Wednesday, October 13, 2021

COVID, Disablement, and the “Return to Normal”

Originally published at Monthly Review (October 2021, vol. 73, no. 5)


by Keith Rosenthal and Ari Parra

It has been one and a half years since the COVID pandemic first took on a widespread national character within the United States. During this span of time, we have witnessed the punctuated cessation of public, social, and economic activity; conflicts and controversies over mask mandates and stay-at-home recommendations; panic over the rationing of everything from the mundane to the serious, toilet paper to hospital beds and ventilators. The virus itself was talked about as a universalizing pathogen that did not discriminate; a threat to each and all of us. Meanwhile, anecdotal and quantitative data began to depict the vastly unequal impact that the pandemic was having on certain demographics of the population—people of color and Black people in particular, Indigenous communities, poor and working-class populations, and especially elderly and disabled people living in nursing homes and congregate long-term care facilities (along with the perhaps less-documented populations of homeless people and disabled people on the verge of entering nursing homes).1

Suddenly, the nation and the world seemed to find itself living in a protracted emergency variant of reality. From “normal” existence, society metamorphosed into a prolonged state of “abnormality.” Virtually all aspects of social and economic life, previously taken for granted, became inaccessible by degrees to vast numbers of the populace. Physical movement, gathering with friends and family, the desire to meet new people and possible intimates, travel, shopping, even going to a bar or restaurant, all became eminently restricted tasks. Daily activities of personal care and hygiene occupied more and more of people’s functional time and mental concern. The basic process of leaving the house required a great deal of pre-planning and preparation. Anxieties escalated around people’s ability to continue engaging in, or go about finding, paid work that would accommodate their restrictions and needs, and whether their employer would offer paid sick leave if they or a dependent became infected. Access to adequate, affordable, and safe health care likewise became a more generalized and potentially fatal concern. In a word, society itself had become disabled—disabled by the coronavirus; disabled by the actions or inactions of various ruling and hegemonic institutions; disabled by the preexisting social, political, and economic conditions of an unequal and individualistic capitalist society.

Through it all, the watchword of virtually all politicians occupying positions of power within the ruling circles of government—regardless of party affiliation or political persuasion—has been the aim of a “return to normal.” This sentiment resonated broadly across a public chafing under the disabling conditions of pandemic existence. The development and widespread distribution of a vaccine seemed to be the single beacon of hope—even as the novel strain of the coronavirus mutated into more robust and resilient variants, potentially requiring booster shots and additional vaccinations.2 It is as if the pandemic purgatory we have been stuck in was a detour off the main road, one wending laterally from the “normal,” desired route. Generalized immunity, then, stands in prospect as an on-ramp back to society’s proper timeline, back to the pre-pandemic vector, back to a “normal” future.

Abnormality Is a Preexisting Condition

For many disabled people in the United States and around the world, however, the abnormal state of things over the last year and a half is not such an estranged discontinuity from the previous state of things. Certainly, just like everyone, pandemic life for disabled people has been exceedingly difficult, painful, oppressive, and deadly. But the “normal” of pre-pandemic life was also exceedingly difficult, painful, oppressive, and deadly. To be disabled in contemporary capitalist society is to live in a permanent state of socially constructed “abnormality.” Illustrator Sam Schäfer, for example, has aptly depicted this phenomenon in a series of graphics on disabled people and the pandemic, published online in early 2021.3

In one of the panels in the comic titled “And Now Here We Are,” Schäfer writes: “We died the same way many of us lived: in hospital, isolated, stuck indoors, financially struggling, isolated.” As the caption explains: “Each point is illustrated with an empty hospital bed, a silhouette sat in a jar, a closed door, a broken sad and very adorable piggy bank with little coins in it, and nothing.” A subsequent panel features the words: “Every day I see people wishing for things to go back to normal. Back to the way things were. Where we were still suffering and dying.” The inscription accompanies a drawing of crutches lying abandoned on a patch of grass beneath a rainbow and sunshine.4