Regret borne from reflection and anxiety from future projection can be crippling, even when both are necessary or ultimately liberating. These notions are especially true for social upheavals, where engaging the past involves questions more taxing than the ones Marie Kondo gave to us for spring cleaning: Do these relics make us feel good? When these relics are garments of clothing, we can say no, and away they go. With society, the relics that weigh us down can feel too complex to grasp or, more often, too inconvenient for us to want to engage with.
Nearly halfway through 2020, the world remains engulfed by the most explosive pandemic in over a century. Simultaneously, and not unrelatedly, neofascist populism manifests in unfamiliar settings, threatening democracy. In the United States, the last few months have delivered several visible test cases—involving deaths of African Americans at the hand of law enforcement—that have served as public referenda on the value of black lives, again. Covid-19 and uprisings have left our status quo in peril, and a public looking for answers.
C. Brandon Ogbunu (@big_data_kane) is an assistant professor at Brown University who specializes in computational biology and genetics.
But the overlap of the pandemic and the protests against police violence is of a certain type: not quite familial, but instead, more like mirror images. Covid-19 and the uprisings are a kind of twin, where the features are identical but opposite. This manifests in their respective relationships with the past and future.
In the case of Covid-19, much of our obsession was, and remains, with future projection. This is the essence of the debate over the relevance of predictive models of disease, where citizen-scientists (of varied background and expertise) have sparred on social media, and less often in the scientific literature. The points of contention often involve the veracity and ethics of predictions. Some of the debates are justified: Erroneous calculations can drive bad policies and cost thousands of lives. Elaine Nsoesie, a computational epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, says, “We shouldn’t be too confident about our predictions of what will happen in the future. We should acknowledge uncertainty especially in the models that we develop.” Unfortunately, the politicization of Covid-19 science has made productive debates about model projections untenable, as conflicts of interest now perniciously manifest in which ideas are entertained, almost independent of the science underlying them.
Our obsession with the Covid-19-shaped future is about far more than what the “curve” will look like in six months. The pandemic has also forced us to reconsider how we communicate, work, and learn. For example, higher education must now rethink how to maintain research activities, deliver high-quality instruction, and provide the informal social experience that college has historically provided. And there are new, important conversations about labor that have arisen.
More broadly, Covid-19 has forced us to rethink our relationship to infectious diseases. Considering coronaviruses alone (a single virus family among dozens that are known), the multiple instances of emerging pandemics over the last two decades has led public health experts to consider that we might be in the midst of a necessary cultural transformation, defined by heightened awareness around the potential for disease transmission. In this setting, which only a year ago would have sounded like the stuff of The Twilight Zone, close contact is no longer socially acceptable, mask-wearing becomes the norm, and personal greetings are relegated to stylized winks and nods.
While Covid-19’s influence on our psyche relies on its seizure of our present and future, the uprisings of late May and early June occurred because some events are too familiar: yet another public killing of an unarmed African American, with the imagery that invokes the politicized violence of a lynching. The ensuing uprisings have been reminiscent of past uprisings in many US cities, often following state violence.
The specific discussions about American history that are being had are one of the triumphs of the uprisings. Scholarly commentary on the history of riots and on policies that created the conflict are now front and center. Kellie Carter-Jackson, an assistant professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College and author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, elaborates: “When it comes to protest, the past is prologue. There is nothing more American than protest. Our country was founded on it.” Many of these comments have highlighted that the uprisings are, fundamentally, stories about the history of race and racism. Alternatively, race only emerged as a lead story in Covid-19 after the disease had a firm grip in the United States. An understanding of how race shaped the United States can help to explain its disproportionate influence on African Americans (over a quarter of total deaths). Nsoesie emphasizes that “Covid-19 has highlighted well-known health disparities in this country. We must confront these disparities by addressing the systemic and structural factors, including racism, that negatively impact the physical and mental health of blacks and Latinos.” But already, potentially useful conversations about how racism created the ecology for Covid-19 to have a disproportionate effect on certain communities are competing with speculation (poorly founded) on the genetic underpinnings of the racial disparity in patient outcomes. The “past problem” of Covid-19 discourse isn’t relegated to its tiptoe around race: The pandemic was such a widespread problem in part because current governments ignored warnings from many public health experts who have argued (often vociferously) that we should be prepared for another emerging coronavirus.
While discussion of Covid-19 struggles with past lessons, the uprising’s blind spot, alternatively, regards where to go next. Just over two weeks after the death of George Floyd, it might be too early to properly speculate on where the conflict will lead us, but activists and scholars are already commenting on what this will mean for the future of criminal justice. This includes a broad rethinking of the basic tenets of the contract between police and communities, including the very purpose of police. This advocacy has been so penetrant that the “defund the police” slogan has become just another progressive policy, seemingly overnight.
Policing has not been the only target of reconsideration. The uprising has fomented larger discourse around the instruments of mass incarceration and introduced the public to arguments for prison abolition. The prison abolition movement—popularized by feminist scholar Angela Davis—offers that violence begets more violence, and the long-term social solution to the problem is the ending of incarceration as we know it. This argument offers that several other alternatives to the status quo exist, including community policing, where police presence is minimized in favor of communities who are empowered to address their own problems. What began as pie-in-the-sky notions are now very real policy proposals. Not only has the state of Minnesota filed a civil rights charge against the Minneapolis police department, just recently, Minneapolis city council members recently proposed a plan to disband the police department. While these are just first steps, they do represent signals that our public imagination on criminal justice is expanding.
When set up dichotomously, the mirror images emerge: one that instantly sparks anxiety about our future, the other about a painful past; one about a single virus class directly responsible for over 100,000 deaths, the other a handful of violent deaths that symbolize the centuries of pain and countless deaths. Even the scourge of misinformation manifests in this manner: It invaded Covid-19 discussions from the very outset but has eventually emerged in the uprisings, as coverage of the protests rapidly devolved into rumors about the composition of the groups, whether they are outsiders, even white supremacists trying to incite chaos.
Pasts are supposed to be troubling, and enlightening, because they comprise events that have already happened. They can invoke deep regret and open old wounds, bring reconciliation and understanding. Uncertain futures, on the other hand, stoke our fears, threaten our current, potential wellness. In the faceoff between Covid-19 and the uprisings, society has the opportunity to learn two equal and opposite lessons. Firstly, the guilt and denial that lead us to ignore history has dire consequences: Look reasonably closely at the past and the warning signs for an inevitable pandemic are everywhere. Secondly, future projections should not be relegated to those phenomena that we use mathematics to describe (e.g., epidemics); we don’t need equations to project our desires onto future outcomes or imagine a more equitable world.
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