I recently saw a photo on Facebook of a non-disabled doctor who received the vaccine with a relieved expression on her face. Her status update read: “Ready to go back to normal.” For the most severely affected population groups in this country, “normal” never was. It was a crisis waiting to happen. The same lack of government oversight and poor contingency planning that made nursing homes such dangerous places in the pandemic has also made them risky places during climate disasters. We saw this during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when residents of multiple assisted living facilities in southeast Texas were abandoned in the rising waters.
Despite my friend’s happy feeling, we can’t turn back the clock. We all know that until 2019 there is no going back. The only way forward is to have a clear understanding of how our world has changed – especially how the ability consciousness itself has been disrupted.
At my synagogue in Oakland, members can video-conference remotely from their hospital bed after surgery. Wheelchair users can now work remotely instead of having to worry about unreliable, accessible transportation. In this increasingly widespread virtual space, disabled and elderly people are not kept away, separated and invisible. The limitations and adjustments of pandemic life are a profound reminder of our common humanity, the central importance of care work and the terrible fragility of our bodies. I don’t feel like going back to a time when we forgot how inseparable we are.
Much of the anti-lockdown protest movement has focused on the right of the individual to have the “freedom” to spread a deadly virus. The reality of science and the body, however, is that we are all interconnected and in undeniable need of one another. The virus feeds on our closest social relationships: our need for touch, love, and help as we become disabled and get older. Viruses thrive because every bite we take depends on hundreds of other hands, and every breath we exhale can be someone else’s inhale.
Eventually, the vaccines will contain Covid-19. But if the structures that enabled this pandemic to persist, another global crisis will be around the corner. Until we realize we need each other, neither of us will be safe.
Elliot Kukla is rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, where he provides spiritual guidance to people struggling with illness, grief, or death. He is working on a book about chronic diseases in a time of planetary crisis.
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