In our darkest moments, we discover who we are.
I’ve been meditating on this thought for the past several months, and even more so now, as COVID-19 surges through local and global communities. In the face of the pandemic, the extremes of human nature—kindness, cruelty, generosity, greed—are revealing themselves. The other day, I saw people distributing free hand sanitizer on the subway. That same day, I saw a headline about a couple that is hoarding and reselling Lysol wipes at a 400 percent mark-up. In troubled times, there is rarely room for a moral middle ground: Every decision offers a choice between integrity or depravity.
How do we become our best selves in the worst of times? How do we stay emotionally and spiritually connected to one another while maintaining responsible social distance in order to flatten the curve of infection? How can queer and other marginalized communities take care of one another when we can’t physically come together? We must find the answers to these questions as COVID-19 continues to impact our lives.
In her recent op-ed on how lessons from the AIDS epidemic can help queer community survive coronavirus, Xtra’s director of editorial Rachel Giese reminds us that it is not isolation but connection that saves us in times of crisis. In the decades that AIDS ravaged an entire generation of queers, people came together to provide home care, safer sex education, protest homophobic legislation and celebrate life. Now, we must harness that same creative, resilient spirit in order to keep one another afloat.
Though social distancing (as well as self isolation to help “flatten the curve”) is a necessary strategy for slowing the spread of COVID-19 and preventing our healthcare system from being overwhelmed, marginalized communities stand to lose a great deal during isolation. As a result of discrimination in housing and employment, queer and trans individuals subsist on the gig economy and precarious housing arrangements.
As cultural institutions and events shut down and small businesses start to lay off workers, the most vulnerable among us will struggle to pay for basic necessities and rent. Sex workers—an occupation in which LGBTQ2 folks are disproportionately represented—are already among the hardest hit by the economic effects of COVID-19, and among the least likely to receive support due to social stigma and criminalization.
It is important to remember that in a pandemic, we are only as healthy as the most vulnerable among us. We need one another to physically survive—and we need loving connection and emotional support in order to psychologically survive. In the imagination of North American mainstream media, “disaster/apocalypse preparation” is often presented as preparing for violence: Hoarding food and supplies, hiding in a bunker, shooting all strangers on sight. Indeed, this is the strategy that many of the world’s ultra-wealthy (never known for their community spirit) are taking right now.
Yet our collective survival is most assured through community care and mutual aid, which is, in fact, what many marginalized (and particularly disabled) communities have been doing for generations, as author Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha illustrates in her book Care Work: Dream of Disability Justice. Indeed, if stronger, universal healthcare systems and a minimum basic income had been in place worldwide when the COVID-19 pandemic began, it seems highly possible that the virus would have been much better contained in the first place.
Now, as severe social distancing and community service shutdowns become more and more prevalent, isolation and aggression—on March 14, a gun was pulled in a Toronto grocery store and videos of people getting into physical fights are surfacing on the internet—run the risk of becoming just as serious issues as the coronavirus itself. It is more important than ever for us to commit to an ethos of collective care, of shifting from “every man for himself” to “no person left behind.”
Practically speaking, one of the most important short-term strategies for collective care means financially and materially supporting the most economically precarious: Casual labourers, artists, sex workers and individuals on fixed incomes, disability or welfare.
In the social media age, it is easy to connect with folks in the community who are struggling, and to send cash donations online if you can afford it. Joining online groups that are specifically dedicated to mutual aid and community care during the pandemic can be a good way to connect with others and offer or ask for material support such as money, food and hygiene supplies. Many of these groups are organized by activists, radical healers and community organizers from around the world, such as “CaremongeringTO: Community Response to COVID19,” “Minnesota / Minneapolis–Saint Paul: Twin Cities Queer and Trans Mutual Aid” and “Germany / Berlin: Queer Relief Covid-19 Berlin — Help Form.”
American LGBTQ advocacy groups recently wrote an open letter asking the U.S. government for assistance because queer people may be at greater risk; another group asked that all people in the U.S., regardless of immigration status, have access to care during the pandemic. In Seattle, a grassroots organization teamed up with a non-profit to offer crisis relief to food and restaurant workers in Spokane, Seattle and San Diego. Across Canada, resources are being compiled for affected artists, writers and media workers. And all over the world, activists, radical healers and community organizers are compiling resources such as this list of global disaster relief supports, which is accessible via Google Docs. It’s just one way through which people can find and ask for support in their local communities.
It may be useful to remember that as of right now, supply lines for food and sanitation products are still flowing—hoarding and overbuying are the only issues that are currently affecting access to these goods. If you are healthy, offering to make deliveries or do shopping for folks who need to self-quarantine is also an excellent community care contribution (remember that you can drop off packages outside people’s doors rather than going inside and risking infection or transmission).
It is also relatively easy to not ask for refunds (again, if you can afford it) for tickets to artistic, cultural or educational events that have been cancelled or postponed by independent organizers, which may help them stay financially solvent. Donating to local small businesses that you value and/or making use of online ordering and delivery services is also an option.
If figuring out exactly how you want to give or receive community care and who you want to give it to feels vague and difficult to imagine, you might try the pod mapping strategy, originally developed by Mia Mingus of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective to help you visualize the people in social proximity to you. “Pod mapping” is essentially making a list or mapping out a small number of people that are close (either emotionally, geographically or both) to you that you trust (say, five to seven people).
Within this small network, each person is likely to have access to different skills and resources. You can arrange a group Zoom, Skype, phone or text chat with these folks in order to keep one another updated on your respective needs and make plans for support. You can combine support pods with old-fashioned phone trees in order to extend your pod’s reach into the wider community if you want to ask for or share resources outside of the pod.
I believe that it’s essential to nourish the health of our minds and souls in moments like this, in addition to safeguarding the health of our bodies. Isolation, anxiety, panic and touch deprivation can have long-lasting negative effects on the psyche. One simple but potentially profound strategy for collective care might be to have a rotating list of folks to share a 30-minute phone call with every day. Ensuring regular, safe human contact can be an incredibly powerful act for the health of everyone involved—particularly for folks who are living alone and in self-quarantine or isolation.
In all of this, affect (the sensory quality we bring to our interactions with others) matters. Whether we are in the grocery lines, on a support phone call or on social media, it is more important now than ever before to practise the twin skills of compassion and boundary-setting: To be kind, strong, loving, resilient. To inspire trust, kindness and resilience in others.
The spread of the novel coronavirus is likely to trigger fear and hostility toward the human body—particularly towards those bodies that are considered marginalized or “foreign.” To counteract this, it is essential that we internalize the knowledge that we are capable of simultaneously protecting ourselves while supporting others. Indeed, our survival depends on it.
Having lived through many life-or-death situations, I think about survival often. As a trans woman of colour and abuse survivor, there was never any guarantee that I would live for long—and this is true for many of us in the queer and trans community. This is especially true right now for immunocompromised folks, elders and other vulnerable individuals. We cannot control the length of our lives, but we can choose which parts of us survive in the choices we make: Compassion or cruelty. Generosity or greed. And in choosing to care for each other, in choosing our best selves, we can develop the skills we need to give birth to a better world.
Let’s find out who we are.