The Unlikely Unifier

By Britta Shoot

California State Senator Scott Wiener volunteers with Meals on Wheels San Francisco to provide meals to the elderly. He is “really inspired” by the City’s aggressive early response to the pandemic.

Love: What the COVID-19 pandemic can teach us about coming together —and not coming apart.

We knew this would happen eventually. As the 20th century drew to a close, an impressively daunting array of new viruses materialized, repeatedly threatening the world’s human population. In her 1994 book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, journalist Laurie Garrett, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her reporting on the Ebola virus outbreak in Zaire, took stock of recent pandemics and considered that while our medical experts had mostly conquered bacteria, viruses remained a substantial foe. “Humanity’s ancient enemies are, after all, microbes,” she wrote.

Since it was released more than 25 years ago, Garrett’s precise, reasoned investigation has proven again and again to be rational and prescient. In the years since its publication, the tome has become a handbook for surviving every new zoonotic disease outbreak, every new, endless pandemic.

One of the details from The Coming Plague that’s felt especially haunting lately is what it means to leave loose ends for the sake of moving on and trying to return to normal. In the mid-1960s, after researchers identified and helped eradicate Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, the National Institutes of Health cut major funding to the scientists on the ground in Latin America. One of the ecologists tracking the origin of that novel infectious disease was flummoxed, likening the lack of continued financial support to being a fire-fighting investigator at the scene of a curious blaze. Yes, the emergency had been handled. But without fully understanding its cause, it was impossible to fully prepare for the next outbreak sure to follow.

Shaky alliances

Generally speaking, as COVID-19 has swept six continents and already killed hundreds of thousands worldwide, San Francisco has fared better than many other U.S. cities. We are a resilient city, and Bay Area leaders reacted earlier than most. It’s also devastatingly true that our test results mirror the nationwide tragedy that already-at-risk individuals have contracted the coronavirus at disproportionately high rates. Political tensions within city government are nothing new, and often (and sometimes confusingly) at odds are Mayor London Breed and members of the Board of Supervisors. Since the mayor issued mandatory shelter-in-place orders more than two months ago, there’s still grandstanding and sniping in news reports and on Twitter (and certainly plenty of barbs traded behind the scenes as well). But positive, community-first alliances exist, and they matter now more than ever.

Consider just one: Mayor Breed and Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents District 10, collaborated on a $500,000 small-business grant program to help Bayview businesses impacted by the pandemic.

State Senator Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco in Sacramento and is a former member of the Board of Supervisors, has organized local blood drives and has been a fixture at service organizations around the City, including packing bags of groceries at the San Francisco Marin Food Bank. He notes that because of how overwhelmingly the HIV/AIDS pandemic has impacted San Franciscans, our city has invested in an invaluable public health infrastructure. “I’ve been really inspired by the leadership coming from our mayor, and from the Department of Public Health,” he tells the Gazette. “Their science-and data-based approach to the pandemic, and their willingness to make tough decisions, is the reason San Francisco has fared better than places like New York City during this time.”

Even newly needed multistate political partnerships have been forged as the pandemic crisscrosses the nation. While President Donald Trump has insisted states roll back lock-down mandates in order to minimize economic damage, Western states including Colorado and Nevada have joined Governor Gavin Newsom and the governors of Oregon and Washington in a tactical, science-driven alliance to reopen in methodical, measured ways that will keep people safe. “COVID-19 doesn’t follow state or national boundaries,” Newsom said in a statement. “And it will take every level of government working together to get the upper hand on this virus.”

Looking back to look ahead

Pandemics of centuries past have created a canon of contagion literature, ranging from the sci-fi classic The Last Man by Mary Shelley to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year, which inspired other disease-driven fiction, including philosopher Albert CamusThe Plague. In recent decades, new outbreaks and subsequent scientific inquiry and reporting have enhanced the study guide. If you don’t feel like reading about the Ebola virus outbreak in Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, you can watch last year’s miniseries based on his 1994 nonfiction thriller.

When you start examining the existing body of literature and research, it’s not difficult to see how we got here, or why many of us are reacting with philanthropic outreach and offering on-the-ground logistical support for our neighbors. But every pandemic is unique, and this experience has felt overwhelming to people at every stage of life and every level of society. And no matter who you are, professionally or personally, it’s always complicated — and it often feels impossible — to imagine what will happen next.

Thankfully, there are guides for that as well. In her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit writes about neighbors coming together in the wake of natural disasters, and why ephemeral moments of catastrophe are valuable. A pandemic and its related social restrictions are, of course, different from a sudden act of terrorism or a disaster well known to Californians, such as an earthquake or wildfire. But Solnit’s words ring true today. She explains that these times “demonstrate what is possible or, perhaps more accurately, latent: the resilience and generosity of those around us and their ability to improvise another kind of society.”

There is nothing recommendable about a disaster, but historically, we know that upheavals do teach us who we are as individuals and as a larger collective society. Especially in our desire to emerge from this epidemic well and wise, we are all more alike than we are dissimilar. Solnit adds, “[These moments] demonstrate how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness.”


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