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Introducing: The Covid Underground
Staying faithful to the event of the pandemic
Welcome to The Covid Underground, a newsletter for the Covid-free movement and all of those who continue to avoid infection.
Two siblings, recently vaxxed, are arguing in the D.C. heat. Finally the older one has had it. “That’s been the most annoying thing about this whole pandemic. The way you’re responding, it’s just…not normal!”
Covid Underground is a reader-supported publication for the Covid-free movement and all of those who continue to avoid infection.
I was the target of those words, two summers ago. They were painful. They were true. And they still are.
Even in the earliest days of lockdown, my family was an outlier.
We didn’t leave our yard until June of 2020. We wiped down the groceries for a full year. Three years later, with a few exceptions to get vaxxed and boosted, my partner has not shared indoor air with anyone outside our immediate family. By contrast with him, I’ve been reckless, venturing to the library, the garden store, the dentist and doctors’ offices with our kids, now aged 4 and 7.
To others, it might seem a limited life. But what I remember most about that first lockdown period was the feeling of freedom. Yes, my life was completely constrained within four brick walls. But all the systems and norms that had seemed so permanent had ceased to define our lives. It was liberating to see normal fall away.
What else could I get free of?
What else could I get free of? Over three years, I would answer, first: my academic career. Then, my expectations about my kids’ education. My assigned gender identity, the name my parents gave me. And that was just the beginning. Some relationships decayed; others sprouted and grew. I’ve accepted my partner more deeply for who he is, and vice versa. I’ve finally written a draft of that dream novel.
Among artists and tech innovators there is a saying: constraints increase creativity. For a minute in March 2020, it seemed like the whole world could see this way. Remember? For those who could stay home, early pandemic was a chance to take up the piano, repaint your living room, wait for bread to rise. Take care of each other in the ways that we each could. Watch the earth heal.
We all know what happened next. Quickly for some, more slowly for others, the restrictions dissolved.
The tentacles of normalcy re-tightened their grip. But not for us.
These days, I keep up with a couple of broad-minded friends from the before-times, but my social life centers around a co-op of more than 20 Covid-cautious homeschooling families. We gather for outdoor hangouts in KN-95 masks, run a masked Forest School for our kids, and use PCR tests after illness or exposure.
When we show up en masse and in masks to a local farm or playground, it feels like political performance art.
As the months of caution have turned into years, I think more and more about Alain Badiou, a French Neoplatonist. The central principle of his popular book on ethics, fidelity to an event, has stuck with me for 20 years:
“To be loyal to an event – fidelity is always fidelity to an original rupture, and not to a dogma, a doctrine or a political line – is to invent or propose something new that, so to speak, brings back the force of the rupture of the event.”
The rupture-event can be anything: an artwork, falling in love, May ‘68, Occupy Wall Street, March 2020. But accepting the consequences of it, and staying faithful to that truth, means stepping outside of ordinary time — and staying there. It’s not a matter of standing still, but of continuous renewal. As you do, Badiou says, “you are necessarily compelled to create your own rules, your own principles, and it is in this sense that discipline is indistinguishable from freedom. And this discipline constantly has to be reinvented.”
To my ears, Badiou is describing the thousands of people who post on the Still-Coviding Facebook groups: constantly creating their own safety protocols, protecting their freedom from the virus, renewing the force of the pandemic-rupture in every difficult conversation with family.
Contrary to the caricature of us as anxious and risk-averse, those who are loyal to the pandemic-event are those who are truly willing to risk everything.
We’ve surrendered the normal we knew to fight to bring a new reality into being: one that is well-informed, well-ventilated, far-UV-lit, and yes, when necessary, masked. And Badiou’s most important point follows from this great risk. He points out that those who remain faithful to the event are the ones who are willing to risk real happiness. We are strange and sometimes lonely, but our lives have a meaning not given by the pursuit and purchase of conventional satisfactions.
Don’t get me wrong. Many people who still mask struggle with anxiety and depression over the state of the world. They often speak their truth in concrete terms of resilience and “care for others.” That’s real, right, and relatable. But for me at least, my Covid-free choices are rooted at another level. Deep down, there’s a stubborn sense that life is better as long as I live in the truth that claimed the spotlight in March 2020: our global interdependence. Our human fragility. Our creative potential. And my happiness— not perfect, not constant, but real— is its own proof of the concept.
The practicalities of living Covid-free are another thing altogether.
“How do you do it?” I ask every new Covid-cautious friend when I first meet them (often via covidmeetups.com). “How do you manage to keep being so different?” Every answer is unique.
Some know there is no one else to take care of their child if they get sick. Others can’t forget family members lost to the virus, or their own early, lasting brush with it. Or their experiences in marginalized groups already pushed them outside the American mainstream. Others are highly educated and simply cite the research (gathered here by) about the negative long-term effects of Covid-19 on every organ and system of the human body, from heart to brain to our T-cells to our bones…
If there is a common thread, it is a capacity for, and history of, bucking the mainstream. It is my favorite trait in a person.
For myself, I mostly credit the letter writing. Since March 2020, my best friend and I have exchanged over 100 letters documenting our evolving pandemic lives, now crafted into a book called The Portal, after Arundhati Roy’s early, clarion prescription for the pandemic.
It’s so simple, so radical—the act of choosing to pay attention to your life, and not to the algorithm’s reflection of it.
In Alba de Céspedes’ novel The Forbidden Notebook, the narrator observes uncomfortably that journaling makes her accountable. “We’re always inclined to forget what we’ve said or done in the past, partly in order not to have the tremendous obligation to remain faithful to it.” My friend and I, shaped by different temperaments and circumstances, have chosen different paths through the pandemic. But we are faithful to the letters. The letters became what political scientist James C. Scott calls a “hidden transcript”: a private dialogue that contradicts, critiques, and resists the public, dominant narrative. Because of them, neither of us can forget what we’ve seen, what we wrote to each other while seeing it:
Trying to stay awake to what seems like a nightmare.
Do I want normalcy or do I want the end of the world?
I want to imagine a new world and it seems clearer now than ever that that has to start with the reimagining of the minutes.
Ay, it’s not over. It’s not over; it’s not over; it’s not over. Maybe, it never will be.
This is normal: pretending all this is fine.
Today, March 11, we arrive at the third anniversary of the declaration of a global pandemic, and we are approaching Biden’s planned termination of the National Public Health emergency on May 11. Most people— most parents of young children, anyway— have accepted that the “return to normal” is newspeak for an untenable new reality of frequent, intense illness. In everyday speech, “to mask” means to dissemble, but today to mask is to embody the truth: Covid is everywhere, and each infection is more likely to damage your body forever.
In the immortal words of the anti-capitalist Bartleby the Scrivener — thanks, but I prefer not to. In our Covid-cautious networked community, members are hosting outdoor-masked parties, organizing porch-side hair salons, booking private, masked trips to well-ventilated museums, and arranging group camping trips. Similar folks are forming full-on intentional communities. We get that the “wages of normalcy,” like the “wages of whiteness” (WEB DuBois and David Roediger) are a considerable material and immaterial motivation to ignore Covid. But as the saying goes, your health is your wealth. The billionaires know this, as we saw by the stringent precautions in place at the World Economic Forum 2023.
Biden can sign away the Covid-19 emergency measures and re-establish the legal normal. But we won’t forget that we deserve health, and health is more than just normality.
True health is the ability to change. About 10-30% of the U.S. population has changed their lives in the light of the freeing revelations of 2020, and we keep changing. We are dynamically, creatively faithful to what was— briefly— plain to all: normal is a dangerous illusion.
True health is the ability to change.
What I said to my sister that hot day in 2021, as recorded it in a letter, was: “These are not normal times. Normal is not the goal.” Since then, I’ve found others who reject the rush back to capital-n Normal. Daily and weekly, they help me keep faith with the rupture of the pandemic. We are living proof: a better norm is possible.