Twenty seconds isn’t enough to wash our hands of some things.
For instance, on Friday, March 13th, after the count of presumptive positive COVID-19 diagnoses crossed 50 in four days and Gov. John Bel Edwards announced month-long, state-wide school closures, I combed the aisles of a store owned by Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest person in the world, wondering why the hell anybody was there right then.
The glove-handed store workers were there, re-stocking shelves, butchering meat, serving food, ringing up baskets. depending on an hourly wage to care for themselves and their families.
If they don’t clock in, they don’t have food if/when stock runs dry from the pandemic’s impact on trade (or if the government issues a mandate to close stores — as chainmail that claims to be from the neighbor of a cousin of a friend of a so-called upper-level military person suggests will happen “in the next 48 to 72 hours”).
And I was there, creating the demand that justifies the supply of labor. The vast majority of us depend on grocery stores for access to food and potable water, and we expect stores to remain open — even hope they will, in spite of the fact that in just a week, as WWL-TV reported Monday, New Orleans had become the city with the second highest per capita rate of COVID-19.
We don’t yet know if or for how long stores might close or go barren. But in the event that they do, we’ve stocked up on out-of-season food items transported here from around the world and tap water branded by Coca-Cola and Nestle.
Meanwhile, the wealthiest person in the world is being made wealthier and more secure through the insecurity of his employees and customers in the face of a global public health crisis.
What is the outcome for people, institutions, industries, and systems that hegemonize dependence on them – to the point that, only two or three generations from their inception, we can’t imagine our lives without them – in order to hoard power?
Louisiana history has seemingly been an experiment in answering that question: slavery, the petrochemical industry, tourism. And no matter how many happy birthdays we sing, we can’t wash our hands of some things.
Every time my toddler son sings happy birthday while washing his hands, I think about the apocalypse. I grew up in a doomsday religion in which celebrating birthdays is considered devil worship that exponentially increases the likelihood of one being destroyed in the Apocalypse.
Though I left my parents’ religion nine years ago, I did take from it the belief that, if we have faith that there is a way of thinking and being that will make the world a better place to live for all its inhabitants, the apocalypse doesn’t have to be a frightful end.
It is simply a revelation, a confirmation of things we already knew — that this system is insufficient for all of us; it offers us the choice to assess the way we live and accept that changes must be made and that we do indeed have the resources necessary to make them.
Rightfully, Louisianans are currently focused on “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 — “using our head to stop the spread,” as Mayor LaToya Cantrell recommended.
But whenever we get to the here-on-out, will the decisions we make be based on the hope that a pandemic doesn’t happen again? Or will they be based on the reality that it can, with the understanding that no one should be in such desperate positions as some of us are now in?
It is considered normal, in the world in which we live, for us to demand that others put themselves at risk in service to our chosen dependencies, for people to be so financially insecure that they have to gamble their life chances for the possibility of survival.
As I ration water, oatmeal, honey, and cranberries for my toddler’s breakfast, it’s hard to believe Mardi Gras – the finale to a season of excess – was just a few Tuesdays ago. COVID-19’s ingress into Louisiana coincides with the Lenten season, the 40-day fast that follows Carnival, a meditation on purpose and our commitment to a path that will make life better for all who come after us.
Per Christian mythology, Jesus is led after his baptism by spirit to the wilderness where, over the course of 40 days, he faces the Devil who tempts him three times. Jesus turns down opportunities to demonstrate his power by turning a stone into bread, to prove his importance by jumping off the cliff with the expectation that the angels will catch him, to rule the world in exchange for worshipping the Devil.
Jesus confirms his commitment to his purpose: to sacrifice his perfect life to absolve the sin humanity inherited from Adam.
In the 10 days since the novel coronavirus first reared its head in New Orleans, 347 people in Louisiana have been given positive diagnoses of COVID-19, 231 of them in New Orleans. Six people have died in Orleans Parish, one in Jefferson Parish and one in St. James Parish.
This Lent, we’re being asked to make collective sacrifices for the health of the world, now and beyond the moment of crisis. Unlike Jesus, we’re not martyrs who have left the comforts of heaven, but necessary parts of a bio-social ecology that is increasingly debilitated by the maldistribution of resources and life chances.
What will we relinquish out of commitment to humanity, and who will we put behind us once COVID’s curve has been made flat, once we return to work (for those of us with such job security) and send the kids back to school?
It can feel overwhelming, impossible even, to imagine a society in which no one has to submit to the will of another to survive.
But just because you can’t wash your hands of everything, doesn’t mean you stop trying.
Lydia Y. Nichols is a writer native to New Orleans. Her critical and personal essays about race and the environment in visual art, film, and literature have been published in 64 Parishes, Bayou Brief, The Lens, Pelican Bomb, and Tribes Magazine and on her blog at ModernMaroon.com.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at email@example.com.