No thanks to positive thinking - embracing negative emotions during corona
For weeks, the media have been largely dominated by corona-related headlines. Tied to our phones and computers as we are, there is no escape from the topic, even less so since many of us were quarantined at home. I got into my obsessive online news spiral in January, when the disease still seemed to be far away, on its rampant expedition across the Asian continent. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, I checked the news compulsively, closely monitoring the situation in South Korea where I had planned to spend the spring. For that reason, I was already familiar with the way corona thoroughly changed the media landscape once it hit Europe: First, the virus-related headlines filled mainly the top sections. If you scrolled down a little, the world seemed relatively normal with all the wars, scams, threats, and crimes taking their usual course. But slowly, corona started to dominate every sphere of life, a development that the media coverage reflected. Politics, economy, society, culture, sports, travel — wherever you looked, people would talk, write, and think about nothing but corona.
To counter the seemingly never-ending flow of alarming news about the pandemic, there are manifold articles popping up every day when I scroll through news outlets and social media, offering a different, more positive narrative. (Obviously, none of these narratives are written by people physically locked into a refugee home, or vendors in Kenyan slums who can’t eat if they don’t sell their produce, or workers without health insurance who risk losing their job if they don’t show up for work.) A French newspaper has dedicated an entire section to "positive corona news". In leftist circles, there are stories about a hopeful future beyond rampant neoliberalism and blatant social injustice. There is much talk about the promise that glistens beneath the doom, a future of mutual aid, alternated work ethics, and redistribution of resources, and even the end of the entire capitalist system.
A collage of good-spirited corona news (Screenshots of international newspaper headlines)
The private conversations I have tend to focus heavily on the positive aspects of the situation. My friends and family are thankful for being healthy and alive, and I can't emphasize enough how glad I am to live on this quiet small island, with a garden, a great community, and beaches and forests all around me. There is not many places one could feel safer right now. Of course, we try to see the positive side of this crazy situation that nobody is able to really grasp and process — because what else can we do? Sit there and howl into each others ears for an hour?
Why be positive when the world as we know it is falling apart?
Actually, that is precisely what I want to do. Step out of my door, climb the highest hill of the archipelago, and scream as loud as I can, for as long as I can. Because why would I want to be positive?
For very personal reasons, I want to scream because I am stuck on this island and in this country, now that I finally was ready to leave. I want to whine all day because I was planning this hugely important trip to South Korea, where I wanted to be all spring in order to dive into the country, the culture, the language, and my own history. I want to sit here and wail because this was going to be a life-changing time in my life, the year I would (re-)connect with my birth mother — instead, I am spending the money I had saved for this journey on rent and groceries in a place I don’t want to be.
I want to feel depressed because I finally started to improve my mental and physical health, privileged enough to be able to afford a couple of sessions with a therapist as well as a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine; but now I sit here, stuck in so many ways, feeling the benefits of all the hard work crumble away without being able to go on that journey that was supposed to continue this long and tiresome healing process.
I want to howl, into the phone, at the moon, at every wall of my tiny apartment because I already quit all my jobs getting ready to leave, but even if I hadn’t, I couldn’t work right now because all of them were precarious hour-based contracts without any guaranteed work and, of course, no social security whatsoever in sectors heavily affected by corona.
Apart from these personal grievances though, there is so much more.
I want to get to be angry at our world where the rich carry this virus from country to country and the poor have to pay the price, where European travelers violate containment rules in Africa and U.S. tourists import the virus to the whole Caribbean.
I want to rage because the most vulnerable people in our Western societies suffer most — the poor have to worry about food, the homeless about freezing to death, victims of domestic violence don’t have anywhere to go to escape their abusers due to quarantine restrictions (the numbers of females seeking help have increased manifold), pregnant women and girls struggle even more than usual to have an abortion, people with mental health issues suffer from the psychological impacts of self-isolation without professional help, and in the U.S., structural inequality is further exacerbated as Black, Latinx, and other vulnerable, marginalized communities are disproportionally uninsured/underinsured.
I want to sit down and weep because Asian-looking people are ridiculed, insulted, threatened, spat at, and humiliated everywhere outside of Asia, and because I can’t leave the house without fearing racist resentments based on my appearance.
What about those who can't go into cozy self-quarantine at home?
I want to mourn because millions of refugees worldwide fight for their survival in crammed refugee camps where they don’t have the possibility to self-isolate, to withdraw into a cozy quarantine at home, watching Netflix, playing with the kids, or working remotely. I want to mourn for the millions who live in the densely populated slums of Mumbai, Nairobi, or Rio de Janeiro without access to medical care, who can only snort at the idea of "social distancing". For all the other millions of people worldwide living a hand-to-mouth existence, for whom no work means no money means no housing means no food means no security means potentially no survival.
I want to be cynical because people are not being cynical when they talk about how good this whole corona thing is for the planet and for the environment which is something you can only celebrate when your job, your life, your existence is not in danger. I want to be cynical because I am a huge hypocrite and belong to that precise group of people. I want to be cynical because it is so easy to preach gratitude and kindness when you belong to the most privileged people on this planet, but we still do and expect a cookie for it.
Yes, Walt, I'm sure your 8.5-million-dollar home helped seeing things in an optimistic light.
(somnathbhagat84 via Twitter, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sdbhagat5181/16355929256)
I want to feel hopeless because this feels at times like a glimpse into a dark future in which closed borders, rampaging diseases, existential angst, and a widely shared feeling of terror, unsafety, and threat will be the new normal for most of us (as it is already a reality for many today).
I want to cry for all the people who have been lonely and isolated and abandoned already before the lock down, who live on their own without a network of family and friends around them, those who have to get through these difficult times alone, without support, without another human being to share their fears and thoughts and challenges with, cut off from the only bits of social contacts their daily lives provided.
I want to be desperate as old people die while hospitals enforce an old war-time rule that leaves the weakest ones to die and focuses efforts and resources on those who have a chance to live; desperate because children don't even get the chance to say goodbye to their parents, nor receive any information about their deaths; desperate about soldiers rummaging nursing homes and finding abandoned dead bodies that nobody dared to or had the time to take care of.
I want to hit my fist against a wall thinking of all the health workers and hospital staff — many of them doing underpaid and under-valued work in deteriorating health sectors, brave and enduring individuals who work their exhausted asses off trying to get us through these disastrous times, and put their own health and lives in danger so the rest of us can be safe. German health workers write on Twitter: "We don't need your applause, and we don't want chocolate or kind words either. What we need is: 4000 Euro before tax, more staff, hazard pay, and the de-privatization of the health sector!" In India, health workers don't even get applause and chocolate — instead, they are stigmatized, assaulted and thrown out of their homes.
Chocolate doesn't pay our rent! German hospital staff respond to a solidarity action that asks people to step out on their balconies, clap and make noise with pots and pans to thank them for their work (via Twitter).
I want to be heartbroken for all the small businesses that struggle for survival, those life dreams and projects in the form of cafes and bars and shops and initiatives whose owners lie awake at night crying out of desperation and worry; for the good bosses who can’t pay their employees any longer, for the small businesses that don’t qualify for loans because there is zero financial reserves, or are forced to accept high-risk loans that may ruin them completely in an uncertain future.
I want to be furious about people who turn this crisis into profit.
I want to be furious about people turning this pandemic into a lucrative business: individuals who earned a fortune by hoarding and selling urgently needed face masks and hand sanitizer. Amazon, despicable in its practices already pre-corona, that mercilessly pushes its workers through the pandemic and exposes them to even more dangerous, exploitative, and inhumane working conditions. Similar practices are deployed by other companies whose employees neither have health insurance nor sick leave (let alone paid sick leave). If you had to make a choice: either you take the risk and go to work, or you get fired and end up on the streets — which way would you go?
I want to be fuming mad because Americans stock up on ammunition and guns in order "to be ready with protection if there's panic", a statement so somber in its implications that I don't even want to take the thought any further (in some places ammunition sales have skyrocketed 400% to 500% over the past weeks). I want to be mad at this whole country that still stands for progress and freedom although everyone knows that it's rotting from the inside, at every single person who still opposes a total ban on guns after having witnessed shooting after shooting after shooting, at their lunatic president whose popularity among voters has in fact been increasing since the beginning of the national crisis.
I want to rampage because neo-nazi groups around the world plot how to use the virus as a biological weapon to infect as many non-whites and Jews as possible, because they celebrate this pandemic as the much-needed crisis that makes society unstable and eventually fall apart, because we know that they have long been waiting for that moment, preparing for a civil war to establish their sick world order of absolute and violent white supremacy.
I want to be scared because the world was frightening enough before corona, because this year has already brought so many challenges: catastrophic floods in Indonesia that killed many and left tens of thousands homeless; ravenous wildfires across the Australian continent that destroyed lives, homes, forests, and precious eco-systems. Another warmest winter on record that made flowers grow and bushes bud two months early, in the middle of what used to be deepest winter. A white supremacist who killed nine people of none-German decent in the country where I grew up, leaving us to wonder how many more have to be killed by right terror until it is finally taken seriously enough. A heart-breaking conflict in Wet'suwet'en, where native rights were — once again — attacked, denied, violated, and it became clear — once again — that indigenous peoples are worth less than the resources their lands contains. The on-going tragedy on the Greek islands, where tens of thousands of people live under dire conditions in the over-crowded camps, where violent clashes between refugees, neonazis, and island-dwellers erupted, and we saw how desperate human beings were chased and beaten by Greek and Turkish border police — while European politicians got wrapped up in halfhearted discussions, resulting in the disappointing result that a mere 1500 refugees will be saved from the Greek camps, allocated to seven European countries.
I want to be anxious because the future never seemed so uncertain as it does right now. 2020 was gonna be all about big changes, this message was whispered through all the channels big and small — but nobody knew what these changes would actually look like. I want to be anxious because despite all the potential for positive change post-corona, there is also the opposite possibility: that the world goes back to business-as-usual, or, worse, to an extreme, grotesque, larger-than-life version of business-as-usual, to make up for what's been lost or missed out on due to the crisis. Nobody knows because this is a situation that the world has never faced, so it could turn out for the best, or the worst, or somewhere in between, only that none of these scenarios can be foreseen because nobody knows.
I don't want self-care — I want radical empathy.
These are only a fraction of the things I have thought and felt lately. Of course I am not going to sit here forever and delve into loathsome feelings, of course I do devour articles about hope and positive change, how catastrophes can bring out the very best in people, of course I see all the positive sides of my life during this time and am thankful, of course. Nobody knows how the current situation will unfold and how its aftermath is going to look like but "hope is the embrace of the unknown", as the ever-so-brilliant Rebecca Solnit puts it in her book Hope in the Dark. Yet, I reject naive projections à la "Every challenge is an opportunity", I refuse to limit the scope of my emotions to my own immediate, privileged experiences, I don't want to read one more article about self-care, as long as self-care is a concept that — unless it is used in radical spaces — seamlessly fits into the capitalist obsession with the ego. I celebrate the courage and resilience and selflessness that so many of us reveal these days, those who step up and, through their actions, radiate kindness, generosity, and solidarity. But I also want to give space to all these other feelings: the rage, the fear, the confusion about all the injustices and uncertainties we are facing, many of which have existed for a long time and are now further exacerbated by this crisis. I want to allow myself to feel these things and I think we all should, because by suppressing or rejecting them, we'd deny a vital part of what makes us human.