The only way to survive this pandemic and act more justly toward one another is by recognizing and embracing our interdependence.
In this election during a global pandemic, racial unrest, climate change, and unsettling politics, we stood in a crossroads of two distinct paths our nation can take. Each of us chose a direction reflecting our own needs and experiences based on our race, gender, religious values, ethnic identity, political affiliation, and economic income.
But are we really that separate and different? No. The truth is, whether we know it or not, we are interdependent because our lives intersect.
Maskless crowds refusing to follow pandemic safety guidelines soon overwhelm hospitals with more COVID-19 patients, further delay school openings, and shut down more workplaces.
The violence perpetrated by police against people of color and the destruction of property by extremist groups continue to hit cities economically in the forms of lost tourism and shuttered small businesses.
Massive raging wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the East caused by our refusal to address climate change destroy hundreds of thousands of homes and millions of square miles of land, and displace millions of people at a cost of billions of dollars.
We are suffering global illness and social hostility based on our inability to appreciate the ways in which our lives are inextricably bound.
Have we reached an apocalypse? Not yet. But we are at a crossroads. Our individual challenge is to start by finding a personal connection with the struggles of a group of people with whom we don’t comfortably identify.
For example, from the confines of my nine-month self-quarantine in a Portland, Oregon apartment with windows recently sealed against the overwhelming toxic smoke of Northwest wildfires, I’ve watched on TV how daily downtown peaceful protests have turned into nightly violence. These acts have shocked and disheartened me and have left me wishing I could join the marches to promote social justice for people of color. But at age 68 and medically at high risk for contracting COVID-19, I’ve remained indoors.
Nevertheless, I empathize with their cause because I also belong to an often marginalized and disenfranchised group: older adults. Like racism, ageism carries its own forms of injustice. Older adults, too, are “otherized” by most of society as people whom no one wants to be, or be around.
Like racism, ageism manifests in particular ways. While most of us are not feared or demonized, neither are we embraced or respected. Rather than being viewed with suspicion, we’re looked upon with disgust. And though we’re not treated with overt cruelty, we’re often patronized, pitied, or not treated at all.
For instance, just consider how nursing homes have suffered from a lack of adequate medical supplies to defend against COVID-19. Or how some political officials, such as Texas Lt. Gov Dan Patrick have considered us expendable. Or how people ages 65 and older are being excluded from more than half of all COVID-19 vaccine and treatment clinical trials even though they comprise more than 80% of all COVID deaths. We older adults are invisible and neglected.
The treatment is often worse if you’re an older person of color, and even worse for an older woman of color, or in a wheelchair, or gay. When any combination of race, gender, age, physical ability, and sexual orientation intersect, the unjust social policies that lead to a lack of access to adequate, affordable healthcare, education, housing, jobs, and lifetime income can multiply, sometimes exponentially.
My connection with the #BlackLivesMatter movement is viscerally clear in two disturbing videos: In Salt Lake City, UT and in Buffalo, NY, while police were using force to clear the streets of minority protesters, an elder, defenseless white man was pushed down by officers in riot gear. In those horrible moments, simultaneous assaults were committed on two seemingly separate populations: people of color and people of old age.
By living in conceptual bubbles defined by our own self-interests, we do untold damage to others, which then does untold damage to us. The cure for this condition is to understand just how circumstantial and fluid are our personal identities –– and interpersonal ties.
I’m convinced that only by accepting that our lives interconnect will we be able to enact laws and develop programs that will make all of our lives healthier and more secure.
The choice is ours to turn our inertia into action. We can remain motionless on our own experiential street corners, carrying our own ideological protest signs. Or we can recognize our interdependence. To survive this pandemic and heal our cultural wounds, each of us must take that first step into a crosswalk leading to greater understanding of another, different, population by including its members in our efforts and by joining theirs.
And just maybe, we might be able to proceed to the very conceptual middle of all intersections, where everyone’s desires for economic equity, physical safety, social stability, and global health unite, in that central place where we can create a society based on these shared needs and goals.
Only then will we be able to live –– safely and peacefully –– on common ground.