Pandemic Solidarity Transformed Our Society. Now We Need It Again.

In attempt to stem the tide of death, cities, states, and the federal government passed unprecedented reforms. Fighting to keep them is an important way to counter pandemic depression and isolation.

Recently, I took a moment to reflect on how I was feeling at this point in the pandemic and, unsurprisingly, like everyone I know, it’s not great. Despite the fact that we are safer this year (we have vaccines after all!) and we are now able to see more friends and family, I feel worse than I did at the beginning of the pandemic. Everyone I know is on edge or otherwise irritated, and there’s a sense that we’re all collectively meaner. Certainly, this is the case when you look at what service staff all over the country are reporting dealing with—rude and aggressive customers resisting mask and vaccine requirements. Heath care workers are dealing with an incredible amount of violence and threats; some hospitals have distributed panic buttons in case of assault. The country is bitterly divided over masks and vaccines—particularly for children, leading to fights at school boards across the country, which have prompted boards to ask for federal protection. Thinking back to the beginning of the pandemic, when I spent days alone in my apartment in Providence, the key thing that stands out is the collective sense of solidarity that filled the air. Despite some protests against stay-at-home orders, polling from last April shows that most Americans were staying home to flatten the curve and protect our health care system. And in the name of doing so, governments at all levels began to institute a number of policies in that briefly transformed American society.

When the virus first hit the shores of the United States, we had no idea who would be most affected or how many people would die, or knew much about how the virus was transmitted—all everyone knew was that this was a deadly virus that needed to be tackled. Heeding warnings from advocates and researchers that the virus would spread through prisons like wildfire, cities and states all over the country, and even the federal government, pursued decarceration. Governors in states as different as Oklahoma, Washington, and New Jersey commuted sentences and ordered people released who were serving time for nonviolent offenses, medically vulnerable, or slated to be released soon. The federal government released 4,000 people to serve the rest of their sentences through home confinement. Of course, some of this was forced by external pressure—after a lawsuit by the NAACP about prison conditions, in February 2021, North Carolina released 3,500 people from their state prisons. But all of this had an impact on the prison population in 2020, which, according to the Census Bureau, resulted in a 13 percent drop compared to the 2010 Census.

Decisive action was taken to keep people housed and to get people housing—since evictions and congregate shelters contributed to the spread of the virus. In addition to a series of eviction moratoriums imposed by the CDC and state and local governments that kept many people housed, cities like Los Angeles and New York City launched programs to provide housing via hotel rooms. The pandemic also saw a rapid expansion of the social safety net through the CARES Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and provisions in the American Rescue Plan. This included paid sick leave provisions, extended unemployment benefits, a child tax credit, and rental assistance, among other things. In addition to this, federal agencies have also taken steps to lessen hardship—the FCC has offered poor families a $50 broadband subsidy to provide Internet access, and the USDA has extended its program to provide free lunch to all students through the 2021–22 school year. Student loan payments have been paused. All of this has had the impact of significantly reducing poverty in 2020, and child poverty in the United States has dropped significantly.

The pandemic also ushered in a brief era of improvements in voting access, allowing significant expansions in early voting, mail in ballots, 24-hour voting, ballot drop-off boxes and drive-through voting centers—in order to allow for social distancing at the polls. All of this helped contribute to a record turnout for the 2020 election.

Of course, not everyone benefited from these provisions. Paid sick leave, for instance, left out millions of workers by exempting employers who employed more than 500 people, and millions of people still had to work in dangerous conditions during the pandemic. Others did not know about these provisions or had difficulty accessing services. More than half of eligible US workers did not know about paid sick leave provisions, and much of the federal rental assistance funds were not distributed. And when people were able to access such funds—for instance, rental assistance—there were cases in which landlords refused to accept them.

But we saw that in many cases where the government failed to take care of people, fellow neighbors stepped in—especially at the beginning. Mutual aid groups helped deliver groceries and hot food to vulnerable people; tenant organizers successfully shut down eviction courts; university students helped each other secure housing when their campuses shut down unexpectedly. Relief funds popped up across the country for different groups, from incarcerated people to sex workers to street vendors. Much of this work is quietly continuing today, and in response to new compounding crises like the winter storm that decimated the Texas power grid and Hurricane Ida, which battered the Gulf Coast.

The pandemic also saw the largest mass protests in modern American history—with millions taking to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of the police. Despite the risk of getting sick, people still people gathered, outdoors and masked, to protest. The movement won some real concessions, with some cities like Denver establishing non-police mental health response teams and others, like LA, making plans to do so. While the revolutionary energy of that summer undoubtedly had many drivers, it felt in part an extension of the feelings of solidarity that were incubated in the spring.

Since the rollouts of vaccines, which are free, as is Covid treatment and hospitalization for uninsured patients, our way of looking at the pandemic has drastically changed. Despite there having been twice as many deaths this past September as one year ago, vaccination has changed the calculus. One’s health is once again an individual responsibility, and the scores of deaths occurring right now are seen as unstoppable and unavoidable, purely the fault of the individuals in question. Policies like the federal eviction moratorium (and that of many states), extended unemployment benefits, and paid sick leave have ended; harsh measures are being pushed to put more people in jail; voting rights are under attack; and there’s pressure for people to return to work—even as the virus continues to spread. Other measures like free lunch for students are only intended thus far to be temporary. Meanwhile, despite pluralities of Americans’ supporting vaccine and mask mandates (even in Fox News polls), well-funded right-wing efforts are fighting such measures at school boards and counties across the country, leading some school boards to ask the federal government for protection.

A year and 700,000 deaths later, I find myself desperately trying to hold on to those feelings from last spring. The pandemic has been a time of unprecedented loss. But, in the attempt to stem the tide of death, unprecedented reforms were enacted, reforms that were needed years ago. It was hard to appreciate the collective power of those achievements in the moment, when they are concurrently occurring alongside a time of mass death. Now, the achievements are being rolled back, but the mass death still persists. What I have learned from looking back at the past year is that the antidote to isolation is solidarity—that if enough people in society deem something to be a threat to our collective well-being and decide to do something about it, changes can be made. These are changes that can be and should be permanent.

Still, the work for a better society still continues across the country, especially in workplaces across the country. Currently, workers are on strike for better pay and working conditions at Kellogg and unions just ratified new agreements at Nabisco and Frito-Lay after strikes there. Stage workers in Hollywood have gone on strike as well, as well as health care workers in Buffalo, N.Y., and in Worcester, Mass. Harvard graduate students recently voted to authorize a strike, and MIT graduate students are actively organizing their union. All of this action joins the months-long strike by UMWA members at the Warrior Met Coal mines in Alabama.

Philip (who asked to use only their first name due to their role in organizing efforts) is an organizer from Workers United in Pennsylvania who works with food service and warehousing. They say that while solidarity from some of the public has gone down, the pandemic and resulting labor shortages have made workers more willing to engage in organizing and has given them more leverage with employers.

“The ‘staff shortage’ moral panic has led to a general rise in pay offered, and that has meant that we can negotiate even higher rates for union members,” says Phillip. The past year has changed some workers minds, in particular those who had to work in person, about the value of joining a union. “I have definitely noticed that workers who previously were indifferent or hostile to broader labor issues are coming around. People who told me straight-up that they hated unions are now joining, and people who told me they would never come support workers they didn’t know are making connections across shops and industries.”

It’s an attitude shift other organizers have noticed as well. Chad Manspeaker is an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers–Local 304 in Topeka, Kansas. “We have seen our members’ solidarity grow over the last year. Most of our members are utility workers, and as such they never quit working. I think that made them see the common struggle they are all facing,” he says.

Mutual aid work also continues across the country. Caitlyn Caruso works with New Leaf Community, a project of Food Not Bombs in Las Vegas, which builds conestoga huts for the houseless and does food shares. With the help of the community, the group recently purchased land to help house even more people. They say that the pandemic dramatically increased the amount of people who got involved and, while the number has gone down from its peak, more people remain engaged than were before.

“While we have definitely seen some of that support dwindle,” says Caruso, “I can’t help but notice that some of the most dedicated volunteers I see nowadays found their way to mutual aid through the pandemic. I think seeing the impossible made possible really radicalized and mobilized people who felt otherwise disenfranchised and/or hopeless.” 

With 2,000 people continuing to die daily in the United States from this virus, turning toward the loss and suffering might seem an impediment to salvaging one’s mental health. But if our individual refusal to look away turns into a collective refusal to accept these conditions, we will feel less isolated, less angry, and less afraid. Now is the time to join those pushing for desperately needed changes to our society, from housing to child care to labor protections, criminal justice reform, and much more. There’s also work to be done at your workplace and in your community to help further these collective goals. The pandemic will end one day, but climate disasters accelerating, crises of mass death are only going to increase—crises that demand our attention, our action, and, critically, our solidarity.

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