Vulnerable Populations During Pandemics

Pandemics for most people are terrifying, but are especially terrifying for those who are most vulnerable. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen how people with pre-existing conditions and those with disabilities are at a higher risk of serious complication from the virus. Despite this, some of the general population has flaunted social distancing guidelines because they are not concerned about contracting the virus themselves. The idea of letting the pandemic rampage its way through the country to get it over with has been thrown around since March. The idea is that if the virus runs its course some people are going to die, but that is the price society has to pay in order to return to normal life. These people would be seen as expendable and contributing to the common good, but this idea fails to consider the individual people who would be sacrificed. If two percent of the population were to die, that is still over seven million lives lost. What is the line between someone deemed expendable and someone worth saving? Is someone with Type I diabetes more important than someone with Type II diabetes? Jevaan, in Station Eleven, had to make the devastating choice to leave his brother behind because he used a wheelchair. It was difficult but Jevaan did it in order to save his own life. Thankfully, COVID-19 has not come to the point where people have to pick their own lives over those they love. But in New York, ventilator rationing almost became very real and although unfortunate medical professionals would have had to determine the value of patient’s lives. This pandemic has clearly shown which lives the US prioritizes and which ones they do not. African Americans die at a higher rate than any other group. The poor die at a higher rate. The elderly at a higher rate and so on. COVID-19 has shown that vulnerable populations are not protected in this country because the lives of the young, healthy, rich and white seem to have been deemed more important. Governments need to prepare for future pandemics and plan for responses that protect the vulnerable population as well as the healthy.

 

Liz Burns

The Inevitability of Change

One of the main themes from the Parable of the Sower was the inevitability of change. Lauren develops her own religious text, the Earthseed, in response to her observations of the world. She sees change in a positive light: as an opportunity for progress. While speaking to her friend Joanne, Lauren comments on social change that arose from the bubonic plague. 

“Some survivors thought the world was coming to an end… But once they realized it wasn’t, they also realized there was a lot of vacant land available for the taking, and if they had a trade, they realized they could demand better pay for their work.  A lot of things changed for the survivors … it took a plague to make some of the people realize that things could change” (Butler 1993: pg56-7).

This conversation reminded me of an earlier podcast we listened to during the unit on the Bubonic Plague. The podcast from the Recovery on “How Europe recovered from the Black Death” discussed the changes to English Feudal System caused by the labor shortages. It describes how, in a certain sense, “life was better after the pandemic” due to economic and food security (Ware, 2020). Laurens’s point also resonated with me because she noted how large catastrophic events often remind us of things’ impermanence. In the COVID times, when many people’s lives have drastically changed, we have been forced to re-evaluate and find gratitude for the people and places that once felt permanent. 

I am not trying to claim that the massive number of lives lost due to this pandemic or any other pandemic is ever good. However, it is interesting to examine how this pandemic has caused some things to change for the better. COVID became a catalyst for many social movements that now have the momentum to fight for social justice. Additionally, there are unique benefits to this online world. I have attended several panels to hear many people speak that I may never have been able to in a pre-COVID world. As a dancer, I have taken online classes from some of my favorite choreographers, who never would have offered online lessons before the pandemic. These small changes do not outweigh the loss of life, economic crisis, and housing instability this pandemic has brought on. But it does beg the question: what new changes from these challenging times will remain in our post-COVID world? 

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1993. Print.

Ware, Gemma, host. “How Europe Recovered from the Black Death – Recovery Podcast Series Part 1.” The Anthill, produced by Annabel Bligh, digital file, The Conversation, 3 June 2020.

– Juliana St Goar

Power in a Pandemic

The power dynamics in Parable of the Sower exemplify common themes of pandemics we’ve seen since the first day of class, namely that those who are people of color or from low-income residences are disproportionately presented with barriers when it comes to the survival of a pandemic. The systemic racism, misogyny, and oppression predominate in this dystopian America, from the prevalence of rape and casual acts of violence to the exclusion of people of color when forming new communities. Lauren knows that as a Black woman, she is a target for racially-motivated attacks, as well as rape, so she decides to travel as a Black man. Patriarchal ideas are exacerbated by the conditions of the downfall of society, and men continually become more assured in their role of asserting dominance through sexual violence. Furthermore, Black and Latino people who are traveling on the road are even more vulnerable as potential targets of racially- motivated attacks and are precluded from being a part of new community structures like Olivar. Though initially I was surprised by the depiction of Lauren’s world, the idea that those in power will continue to hold on to their power at the expense of others is not so different from our experiences today with COVID-19.
With COVID-19, we’ve continued to see trends where people in power capitalize on what they have to the detriment of poorer communities of color. Amazon, which amassed billions of dollars during the pandemic, was able to do so by forcing employees to work in unsafe warehouse conditions and refusing to provide adequate personal protective equipment (https://www.bbc.com/news/business-54381928). During the course of this pandemic, we’ve also the rise in xenophobic violence against Asians, who are scapegoated by politicians in power who need to shift the blame of the virus on anyone besides themselves. Furthermore, while politicians are debating whether to pass federal funding relief for those who have become unemployed due to the lockdowns, hundreds of people are being evicted daily, especially among low-income, minority communities that are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and have worse health outcomes. Parable of the Sower shows us the enduring nature of people who have power abusing it in a time where the vulnerable are even more exposed.
-Christine Kao

Compassion in the Time of a Pandemic

“Then I felt the dog die. I saw it jerk, shudder, stretch its body long, then freeze. I saw it die. I felt it die. I went out like a match in a sudden vanishing of pain.” (Parable of the Sower, page 58)

Reading Parable of the Sower brought me back to the early months of the pandemic – the reality seeping in during March, the fear of the unknown, the no-end-in-sight days, the increasing numbers and the widespread panic. In all honesty, those early days were when I felt the pandemic the most. The cases are higher now than they were then. The toll has only gotten worse. But the normalization of it all has made me, in part, immune to the effects of a pandemic that no one is actually immune to.

Growing up, my mom would tell me not to internalize anything too much. And reading how Lauren internalizes all of the pain around her, how she really feels it raises this question surrounding the ability to be compassionate in a pandemic. Compassion, pity and grief are all emotions that some of us have the privilege of turning on and off. Or rather, we have the choice, at times, to decide who we feel them for. We can save these feelings for those that are closest to us. However, the harm that does to our communities and our world has proven itself time and time again during this pandemic. When we “[see]” it but don’t “[feel]” it, we put at risk the recurrence of death and tragedy – a risk that perhaps we can’t help but one that we must avoid and mitigate not only for the object of our potential compassion but also for the greater community in which we live.

– Chloe Quigley

Combating Social Stigmatization in HIV/AIDS

In reading Angels in America and Beauty Salon, both of which are about HIV and AIDS, it has continually made me think about the medical side of this virus and disease, as well as the social impacts it has. As a nursing student, I have learned about HIV/AIDS many times and in different contexts, including the pathophysiology, microbiology, the signs/symptoms, and the medications used in treatment. I have also had the opportunity to care for patients who were positive for HIV. All of these experiences have shaped my understanding of HIV and AIDS and it has shown me that it is something that continues to be stigmatized. There continues to be a spread of misinformation despite campaigns that have been created to combat these myths and tell the real truth about HIV and AIDS. For example, I have heard people claim that they could get AIDS from using a public restroom, which is entirely false. First, you cannot spread AIDS because that is not a virus, and second, using a public restroom is not one of the routes of transmission of HIV. This claim is a perfect example of the misinformation and stigmatization that continues to surround HIV and AIDS and contributes to the lack of normalcy that we have when discussing HIV/AIDS. I think that the biggest barrier to bringing about normalcy is the social stigmatization associated with HIV and AIDS. And with this, the question becomes, how do we continue to normalize talking about and having HIV/AIDS, while removing the stigmatization that has long been associated with it? How does our understanding of pandemics give us a unique take on how we should approach normalizing HIV/AIDS? This change is not something that is going to happen overnight, but we should continue to consider these questions as we navigate through trying to normalize and de-stigmatize HIV/AIDS.

-Alex Gladding

Found Family

Throughout our readings a common theme has stood out to me, pandemics create found families (those you choose to be with). In Camus’s The Plague, the reader sees the evolution of the friendships between Rambert, Rieux, and Tarrou. They are interdependent on one another and gravitate toward each other for companionship. Without one another, they would have no one to lean on (aside from Rieux’s mother), and being together gives them a mission. Pandemics deprive people of hope and purpose, but by being together they found their roles during the crisis. Angels in America clearly depicts electing who to be within times of crisis. Louis leaves Prior because he cannot deal with his illness, Roy turns to Belize because he has no one left, and Harper turns to Hannah when Joe leaves. Pandemics allow you to find those who you care about most. In Station Eleven, Kirsten found the Symphony, the Prophet found followers, and those at the airport stayed together. Pandemics expose true feelings about who matters most in your life. COVID-19 has shown me exactly who my found family is because we cannot have massive gatherings. Outside of my actual family, my found family is the nine people that are most important to me in DC. They are the people I want to be with when things get hard. Restrictions put in place during pandemics expose who we want to be with when we are most vulnerable. The people who are going to make us feel safe and sane are those we chose to be with. We find our family when we need them most.

– Liz Burns

Varying Meanings

“Meanings vary but the need to impose them does not.” (Rosenberg, C. (1989). What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective, page 10)

Pandemics reveal a series of conflicting human tendencies that construct a societal narrative and establish acceptable actions and verbiage surrounding them. For example: the tendency toward a desire to understand matched with the bliss of ignorance, the want to contextualize and historicize met with the fleeting needs and cravings of the moment, the ability to see the larger picture and think long term paralyzed by the conceptualization of short term benefits. 

So while meanings vary, the need to impose them does not. We see this as we shift from different parts of our day to day. At once, we are students and then we are friends, family members, community members, workers and volunteers. In our every place and function, we seek a definition, a title, a place. And the current pandemic has heightened these disconnects in our many traditional definitions and conceptions of reality. We are no longer students living off campus but we are young, reckless and selfish individuals not thinking about others in the community. Or are we careful, mask-wearing, rule-abiding contributors to the somewhat success of Georgetown’s low reported cases? Or are we both? And what is our place in the pandemic and more importantly, our role in history to understand it, document it and remember it?

These questions are not constructive in that they do not guide action. Rather, they are important in that they prompt recognition and reflection. Because as our meanings vary and as we vary the meanings of all that is around us, we follow the suit of all those that came before and all of those that will come after: imposing meanings and establishing norms that, for many, are a matter of life or death.

– Chloe Quigley

Biopolitics in Angels in America

Biopolitics has come to have many meanings but I think the best understanding of biopolitics is how the state chooses to sustain and regulate human life. Biopolitics is the most sensitive realm of politics. The regulation of the human body impacts everyone. It encompasses the most personal issues— reproductive rights, access to healthcare, sexuality, disability, etc. Most recently, the politics of disease has been the forefront of biopolitics discourse in the United States and the world. Besides just the politics of pharmaceutical interventions the government must decide if and how it will regulate what spaces people can enter, whether or not people must wear a mask, and if people will be traced by the government. The question arises at what point is the government protecting the human body and at what point is the government abusing its power in order to control the human body.

 

Often in times of disease, the most political act the government can do is nothing. The government can refuse to protect the body from the entrance of disease. Angels in America takes place during the HIV/AIDS epidemic when the United States government under the Reagan administration remained silent. Angels in America also explores the political power individuals hold when facing disease. All of the men in the play had not only less physical power from their disease but also less societal power because of the stigma of their disease and sexualities associated with it. Roy Cohn denies his disease and calls it liver cancer knowing the power that would be taken away from him if people knew it was AIDS. 

— Ella Castanier

The Power of the Sick

Angels in America and Beauty Salon both explore the interplay between disease and power, although in rather different ways. In Angels in America, illness strips hosts of their power, most notably in Roy Cohn. Cohn wields his power to transform himself into his ideal vision of himself, neglecting his Jewish and homosexual identities, in an effort to attain greater power. However, when swept by HIV, Cohn’s societal and legal power renders worthless in the face of disease. In Angels in America, disease is arguably the “great equalizer” as it can knock even those at the top of the social hierarchy down to the level of uselessness. As Cohn says, “Americans have no use for the sick” (Kushner).
In contrast, Beauty Salon argues for power derived from illness. The narrator speculates that should he visit the public baths or clubs again in his infected state, the men he would encounter would scurry away from him in fear of contracting the disease. He likens himself to “a fish covered in fungus from whom even its natural predators will flee” (Bellatín). Disease, in this case, provides a layer of protection, a ticking time bomb that guarantees death by its own hands and no other. Illness protects its host by eliciting fear in other sources of danger. Interestingly, disease in Beauty Salon supplies its host with power whereas disease in Angels in America strips power from its host. Such a dichotomy provides a platform from which one can launch into the endeavor of defining disease.

Works Cited
Bellatín, Mario. Beauty Salon . San Francisco: City Lights
Books, 2009. Print.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America : a Gay Fantasia on National
Themes . Revised edition. New York: Theatre Communications
Group, 2014. Print

Defining Human Civilization

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven provides the foundation for an intriguing discussion on human civilizations and pandemics. When the sheer magnitude of the Georgian Flu wipes out essentially all of modern civilization, Station Eleven juxtaposes telecommunication, advanced transportation, crowdedness, and organized infrastructures with silence, pedal nomadism, isolation, and scattered communities. In other words, a utopia crumbles into a dystopia and brings into question the definition of a human civilization. What aspects of a civilization survive a pandemic, arguably an eraser of all but the pillars of civilization? 

 

One remnant of universal human civilization that persists into the post-pandemic world is community. Despite the disconnection beyond local social units and the plummeting human population, humans after the Georgia flu still manage to aggregate together into communities. The Symphony, St. Deborah by the Water, the Prophet’s cult, the Museum of Civilization, and the McKinley settlement are all examples of human affinity for aggregation. Our propensity for socialization is evident in the current COVID-19 pandemic as well. Quarantine magnifies the desire to maintain established relationships with other people. Despite social distancing regulations, crowded gatherings persist, partygoers risking their physical health to alleviate the blows to their social health. Both Station Eleven and the COVID-19 world illuminate the prominence of socialization in both human civilization and human nature. Our collective identity is so prominent that it survives catastrophes that strip modern civilization of many of its defining features. 

 

Interestingly, the communities in Station Eleven all exhibit organization. The conductor heads the Symphony, the Prophet commands his followers across his conquered territories, and Jeevan’s wife Daria is one of the founders and leaders of McKinley. The designation of power and hierarchy among the different communities are universal. How leaders obtain and wield their power differentiate the community types. For instance, terror and faith is instrumental to the Prophet’s attainment and employment of his sovereign power. On the other hand, the conductor, who derives her leadership from her conducting skills and pre-pandemic occupation, respects and weighs the Symphony’s opinions in decision making. Power has become a hot topic of debate in COVID-19 as well with the pandemic challenging national, state, and local leadership.

– Angelette Pham