Covid-19 patients, no matter their age or history of health, will develop severe disease. When only 1,000 people are infected—as was the case in the U.S. early in February—this appears to be a disease of older, already vulnerable Americans. But multiply those infections four thousand-fold, and we understand how connected all our bodies really are. Covid-19 will touch all our lives; each of us will lose at least one person we know. But some of us—those in what the state calls “unhealthy” communities—will lose many, many more.
War-making, Sontag wrote, “is one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view ‘realistically’; that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome.” Where nothing escapes commodification and where human beings, even now, are appraised and ranked by their economic value, war is transcendent—the only “greater good” our representatives are able to predictably sell back to us. Even torture, as the second Bush administration proved, can be cast as a heroic act of sacrifice in the service of war.
But the martial turn usually betrays a failure of imagination. As a “foreign agent” originating in Wuhan, the novel coronavirus quickly triggered the president’s racist, xenophobic coping mechanisms—banned flights and sealed borders to make an “airtight” sterilized country. Thanks to him, the United States now leads all other nations in infections and deaths. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention knew in January of the evidence that Covid-19 could be transmitted by people who did not feel ill or exhibit symptoms, the president imagined he could magically halt the virus at the border and deport it, like other “infectious agents” he’s rhetoricized into existence. This, he surmised, and not a functional public health infrastructure, would keep our national body intact.
When applied to illnesses, war metaphors reinforce “the way particularly dreaded diseases are envisaged as an alien ‘other,’ as enemies are in modern war; and the move from the demonization of the illness to the attribute of fault to the patient is an inevitable one.” While immoral in its actions, war imposes moral boundaries between the good “us” and the bad “them.” All wars are wars against. When we wage “war” against concepts—drugs, poverty, terrorism, HIV, the coronavirus—we are forced to imagine a perpetrator. Who, in these cases, do we imagine? Drug addicts, the poor, religious extremists radicalized by unstoppable American violence, HIV-positive individuals, and so on. America’s “War on Poverty” effectively ended when Ronald Reagan created a new enemy of the state, the “Welfare Queen,” and eliminated the social safety nets of millions to “defeat” her. The “War on HIV” built the stigma against HIV-positive individuals and drove bad science for decades until we understood, finally, that undetectable is synonymous with untransmittable, and that poz people are indeed safe to sleep with.
With Covid-19, the most obvious moralization conflates hygiene, social distancing, and race. To be sure, hygiene and social distancing practices can not only save one’s own life but the lives of one’s neighbors. It’s tempting to want to use whatever megaphone one can, be it Twitter or screaming from your own front porch, to shame people into going back inside. But in metaphors of war, those who fail to practice social distancing become traitors—“they” are against “us” in the effort to eradicate the spread of the virus. Statistics show that, given the chance, police disproportionately identify the anti-distancing “they” as the homeless and people of color.
But even more visibly, the racist component of this “war” has driven attacks against Asian-Americans: They are imagined as “invaders” and face violence similar to that suffered by queer individuals or effeminate men in the 1980s and 1990s as AIDS killed millions of people worldwide. To be labeled “contagious” is to be implicated in the activities, the intelligence, of the virus: one’s patriotism dragged again before public scrutiny.
All metaphors aside, social distancing is effective. In Wuhan, new cases went from nearly 3,000 each day in February to fewer than 100 in March with aggressive testing, treatment, and assurance that people—infected and not—stayed home. In South Korea, more than 30,000 people were quarantined in March, and despite an initial surge in infections, the curve rapidly flattened. Even in certain U.S. states where quarantine measures are adopted, clearly communicated, and taken seriously—New York, for example, or Washington—the rate of infection slowed significantly.
While often viewed as militaristic and enforced isolation, quarantine and social distancing can be reimagined as community care: deeply social activities that don’t lock us all behind barbed wire but remind us, even when we’re alone, just how much we rely on one another to live healthy, safe lives. From the beginning, we’ve known that Covid-19 is most dangerous for our elders and for those who are immunocompromised. We can also see quite clearly that, in America, it’s more dangerous for Black and brown and poor people. While those at lower risk for severe disease might be inconvenienced by the virus, they can carry it to those who might be incapacitated, hospitalized, or killed. At the same time, given Covid-19’s high rate of infection (5.7 new infections can be expected from every infected person), isolation measures ensure that hospitals are not overwhelmed with seriously ill patients.
In quarantine, you might be all by yourself, but through that act, you prove that you know you’re not alone—not in your community and not on this planet. This is a critical distinction: Quarantine is a social act, not a personal sacrifice.
The pandemic has complicated the autonomous image of the American—the person who does whatever they want. To be indulgently American is itself suddenly un-American. The imagination of war helps negotiate this loss: By obeying quarantine, you are serving your country; isolating yourself and limiting travel is a way to fight the virus. In this way, the war metaphor ensures that even our most selflessly social acts are reduced to the realm of personal choice: We get to think it’s still about us, the “real” Americans.
This is a seductive mode of thinking. In Elliot Ackerman’s calculation, for example, the “war” against Covid-19 requires “wartime leadership,” and the president we have simply does not fit that bill. “Mr. Trump’s initial Easter forecast bears a chilling resemblance to the hollow promises made at the onset of other conflicts, such as our Civil War and World War I, in which the troops would ‘be home by Christmas,’” Ackerman wrote. Obviously the Covid-19 pandemic is not a conflict involving two nation-states, but Ackerman is right in pointing out Trump’s failure to play along with the metaphor: He’s not holding up his end of the bargain. Instead of leading the American people, Trump is leading the American economy—the health of which he frets over constantly while neglecting the real, living people he’s supposed to protect. (The countries that have suffered less catastrophic financial consequences are the ones who shut down entirely to stop the virus from spreading. South Korea has indoor dining; Japan has a 2.6% unemployment rate.)
To Trump, what is dying is not a friend or a neighbor or even an American but something far more important to him and the party he leads: unfettered profit. He reveals the intellectual poverty of war metaphors: They clearly do not change how America operates in an emergency; they only reveal how we’ve always operated. We are not with and never have been—only against. Against each other, our neighbors, our pasts, ourselves. War, as we’ve already seen in this short but devastating war against a virus, never saves us. War only kills us.
What if, instead of “fighting” the virus that causes Covid-19, we were to learn from it. What if we were to imagine this pandemic as an opportunity for a society’s education? We have the capacity to choose metaphors of care and not war, of teaching and not destruction.
In this sense, “plague” remains an instructive word—“the principal metaphor by which the AIDS epidemic is understood,” Sontag wrote. “Plagues” are usually conceived of as punishments, but these diseases, “insofar as they acquired meaning, were collective calamities, and judgments on a community,” according to Sontag. “Only injuries and disabilities, not diseases, were thought of as individually merited.”
For a period that’s sometimes brief, sometimes a decade or more—in between a unique virus’s appearance and its effective prevention and treatment—it really is plaguelike, in the sense that it’s a social phenomenon, not an individual illness that strikes everyone who comes into contact with it, and the community bears a responsibility to prevent it from afflicting the most vulnerable: What can we do to stop it? But once the vaccine or therapy arrives, the virus is again re-individualized: So-and-so has it, but so-and-so does not (the difference being, usually, access to care). The virus is no longer a society’s problem. Being ill can be, again, your own fault.
Today, we are still living with a plague. As we write this—and despite the partisan divide—Covid-19 remains a disease of communities and is not exclusive to any nation, race, class, or other version of isolated identity, including those who live “unhealthy lifestyles.” For the most part, it is individual cities and states we call “hot spots,” not individual identities we designate as “high risk.” The metaphor is open to us, if we choose it—and learn from it.
If we invert the metaphor of war into one of care, the questions we ask invert themselves as well: What must we do, for example, to care for our essential workers? What must we do to care for those most vulnerable in our society? In the immediate future, labor’s value must shift to reward those most at risk, who are doing the work that allows the rest of us to continue eating, to have hospitals waiting for us, and to have transit to reach them.
So too must our federal and state governments vastly increase their emergency relief efforts, no matter how “socialist” these seem. As illustrated in countries that have successfully contained Covid-19, people will only stay home if you pay them to stay home.
It’s difficult to imagine, given the modern rhetoric of battle and the association of health with social class, but one of the oldest metaphors for Western medicine is that of a gardener’s care, not a soldier’s struggle. Hippocrates wrote of “instruction in medicine” as though it were “the culture of the productions of the earth.” In this sense, the germ of medicine is not invasion or colonization but cultivation—the cautious and patient nurturing of the body and mind so they can heal and then thrive, among others:
For our natural disposition, is, as it were, the soil; the tenets of our teacher are, as it were, the seed; instruction in youth is like the planting of the seed in the ground at the proper season; the place where the instruction is communicated is like the food imparted to vegetables by the atmosphere; diligent study is like the cultivation of the fields; and it is time which imparts strength to all things and brings them to maturity.
Doctors and nurses aren’t warriors; they are caregivers. They aren’t heroes; they are workers. We owe it to them—when we think and talk about them this way—to stay home. They aren’t dying “for our freedom.” They are dying because we refuse to take tried-and-true precautions. It is every American’s responsibility to make sure their workplaces are as safe as possible.
Medicines aren’t weapons; they are treatments necessary to live, as with HIV after 1996. But the HIV example, too, has its political dimension. Treat the medicine as a weapon in the war against HIV, and we can see who gets left unarmed, who gets sacrificed: largely Black queer people in the rural South, not to mention millions of people in nations overseas. War assumes the necessity of casualties and writes off the actual deaths as unavoidable and heroic.
Care does not. Viewing medicines as treatment and care would, for instance, require us to reframe our drug discovery process from beginning to end. Instead of focusing on medications that would make the most profit by, say, extending a patent for a condition where the generic is already just fine, we could finally begin researching novel, less profitable medications for diseases that are rare or that affect populations with insufficient medical resources. Instead of an “arms race” between profit-driven pharmaceutical companies, care imagines a cooperative effort to save and improve our lives, rather than use and dispose of them. Care allows—no, demands—that we rethink systems that have been failing all but a few beneficiaries for decades, systems whose deadly consequences are too often invisibilized. Care makes death invisible no longer.
This pandemic has also shown which jobs are truly essential to our survival. Many of these jobs are widely maligned, hourly paid service professions. Say we were to “return to normal,” where these positions remain underpaid and their “hero” status reverts to derision: That would not be care.
In the late 1970s, the writer Audre Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer, treatable then only with surgery and radiation. In the hospital, she kept a diary, which she published later as The Cancer Journals. “What is there possibly left for us to be afraid of after we have dealt face to face with death and not embraced it?” she wondered:
Once I accept the existence of dying as a life process, who can ever have power over me again?… The only answer to death is the heat and confusion of living; the only dependable warmth is the warmth of the blood. I can feel my own beating even now.
Facing this moment, this global pandemic, this mass death, must give us fortitude, strength, deep appreciation for our bodies and one another. We cannot accept going back to the death-making ways of capitalism but must embrace the messy confusion of living as best we can. Care is how we do that. Care is insisting on the value of human life. Every life, regardless of its position in a social hierarchy or the type of labor that person performs. The metaphors and realities of capitalism—war, imperial expansion, battle, competition, colonialism—are embedded deeply in our society, but they are not incurable, so to speak. In On Immunity, Eula Biss acknowledges how daunting it is to challenge these conventions: “The extent to which it is hard to imagine an ethos powerful enough to compete with capitalism, even if that ethos is based on the inherent value of human lives, is suggestive of how successfully capitalism has limited our imaginations.”
“We are those who are at risk with each other,” as the feminist and scientific theorist Donna Haraway put it. Facing Covid-19 and climate change, we are a global human whole likely to rise or fall together. We can see our connections more clearly now. “We are symbiotic systems; we become-with relentlessly. There is no becoming, there is only becoming-with,” Haraway wrote. As an enmeshed, biopolitical ecosystem, we must become-with Covid-19, not fight against it. This is the only way to minimize harm and save human lives. The virus will not go away. It will not surrender or “be defeated.” We must learn to live with it.
This begins with the metaphors we choose. If we continue the “fight” against Covid-19 as an all-out “war,” we will continue to lose. We will continue to accept death on a massive scale. If Covid-19 is to remain our plague for a year or more, as virologists predict, let it teach us that it’s not our fault, that it can’t be fought, that the sick are not weak and the dead did not fail, and that our leaders cannot rely—now or afterward—on the specter of violence to entrench us in our isolation. Let it teach us, instead, how to survive a plague together and how to make sure the world will never be the same.