Weekend Edition: What did you do on your summer vacation?
A COVID short story that might tell us something about how we might think differently about managing this phase of the pandemic.
Our COVID-19 pandemic has had many phases. And from its earliest phases of winter 2020 — back when we knew almost nothing and the idea of a widespread vaccine was something hinted at being years away — to our seemingly endless variant experiences that continue to test the endurance of our discipline and willingness to listen, our responses have varied wildly. Collectively and individually, we have experienced large-scale systemic supply failures as well as some of the most successful, large-scale, rapid public health interventions in history. And we have seen and felt both small-scale community-level neighborly care and highly personal frustration and paranoia. So many dimensions.
Each Summer, I spend a month or so living on the land with a small community of people from all over the world who come together to work on environmental and cultural stewardship and regeneration. So three years in, what happens when COVID shows up in a small, mostly off-the-grid community of folks in the New Mexico desert in the middle of summer?
The different assumptions underlying society — particularly the current state of American society — and community start to reveal themselves almost immediately.
In an individualistic culture rooted in a zero-sum, scarcity mindset, our first questions tend toward, “am i at risk?” And then quickly turn toward versions of “who is at fault?”
In a community-centered culture, our first responses tend toward, “are we ok?”and then to, “how do we take care of each other?”
In the middle of the month I spent in New Mexico this year, despite our best efforts and up-to-date COVID protocols, one of our community members — after traveling from another continent — tested positive. It was a disruptive and uncertain moment for all of us. But the response was profound and unanimous:
Of course we're taking care of you. Of course there will be more positives, and we’ll take care of them, too. Of course we test and shift until it's gone. Not until we're tired or bored. We take care of you until you're well, and we manage until we're all well. Period.
Lots of discussion about protocol and process. Testing and masks. Which tests work best. How “outside” is “outside.” No “whatevers”. Plenty of frustration, but no angst. Plenty of disappointment, but no pouting. Fatigue for sure. But then those people rest while others take care. We just take care of each other until we are are well enough to get to our regularly scheduled programming. After a five days about half the group was positive. After another day or two, the first folks who’d tested positive started to come out of quarantine. After ten days, everyone was more or less back into main camp. It's not “being in community “ then “COVID quarantine” then “getting back to normal.” It's just community. And apparently in 2022 being in community includes taking care of each other and managing a COVID quarantine.
So why share this story? When I do, people often quickly suggest some version of, “sure, but that can’t scale — you cant just put 100,000,000 people in tents on the side of a hill and feed them chia pudding until they feel better.” True. And there are a couple very important details to consider about my experience this Summer: one, most people were vaccinated and no one got very sick; two, we had relatively few high-risk people including only a couple of elders. So we benefited from the relatively high-uptake of vaccination in our community to even be able to consider taking care of those who were sick without heavy interventions like intubation or even simple oxygen therapy. Additionally, we live and spend the vast majority of our time outside which naturally limits transmission. We also had ten days worth of supplies that meant we could focus almost entirely on caretaking until the need for quarantine was over. However, I would suggest that in this phase of the pandemic, our community experience is, in important ways, exactly scalable. We don’t need to handle 100,000,000 cases at once in a single community. We need to handle 100,000 new positives a day across tens of thousands of communities, each of them capable of responding just as we did. It’s just community. And it suggests some things that make communities both thriving and resilient especially how we think about the “just-in-time” nature of the inventories that support our lives, not just our supply chains. But those are choices about how we want to see ourselves, each other, and how we want to live, how much responsibility for each other we’re willing to accept, how much we’re willing to prioritize those choices over others. It’s just community. Only that.