Scenes From a Pandemic: 20

17 08 2020

by Gregg DeChirico

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

Kayaker facing the storm (photos: Gregg DeChirico)

Grief in Florida

’Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind…

—William Shakespeare

Fort Myers, Florida

The term 2020 is associated with visual acuity, but chronologically 2020 has been a year of blindsiding trauma. I have witnessed and survived a plague before, that one ignored by Reagan’s White House when I lived in Greenwich Village from 1977 to ’88. AIDS took 34 friends, lovers, and colleagues before I stopped counting and fled the city in grief.

Now the plague’s name has changed, but the circus of obfuscation for political gain remains the same. That and death, as the US toll from Covid-19 exceeds 170,000.

With death comes grief, and its stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—a cycle I see distorted in the chaos around me.

This time, I live in the great state of denial… Florida. Denial offered a sublime state of bliss in March, when the kids came down for Spring Break, and Governor DeSantis held off shutting down beaches and bars until it was almost over, conceding to community leaders and medical experts as Covid cases were starting to multiply. And so the kids went home—to Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York… The rest is history.

Except, Florida didn’t let go of denial; it reopened for business on May 4. When the filter of rose-colored glasses finally fell away to the harsh light of reality, blissful ignorance turned to anger.

Anger takes various irrational forms. I live in a working-class neighborhood in Lee County. Here the roads and strip mall lots are dominated by pickup trucks. Some are shiny, though rarely new. Others are battered, rusted, their beds littered with McDonald’s packaging, crushed cans, tools, everything pushed to a corner and held in place by a tire. Virtually all bear insignia—the flag, the Christian fish, Trump/Pence 2020, the badge of some branch of the armed services, an AK47 decal, if not a fully stocked gun rack mounted inside across the rear window. Subtlety having taken a back seat to bold statement in recent months, Confederate symbols, also common, have graduated from four-by-six-inch decals to four-by-six-foot flags, snapping crisply in the wind.

Grief in Florida: Doctors Without Borders sent a triage unit to Immokalee to treat migrant farm workers and track the viral spread. This was not widely publicized. The governor, like the president, blames the workers for spiking infections. In the great state of denial, blissful ignorance turned to anger.

This is still an agricultural region. Tomatoes are a prime commodity, with other warm-weather crops. Harvesting depends on migrant workers, the majority of them Mexican. Despite their intimate connection to Ag profit and the state’s economy, DeSantis publicly echoes Trump in blaming farm workers for Florida’s spiking infections.

Most of the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 migrants converge in or near Immokalee, in neighboring Collier County, surrounded by cypress swamps. They live in tight quarters, often in complex multigenerational families, and ride to work in groups. Hand sanitizer and masks were not made available to them. Maligned as “illegals,” they were denied testing and treatment. It is no wonder the virus spiked here. More surprising is that Doctors Without Borders (MSF) sent a triage unit to Immokalee to help treat patients and track the viral spread. This was not widely publicized. I learned of it while inquiring about volunteer opportunities. Had I volunteered with MSF, I would likely have been recruited to accompany the triage unit on to the Democratic Republic of Congo to assist with ongoing Ebola outbreaks. If I were 20 years younger, I’d have gone.

Out of economic and psychological necessity, I took a job with one of the Big Box Essential Businesses, but I am a naturalist at heart, most content when immersed in a wild setting, captivated by most anything that crosses my path. I love snakes, even the venomous species, among the most highly evolved of all reptiles. However, most people react to snakes with a compulsion to kill. Case in point, my co-worker, Joe Z., ordinarily humble, helpful, affable beyond measure. Joe and I were talking casually about local wildlife when he declared that he will drive his truck onto the sidewalk if necessary to kill any snake he sees.

I tried reasoning, most snakes are benign unless provoked…, but a sentence scarcely passed my lips when his face contorted and he flew into a rant. “They” are… “snakes! They are evil.” Something about Adam and Eve, and how “we” lost everything. “Remember the apple, she got it from the snake!” Faced with his conviction, all I could manage to say was, “Oh, Joe, I used to like you.” To which he laughed agreeably, because he thought I was joking.

It struck me later that Joe is deeply mad. Spiritually, he feels he has been robbed. He blames snakes and seeks retribution through their wanton execution, but the enemy could be anything: face masks, BLM, Democrats, Republicans, Confederate flags, libtards, Muslims, migrants, vote by mail. Everywhere across the country, fear and uncertainty opens a Pandora’s box of festering vitriol, with causes both real and imagined, crossing all communities, in all directions, and becoming amplified as we approach November’s elections.

Anger having failed to resolve grief, elections—our flawed collective bargaining session where winner takes all—is unlikely to, either.

Bargaining of this sort is more likely to prime the losing side to retaliate. At work, I have overheard several break-room conversations about how many guns and what types people have, and where they buy ammunition—prices skyrocket weekly—specifically in preparation for the election. I told a co-worker that I don’t own a gun. Shocked, he later texted me an ad for a $359 Smith & Wesson .38: “Good deal!” The text wasn’t as unsettling as his apparent certainty that armed resistance is imminent. How can we bargain for fairness in a democratic process when civility is off the table, each side bludgeoning the other with demands and threats? It is depressing to think about.

Depression is something most of us know in this grief-struck time. My neighbor burst into tears the other day, standing 10 feet from me, both of us masked. “I can’t take it anymore,” she kept saying, before disappearing behind her door. Who isn’t depressed about a total disruption of life, many unemployed, facing economic ruin, others shut off from ailing relatives and friends? We have become a housebound, home-shopping, home-schooling, Door-Dashing, day-drinking society, castaways from the past, without a clear plan for the future.

Acceptance is the final stage of grief. But is it in this case? Especially when there is a constant flux of people experiencing different stages in different ways, with varying frequencies. When the mere idea of having to accept this as “the new normal” sets the cycle anew.

It is no longer a cycle but a perpetual state of social grief.

As a counter to its weight, I retreat to the natural wild, a world I understand, where the laws are fixed, cyclical, seeking balance. Through the eye of nature, I look for renewal, for calm, and hope to be spared from another hurricane. Speaking of denial…

Gregg DeChirico is a specialist in exotic plants. He is a member of Kopkind’s board of directors, a longtime dear friend, who once lived at Tree Frog Farm.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on August 12, 2020 on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Photo From a Teacher

(photo: Aaron Talley)

Back to school? Aaron Talley, who participated in Kopkind’s political camp in 2015, sent this photograph of his old middle-school classroom in Chicago. In the next installment of the Kopkind/Nation pandemic series, he will have a dispatch from the limbo state of remote learning. Watch for it! August 19 on August 24 here, plus a very special bonus.



One response

21 08 2020

How beautiful, sad, and smart. Just what I needed, thanks to all, especially the snakes.

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