We are not all in this together

We love to say that we are all in this together. But who exactly is included in this declaration of togetherness? We are living in a period that is anything but a common, universalizing, and unifying moment. Should we change the way we speak of solidarity?

We are not all in this together. The sheer dissimilarity in ways that humans experience the current moment is more revealing than unifying.

For some of us, COVID-19 is characterized by viral balcony concerts, virtual choir videos, overdosing on screen time, exhausting Zoom meetings, inspirational hashtags about being “alone together,” battles over cancelled concerts refunds, and selfies in annoying grocery store queues.

For others of “us,” standing in a grocery queue amounts to utopian fantasy.

So, who is the “we” of “we’re in this together?”

For some of “us,” COVID-19 is yet another catastrophe, compounding an array of preexisting crises. We live in shantytowns or camps for internally displaced people, where there was no soap, let alone disinfectant wipes, long before hoarding toilet paper became a sociological phenomenon.[1]

We were fleeing stray bullets and marauding militias, long before global debates about the efficacy of face masks.[2]

We have been fighting for decades for mercury poisoning cleanups and infrastructure for drinkable water — and other such projects now uncertain as we are now forced to trade the mitigation of one health risk for another.[3]

We were already facing devastating death tolls annually because of tuberculosis and malaria, but these memes don’t go viral.[4]

We were day labourers, whose daily incomes are daily traded for our daily bread, and who now have no income.[5]

We were waiting in line for an operation or cancer treatment, now postponed.[6]

We depend on assistive technologies to engage a world that is otherwise physically inaccessible — technologies whose maintenance and repair is no longer considered an essential service.[7]

We see the privilege inherent in the quip, “We need physical distancing, not social distancing,” because these two things are the same thing when you don’t have access or the means to pay for the necessary communication tools.[8]

We were clinging to our health on the streets, finding safety in stairwells or vestibules — all of which are now inaccessible and boarded up. We survived by rummaging dumpsters, which are now empty.[9]

We are the physical, financial, or emotional prisoners of abusers — abusers now sequestered inside the apartment with us, 24/7.[10]

We are effectually stacked on top of one another in refugee camps, where the prospect of social distancing is as feasible as walking on water (which is, by the way, also in short supply).[11]

We are the collateral damage in the wake of policies only the rich can survive.[12]

When you hear people say, “We’re all in this together,” it’s important to clarify who is included in the “we.” Why? Claiming a common experience where none exists is first the enemy of solidarity.

[1] United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner, COVID-19: Do not forget internally displaced persons, UN expert urges Governments worldwide, April 1, 2020

[2] International Crisis Group, COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch, March 24, 2020

[3] Samantha Wright Allen, ‘An added burden’: First Nations under water advisories speak of greater risks with COVID-19, The Hill Times, April 15, 2020

[4] World Economic Forum, 5 of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, April 9, 2020

[5] BBC News, Coronavirus: Huge crowds as India lockdown sparks mass migration, March 30, 2020

[6] White Coat, Black Art, Sidelined patients reject being ‘collateral damage’ because of COVID-19, April 24, 2020

[7] See Jeff Preston’s contribution to the Voices on the Margins of a Crisis series, compiled by the Centre for Research on Health Equity and Social Inclusion, Faculty of Health Sciences, Western University. https://crhesi.uwo.ca/margins/considering-complex-lives-value-and-covid-19/ Footnote updated Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

[8] See the video from the presentation by Jodi Hall and Julie B at the City Symposium on Gender Equality (recorded March 31, 2020), https://citysymposium.com/video/jodi-b-jodi-hall/. Footnote updated Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

[9] The stories I hear from friends who work at the London Intercommunity Health Centre paint a vivid picture of people who were just barely hanging on before the pandemic restrictions took effect — who are now just barely barely hanging on.

[10] Nadine Wathen, Medical Xpress, Not all find comfort while ‘safe at home’: Protecting the vulnerable from COVID-19, March 30, 2020

[11] UN News, Water access critical to beating back COVID-19 spread in slum areas, March 23, 2020

[12] I do not imagine or pretend this list to be exhaustive, only (and hopefully) adequately representative to be illustrative.