Four Long Moments Near the Beginning

Jacob Wren

On March 17th 2020, I wrote:

One of my first thoughts in the early days of the pandemic was: social distancing and closing borders, those are things dictators like.

I knew I had to be careful how I said such things. These were also scientifically proven strategies to reduce exponentiality, contain the situation and reduce harm. Any hint of denying the science couldn’t help but remind me of climate change deniers, people only making the situation worse. Nonetheless, how science is interpreted is always political and metaphors of contagion have most often been used in politically heinous ways.

I have to admit, from a political standpoint, and from most other standpoints as well, nothing about it felt good. (But, of course, a pandemic isn’t supposed to “feel good.”) Already, for my entire lifetime, people were so isolated and alienated. Working together and solidarity were already so difficult to achieve and I couldn’t see many ways in which social distancing might make any of it easier. And obviously so many on the far right want nothing else but to close as many borders as they can find. Pandemic or not, closing borders seemed like little more than a band-aid solution and it felt extremely dangerous to think of it positively.

And yet, or so I told myself, as I always try to tell myself, in any situation there must be certain possibilities for emancipatory change. Beyond distancing and closing, there was some way for all of this to shine a brighter light on what is missing. To clarify the many ways we must continue to care for each other. To lead to greater openness in the long run. But I am extremely worried this will not be the case.

On March 21th 2020, I began to write some Ideas for Pandemic Short Stories:

A large number of healthy young people volunteer to contract the virus and live together in a luxury quarantine hotel in order to, over time, boost herd immunity.

In the early days of the pandemic, before many people know what it is, a young man contracts the virus and immediately decides to pay a visit to the now elderly priest who abused him as a child.

In a misguided suicide attempt, an elderly man tries, and fails, to contract the virus.

Waiting in line to get tested for the virus, two strangers meet and fall in love. When they receive their test results one of them has tested positive and the other negative.

People sit alone in their apartments wondering how long this will last.

A young, would-be dictator considers the possibility that “voluntary social distancing” might be the key to his future success.

For the first time in history a socialist is about to be elected president. And then the pandemic hits.

An activist group devises a means of protest in which every protester stands exactly six feet away from ever other protester.

A meeting at which everyone arrives, washes their hands, sits six feet away from each other, and talks.

A politician, having been told the pandemic is completely under control, takes a wrong turn and ends up in one of the poorest neighbourhoods, where he learns things aren’t under control at all.

A new couple meet and fall in love just as the pandemic strikes and spend three months locked in their apartment having sex in every possible way.

The virus rapidly spreads through the police force.

At the factory where they assemble the virus tests, the poorly paid workers contract the virus and spread it through the tests.

As he lies in bed dying of the virus, an elderly right-wing billionaire – who spent his entire life fighting against public services (especially against public healthcare) – reflects on the fact that if there had been more effective healthcare the virus might not have spread so rapidly and therefore he might not be dying now.

A mutual aid group acquire a ventilator and teach themselves how to use it by watching YouTube tutorials.

During a rent strike, the landlord comes over to meet the tenants as a group and, for the first time, they end up having a real discussion about all of their lives.

A vaccine is developed and the world rejoices. But soon scientists discover it is only effective in fifty percent of the population and no one can figure out why.

A woman recounts the life story of her parents, who tragically both passed away at the exact same time.

Two science aficionados are arguing on Twitter over whether the actual fatality rate is 1% or 0.8%, when one of them receives a text message that his childhood best friend has died.

Reading two different online articles about the virus that each present a set of facts that are basically opposite to each other.

An anti-vaxxer has a deep crisis of faith.

A Hollywood screenwriter pitches a superhero film in which all the superheroes catch the virus. The pitch does not go well.

On April 13th 2020, I wrote:

There’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. In Germany the fatality rate is estimated to be around 1%. And in Italy the fatality rate is somewhere over 10%. And it’s the exact same virus (or perhaps a mutation.)

The virus is one thing, but political factors surrounding it – the ways governments and societies handle the situation – really seem to have a rather large role.

I might have known this before but never quite understood it in such a visceral way.

April 26th 2020:

And then the writing stopped (for now.) I couldn’t think of what else to say. It was slowly dawning on me that this might (or might not) all last a rather long time. Perhaps for the rest of my natural life (or perhaps not.) So much talk of a vaccine. Of a vaccine as a solution. And there might someday be a vaccine. But I was feeling increasingly unsure on what basis I could gauge the reality of this possibility. And apart from the virus there was all the social and political realities being stirred up that were clearly going to be substantial. Human loneliness, an increase in human loneliness due to social distancing, felt like one of these realities with consequences I could barely imagine.

There was an observation frequently made: that we were able to stop so many things for this virus, which did not put humanity directly at risk, but we were not able to stop or change very much in order to slow ongoing ecological collapse, which did. And ecological collapse remains the real topic of the day. What kind of lived political movement of deep care for all living things might be possible before it’s too late. (Though “too late” might also be a completely misguided way of thinking about the situation. It is better to think that there is always something to be done. Always some way of moving things in a more emancipatory direction.)

And so the question was: what kind of art might we need in this time? And, it seems to me, the obvious answer is: art is probably not what we need most right now. But I’m an artist – it feels to me I have little choice in the matter – so that answer doesn’t help me at all. Therefore I will end with this quote from an interview with David Graeber: “I’m thinking of a labor movement, but one very different than the kind we’ve already seen. A labor movement that manages to finally ditch all traces of the ideology that says that work is a value in itself, but rather redefines labor as caring for other people.” And not just other people, I might add, we must learn to care for all living things.