2020 has sucked.
I needn’t reiterate the toll taken by the pandemic (and with it, isolation, income loss, conspiracy theories, and astronomical death rates in ostensibly “advanced” nations), nor need I review the extent to which police brutality, racial uprisings, state neglect, and an attempted coup in the U.S. have taxed an already — overburdened western populous.
It’s been kind of hard to miss.
Groups marginalized on the bases of race, socioeconomic status, and ability, among other identity categories, have been impacted more than others. And as someone who regularly navigates concurrent oppression (I’m neurodivergent, Mad, disabled, sometimes homeless, sometimes addicted to alcohol and crack, etc.) and advantage (Whiteness has always ameliorated the stigma associated with the former), 2020 has been strange.
Strangely quiet, that is.
This is not to say that I’ve enjoyed the year; I have not. However, amid mass job loss, evictions, overdose deaths, and, less horrifically but still inconvenient, new working, living, and socializing conditions, I have been…stable (or, given the relativity of this term, at least stable enough).
And I’m not sure how to feel about that.
When lockdown began, I was living in northern Alberta. I had arrived at the beginning of the school year to teach at the local college, and I was exceptionally alone. On my days off I worked, engaged in eating disorder behaviour, worked more, and, irrespective of date or time, fantasized about being elsewhere.
The thing was, though, I had nowhere else to go. For years my social network has been limited, and after several lifetimes worth of trauma, relationships don’t come easy. “Home” is a concept that has multiple meanings, but I don’t associate it with a place. So I was lonely, yes, but I was no more lonely than I have been before or anticipate being again. When I was told that my classes would be held online, the only tangible shift I made was no longer walking across the street to teach (and eliminating pants).
This was not the response I observed from others.
As social media was flooded with quarantine grief, I kept remarking (to myself, naturally) that nothing had really changed. Interestingly, the only times I ever felt “not OK” were when I observed the extent to which lockdown was hard for others.
“Wait, people are having virtual girls’ nights!?”
“These are somehow distinct from the in-person girls’ nights they had been having before!?”
“What the hell is a girls’ night!?”
The feeling that I’m missing…something isn’t unique to 2020, but in the last twelve months it’s been difficult to ignore. For instance, I was perfectly fine in April when a flood forced me to evacuate my apartment and move into a work camp typically reserved for employees of Alberta’s oil sands. I was still getting paid to teach remotely, which made the condolences I received from colleagues seem excessive and misplaced. What I couldn’t say to them was that the experience emulated the transience of homelessness without most of the burden. Money was coming in. I had a lock on my door. I wasn’t in urgent need of medical attention without access to a hospital. Most notably, people actually cared. Displacement is a lot easier if society doesn’t interpret it as having been your fault, and relative the disdain I bore as a homeless drug user, this was a bit like a vacation (albeit an awkward one with folks whose politics did not align with mine).
Now, the holidays are here. And once more, the fact that not seeing or talking to others is my norm has been a stark contrast to the content I’ve seen from others. For instance, I was delighted with the collective expectation that this year’s Christmas would be different. Not having to squirm through family dinners or, more recently, explain that I am estranged from family reduced the sadness I sometimes feel, and because social interaction depletes me, knowing that the foreseeable future will be similar also fills me with relief.
More than that, though, every time I have felt a twinge of discomfort about quarantine, I’ve remembered being locked in psychiatric wards, curfews at homeless shelters, and rigid addiction treatment scheduling where my every minute was accounted for and expressing frustration with my lack of privacy was seen as non — compliance.
Yeah, sheltering —in — place is fine.
So, what does the fact that 2020 has been fairly ho — hum say about me?
Well, it indicates that my baseline is pretty freaking bad. And I think that says a lot about the world around me.
The ability to meet one’s needs for food, shelter, safety, and autonomy shouldn’t feel like a win, nor should it evoke guilt (which I sometimes feel a lot of). These are human rights, but as more have realized this year (at least according to social media, the validity of which is suspect), they aren’t available to all.
When resources are distributed so unevenly that millions of Americans are betting on a a $600 “stimulus” cheque to pay their bills while the cumulative wealth of the nation’s 651 billionaires has risen by over $1.1 trillion in the last twelve months, something is deeply wrong.
Yet liberal rhetoric still tends to miss the mark. For example, not having to work for minimum wage in potentially deadly conditions shouldn’t be a privilege. Calls to “protect” essential workers by staying home and wearing masks have been necessary mostly because governments have chosen to sacrifice lives over the economy. Meanwhile, low — income folk are told to be grateful for their jobs because compared to those who are now unemployed and homeless, things could still be worse.
We are in a race to the bottom, and this is by design.
Furthermore, as one who has endured some of our scariest collective prospects, my knee-jerk reaction shouldn’t be to disregard my alienation because I have it better than some. My doing so speaks not just to how the state withholds economic resources, but the impact this has on how we treat each other.
Society does not readily accommodate those who may be different. Madness and disability are framed as personal issues, ones that demand coercive “treatment” should the individual want full access to citizenship. I have resisted this narrative, and as someone isn’t neatly “sick” or “well,” I struggle to reach out. This is because when I do, the “solutions” people offer are the same ones that made me feel abandoned in the first place. Conventional responses to Madness do not work for me, but reliance on “expert” knowledge has dislocated us from each other. What would it mean to eschew professionalization in favour of peer support? What systems need to be implemented to make peer support the norm instead of a “radical” niche, in mental health and elsewhere?
As has been pointed out, mutual aid is keeping people afloat. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for its transformative potential to be realized, but now that we’re here, but does this mean for 2021?
First, we need to remind ourselves that just because we’re entering another year, things won’t magically change. Covid isn’t forever, but the devastation of Covid has been more about the conditions that let it flourish than the actual disease. Governments have been gaslighting us by blaming us for transmission, but as we fight amongst each other, we’re doing much of their work for them.
Instead, let’s look to the grassroots organizations that are currently leading the way. They know how to redistribute wealth because they’ve had to do it for ages. Specifically, decentralized networks like Black Lives Matter are models of community care, and while racial justice should be prioritized in all our movements, BLM also provides us with a template for implementing non — hierarchical governance in multiple local contexts.
Next, we need to think critically — like, really critically — about what authorities have told us about what it means to be “essential.” We can no longer deny that minimum wage and undocumented workers keep infrastructure going. Yet billions in Covid relief have gone to corporation bail — outs without enforcement clauses attached, meaning that bosses can still lay off employees while hoarding funds to subsequently use on stocks. Why do we fetishize the rich when they do nothing worthwhile? Rather than admire Bezos, let’s strategize on how to eradicate the billionaire class and ensure that everyone’s needs are met.
Finally, we need to be just as reflexive on what we have been taught about those who “don’t contribute.” Employment shouldn’t be an indicator of worth, but we are so indoctrinated into capitalism that it’s tough to recognize the value of unemployed (and unemployable) social groups. Disabled and Mad people, as well as drug users and the unhoused, are consistently reviled. Because of this, we are ahead of the curve when it comes to imagining alternate futures, ones where inclusion isn’t contingent on how well — behaved we are or how much labour power we exert for others to exploit. Rather than pity us, incarcerate us, or convince us we should change, why not notice the subtle ways we have generated culture and community despite overwhelming odds? We are excellent teachers, but we need willing students.
This year we have seen discussions about police brutality and medical racism converge, the abject failure of neoliberalism, and the lengths to which some go to ignore that things are bad. We’re not about to live harmoniously, but perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal — yet.
This is because we are well past the point of no return in terms of various intersecting disasters, and making different choices isn’t going to be easy. I’m not referring here to solo measures such as buying reusable plastic, most of which get levered against poor and racialized people who won’t or can’t opt in; I mean seriously evaluating the lengths we’ll go to promote equality for all. Anything shy of sweeping modifications in everything we do isn’t going to work, and it’s our responsibility to determine where are skill — sets fit.
Conflict is inevitable, but “niceness” in lieu of justice is more violent in the long run.
A year from now, I hope that I can reflect on 2021 and say that I felt genuinely happy. That‘s a lofty goal, and because of all I’ve witnessed, seeking “happiness” feels trite and self — absorbed.
The thing is though, it shouldn’t.
We all deserve reprieve, but we’re not going to find it alone.