The Top Ten Things I’ll Miss When the Pandemic is Over

Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh.

10. The joy of hoarding.

On June 14, 2020, I bought the last four boxes of Kellogg’s Grape Nuts at my local Publix, leading to a nationwide panic and global shortage. I also stocked up on Marmite, smoked tempeh, dietary yeast, and fresh cranberries leading to a scarcity of those too. You can blame me.

9. Crossing to the other side of the street when someone walks toward me.

Now I can avoid unwanted exchanges with neighbors and not be perceived as unfriendly. It’s the social distancing! Here in Micanopy, Fl (pop. 600), pedestrians are also expected to greet passing motorists with a short wave. Not doing so is like giving them the finger. The pandemic unfortunately didn’t change that.

8. Not going to the dentist.

And feeling virtuous about it. “I can’t go there – too risky!”

7. Camaraderie.

True, solidarity was undermined by Republican mask idiocy. And yes, at the beginning of the pandemic, there were plenty of white people – especially in the South and Midwest – who thought Covid was an “urban” disease of no concern to them. But by the Summer that changed. For example, nearly all the shoppers at my local Publix wore masks, and many showed sincere concern for the well-being of stockers and cashiers.

That solicitude didn’t extend to Publix management. While profits rose by almost a third in 2020 to $4 billion, Publix cashiers still earn an average of just 11 bucks an hour. And in a further act of ingratitude to patriotic American workers, Publix heiress and billionaire Julie Jenkins Fancelli paid $300,000 to sponsor the Stop the Steal rally in Washington on January 6, just prior to the attempted putsch.

6. Sharing a special hatred.

The presidential contest was all about hate. Not hatred of Covid: Scientists still can’t determine if viruses are even alive, and it’s hard to hate something dead. That’s why Trump worked so hard to blame China for the pandemic. But then he diluted his China-bashing message by expanding his targets to include Antifa, mask mandates, cancel culture, socialists, and even teenage trans-athletes. The American left on the other hand, focused its hatred on a single, orange fascist – it was a beautiful thing to behold, and paid off in November.

5. Staying home.

Staying home doesn’t mean being unsophisticated. For thousands of years, people have stayed home. Among the many notable figures who went nowhere are Jane Austen, Immanuel Kant, Honore Daumier, Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka. Paul Gauguin on the other hand, traveled all the way from Paris to the Marquesas Islands, one of the most remote places on earth. He died there of syphilis in 1903, a fugitive from the law. He should have stayed home.

4. Learning who loves you.

If you were lucky enough to be able to work from home and your partner was too, and she can still bear the sight of you after more than a year together, she must love you. The same is true for your dog or cat.

3. The pleasure of lentils.

The pandemic created its own cuisine, mostly consisting of foods that are frozen or canned, the idea being to avoid risky trips to the grocery store. In addition to lentils, plague-food includes beans, brown rice, quinoa, split peas, gnocchi, pasta, canned tomatoes, dried herbs, tabasco sauce, olives and frozen spinach and broccoli. I’m sure somebody is about to publish Your Own Covid Cook Book.

2. Enjoying the art on my walls, since all the museums are closed.

I have my own preferences – Goya and Sue Coe especially. But art is everywhere. And cheap. A child’s drawing can be better than a Dubuffet — he’d be the first to agree. An original photograph by the great Gordon Parks, from the time he worked for the Farm Services Administration, can be bought for peanuts from the Library of Congress. And a poster of Van Gogh’s Starry Night can provide almost as many delights as the real thing. Look at windows of his houses and notice the orange glow of hearths within. Then look up and see the same color in the stars and moon. Ask yourself, as the artist did, about the best route from home to the heavens.

1. Hope amid adversity.

Plagues have historically brought about what the theorists call “states of exception”: periods when rulers and governments imposed harsh constraints for the ostensive purpose of maintaining safety and public order. During past epidemics and pandemics, public surveillance was heightened, and records were kept of even the most innocent of deeds. Minor violations of quarantine could be punished by death, and order and discipline became sacred watchwords.

But alongside restrictions, plagues have also brought license. With death proximate, freedom may be grasped. “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” (Isaiah 22:13). Religious and legal strictures are violated during times of pandemic, as lords of misrule seize control from established authorities. Images of festivity in the face of plague are found in the art and literature of Giovanni Boccaccio, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Francois Rabelais, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others.

2020 saw its own festive transgressions in the face of adversity. In response to the killing of George Floyd and racist policing, 20 million people took to the streets, the largest protests in American history. They did that not in spite of the pandemic, but partly because of it. The pandemic was proof – even beyond the video of a cop pressing the life out of a helpless man face-down on the ground — that something was terribly wrong with the American social and political order. Racist violence was structurally linked, people learned, to a private healthcare system that allowed the most powerful country in the world to suffer the worst toll of Covid death and illness, especially among the aged, the poor and the racially marginalized. And racial capitalism in the U.S., we also discovered, was tied to a global order that allowed industrial agriculture (especially livestock farming) to invade formerly undeveloped lands, providing pathways for new pathogens to come in contact with the most vulnerable populations. All of this gross exploitation – of people, animals and land – has exacerbated environmental loss and the climate crisis.

These events led to the largest election turnout ever in the U.S., the defeat of an incumbent president (only the 10th time that has happened), and the hope that system-change might soon follow administration-change. But as Covid slowly begins to fade from view, and policy and budget disputes in Washington replace nationwide street protests, that last hope is becoming more fugitive. The lessons of the pandemic – solidarity, resolve and resistance – need to be renewed if an equitable society and livable planet are to be achieved.

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Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), and The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) among other books. His American Fascism Now, with Sue Coe, has just been published by Rotland Press. Eisenman is also co-founder of the non-profit, Anthropocene Alliance.

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