• Grace Taylor Rae

When the Chips Are Down: Reorganization in the Time of Pandemic

Updated: Mar 30

This year’s vernal equinox was the earliest in over a century. As we move deeper into Spring 2020, all of humanity is reborn into new awareness of our interconnectedness as a planet and global community in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thank you to all the heroes, healers and care workers, all the doctors, nurses, grocers, food suppliers, health professionals, tradespeople, manufacturers of essentials, engineers, scientists, cashiers, delivery personnel, teachers and counselors who are meeting our most basic needs on Earth right now.

As a New Yorker, I unfortunately am not surprised by the rapid spread of illness in the most populated city in the United States. When I left my home in Brooklyn several weeks ago and began self-isolating outside the city, public schools were still open. Now, all businesses but the most essential are closed, events are cancelled and people are advised to stay home.

Through this time of monumental change, it is more obvious what is essential, what has been illusion and what systemic reorganization is urgent within the social, economic and medical infrastructures we called civilization.

Four months ago I saw the Broadway musical Hadestown, written by Anaïs Mitchell and directed by Rachel Chavkin. I felt this genius adaptation of Orpheus + Eurydice, originally written in 2006, land in poetic depths greater than I was aware existed. Thank you to the phenomenal cast and creative team of this mythic narrative that transcends history, triangulating perspective between a Depression-era setting and the sociopolitical climate of our eternal now. Although November 2019 feels like eons ago, the prescience of this performance has remained on repeat in my heart, and it resonates now more than ever.

One line in particular, from the song “Living It Up on Top,” strikes a profoundly truthful chord — Orpheus expresses his gratitude for the abundant bounty of the natural world, of Earth, of Persephone’s prosperity as she returns. He reminds humanity how Persephone asks nothing in return, but that we should live and learn to live as brothers in this life, and to trust she will provide, and if no one takes too much, there will always be enough.

Now especially we are aware of how we must not take too much — from our planet, natural world or grocery stores — for our land, environment and cities to be healthy and habitable. The expectation of more building, development and growth, and the acceptance of more displacement and overcrowding, are unhealthy. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights for a 21st Century audience the unsustainability of urban density.

How many humans can an area of several square miles reasonably support? How can people access food, supplies and healthcare locally without mass imports, shipping or commuting? How long can we expect communities to remain healthy in settings with virtually no organic environment (trees, grass, soil, fresh air) to mitigate biological toxins and absorb the impact of our collective trauma?

We have been measuring value in the wrong dimension. If space increasingly is colonized and commodified, and capital increasingly is required to survive, then health and access are diminished inherently, and people increasingly work and pay more for less.

If our equations are sick, then it follows that we are, too.

We are moving deeper into awareness that money has no intrinsic worth, no correlation to life. In a debt-based, rent-based economy, everyone from individuals to massive corporations eventually were reliant on loans, credit and bailouts. Eventually, *growth* was only possible through increasing (and commodifying) debt itself. The actual numbers have been meaningless for a while now, just as the equations have been sick.

Stimulus and bailouts were born when (1) material needs to move, so financial architects drag money in the direction of need to encourage spending; (2) pillars of industry (banking, transportation, housing, etc.) are nearing failure without the revenue they depended upon to function. These movements have been independent of balanced budgets or whether cash exists in a bank account. Ultimately, within a debt-based economy, loans were neither benefits nor repayable.

These are the swan songs of late-stage capitalism as we approach the inevitability of debt cancellation, rent cancellation and universal income as mathematical certainties.

It ain’t right, and it ain’t natural, as Persephone says in Hadestown, to strip the earth for resources to hoard, while in the meantime up above, the harvest dies and people starve, oceans rise and overflow. Nor is it right or natural to continue leveraging our lifetimes as we fixate on functions and products that pollute our planet. Climate change teaches us that our relationship to nature is out of balance; wealth inequality teaches us that our relationship to resources is out of balance. This is not news. These are not separate issues. Rent is too damn high, but we knew that already.

The coronavirus clarion call is forcing material — especially medical supplies — to move where it must, despite what money state or local governments may or may not have. As we reconceptualize the meaning (and flow) of currency, we can save time and energy by making and moving materials to meet needs on a public scale, rather than hoarding, speculating and price gouging. As demand increases, we have the opportunity to center ourselves in priority, rather than profit.

A ventilator need not cost $40,000 if corporations, scientists and engineers cooperate to share technology, universally; if manufacturers everywhere prioritize necessities over novelties. Healthcare need not exist as a commodity loaned by employers-as-brokers to those working in full-time salaried positions. With greater public access comes greater preparedness for times such as these. Likewise, in this new era we see laid bare the toxicity of the prison industrial complex, the need to empty jails and the imperative abolish prisons. This health crisis is showing us that what has masqueraded as civil society has never been civil in the first place. We are forced to evaluate how we previously classified human bodies, labor and value.

Beware suggestions that we “return to normal economic activity.” Normal economic activity has been the problem. Now exists a window of opportunity for systemic redesign, aligned with community health and healing.

We will not technologize or financialize ourselves out of responsibility for long. We are not on the environment as exploratory tourists; we are not on time as riders atop a horse we drive into exponential productivity. We will reestablish, re-root ourselves in time and in nature, rather than multiply our lifespans by machine functions to create capital. Reparations witness our past, presently. Rights of Nature present the future with possibility.

We no longer can drink the wine of eternal growth. The starkness between the luxury of summertime and the poverty of winter is untenable in physical reality, so it changes. Of necessity, we are moving into the circularity of time and our internal rhythms, increasingly uncluttered. Now that we are tracking fewer orbits around so many intricate external engagements, we find more stillness, and our experience spirals around us, through us.

As we finally pause and reset, Gaia breathes again. With countries around the world decreasing industrial activity, air quality is improving and animals are returning to previously inhospitable places. It is apparent what is essential now. It is generally where capital is least concentrated. It is apparent that humanity is capable of heart-centered design-thinking:

Broadway artists are uniting to make supplies including masks and gowns for hospitals. Professional sports teams and athletes are donating to coronavirus relief causes. Neighbors are sharing surplus food, exchanging expertise digitally and delivering medicine and groceries to people unable to leave their homes. Thousands of retired healthcare workers are volunteering their time and skills. As industry dims in our electric cities, we feel our true center. Localized, concentric social geometries emerge. With less interference, priority is clearer in the mirror of experience. We are more flexible than we previously believed.

This June, I planned to move out of New York City with my fiancé after our wedding in Brooklyn. Given the uncertainty, we shifted our moving timeline to the immediate present and will adapt our wedding plans as needed. We are grateful for our health and to be safe together as we move into our next chapter sooner than expected.

We are embracing the opportunity to accelerate the life we have been dreaming of for years. We recently bought a car in Barre, Vermont — where Hadestown was first performed in 2006 — the same year our car was made. Our intention is to move efficiently and compassionately into alignment with our spiritual, creative work, to continue isolating as advised and to live on a human scale in a natural setting. We are asking and answering ourselves — What kind of future do we want to build through this? Because the world we dream about, and the one we live in now, are one and the same. ~