Death in the 21st century: COVID-19 in Italy and America
Note: Recently, I was invited to write a weekly column for KPFK, the Pacifica Station in Los Angeles. This is my inaugural article, which was published today. It represents a departure from my usual themes, but does return to politics and economics near the end. I’ve been wanting to address this subject over the past few weeks, I hope I did it justice.
I’ve written a range of articles over the past decade, published by Truthdig, Common Dreams, The Nation, and a number of different blogs. Other than a handful about sports, my articles have shared a consistent theme: the state of politics, society, and the economy from a left perspective – with a particular focus on how left progressive political movements are doing around the country and the world.
In time, that will be my focus here as well. Even now, in the midst of the greatest social, health, and economic crisis to befall the domestic United States in my lifetime, there is much to say about the political left – as the defeat of Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primaries will forever be tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, at least today, I’d like to focus on another aspect of the crisis that I’ve yet to comment on publicly and which I’ve seen little written about: what the coronavirus crisis says about how 21st century humans, and Americans in particular, relate to our mortality.
Over the past month and a half, as the crisis closed in around us, I’ve been reflecting about America’s distinctive approach not just to healthcare, but to aging, family-relations, and ultimately death.
Before elaborating, I should explain that the Coronavirus impacted my family’s closest circle of friends before almost any other Americans. My family owns an apartment (that I visit most summers) in the very city that for a few weeks in late February and early March became the epicenter of the global pandemic, Bergamo in Northern Italy. Three very close family friends were stricken with the virus. Fortunately, none of them died, but there were many days when it looked dire. Other friends, however, lost family members.
When I finally saw a SKY News report from Bergamo, it was too much for me. There were the beautiful, winding streets of the medieval Citta Alta – streets I know as well as Los Angeles – without a soul in sight. At the time I wrote to a friend:
I have to confess: The fact that Bergamo has become ground-zero for the coronavirus pandemic is so surreal to me – it seems so absurdly implausible – that every time I see it in the news, I can’t help but feel that I must be dreaming. Literally. That Bergamo is part of this unfolding collective nightmare is, for me, more consistent with the logic of dreams than the logic of reality.
Seeing images of my beloved, but claustrophobic, Italian hill town also reminded me of classic works of European literature that address the plague: Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and even Camus’ The Plague. Reflecting on these, I began to think about the differing relationship we have developed to death in the modern era, even how the 21st century may differ from when Camus wrote after World War II. As the pandemic reached our shores, I wondered about what COVID-19 would reveal about the contemporary American approach to mortality.
You’re probably assuming now that I, as a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, am about to unleash a scathing jeremiad about the cultural poverty of the good ole USA. Yes, but also no.
Over the years, I have read much commentary about how mainstream American culture manages to suppress what is perhaps our greatest fear, the reality of our mortality. No society in human history has done so much to shelter us from death – in particular, through the establishment of a whole region of the country devoted to retirement; and, in general, through the break-up of traditional kinship structures, such as extended families living in close proximity. Not only is death experienced less intimately on account of this distance; but, once it is further removed, it appears more as a rupture and less like the natural order of things. This fuels one of the defining features of contemporary American subjectivity – living life as if one is immortal. This places American culture at odds with one of the great sources of philosophical wisdom in traditional cultures, which readily accept and prepare for one’s mortality.
One might hope that the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic could spark more Americans to adopt a mature approach to the reality of human mortality, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Indeed, while the pandemic has been managed horrendously by the Trump administration, America’s unique separation of the old from the young may mitigate the damage. It is exactly the absence of many Americans living in close proximity to their extended families that marks a sharp difference with Bergamo, which probably remains the worst hit city in the world. Italy does not have an old folks colony like the United States – and thus the death rate soared there when the virus hit a few cities and towns before adequate alarms were sounded.
Furthermore, one of the great blights upon American culture and society over the past 75 years, suburbia, may actually prove to be our salvation; at least, through the first wave of the pandemic. Indeed, it’s only in densely populated urban areas like New York, Detroit, and New Orleans that we are seeing death rates comparable to Italy; it is much lower in regions, like Southern California, defined by sprawl.
Perhaps, most poignantly, the crisis has placed what may be the two most dominant cultural forces in American society at odds with each other: the “Economy” vs. the “Individual.” In general these two great social constructs have worked in perfect unison: the imperative of the market in harmony with the monadic, isolated modern self/consumer. Then came COVID-19; and, suddenly, the two were pitted against each other. So far, the individual has the upper hand; and this is a good thing. Beware the coming days. The Economy has been taking a beating; and it’s more than willing to sacrifice a fair share of individuals.
While the Economy is more of a social operation – and the Individual is (by definition) more aligned with the philosophy of selfish individualism – in a world where almost all of the benefits of the Economy go to the 1% and workers are forced into competing against each other; we need to make sure we prioritize the lives of all of us going forward against the wishes of the wealthy few.
Then, when the pandemic is over, let’s make sure we build an economy that better balances the needs of society and the individual; and a culture that cherishes all dimensions of human life, including death.