The COVID-19 pandemic has been crowned “the world’s unrivaled equalizer” and many have embraced this. But even though it strikes across all socio-economic classes, the blows are not delivered equally. The coronavirus has pulled back the curtain to shine a glaring spotlight on the deep divides of medical care delivery in America. The vulnerability of specific populations is reflected in their disproportionately higher morbidity and mortality statistics, blamed on the commingled complex social determinants that include limited access to healthcare and cycles of poverty. The curtain, pulled aside, has also revealed just how interconnected and interdependent we are as humans, sharing vital concerns of individual and community health. It is a wake-up call to a heightened awareness of our reliance on ostensibly invisible individuals in our society from grocery shelf stockers and food service laborers to personal care workers, but also an increased consciousness of the plight of our society’s most vulnerable: the homeless and the incarcerated, the addicted and chronically infirm, the physically and mentally disabled, the poor, the very young, and the aged.
The American writer James Baldwin opined, “The purpose of art is to reveal the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” Art making has ultimately been about self-expression, from the powdered hand silhouettes by Neanderthals in caves to megawatt auction market celebrity artists – as well as outsider artists who have no designs whatsoever on the art market. The arts are the means through which humans make the ineffable sensate; it is an elaboration of the emotional abstractions of the limbic system into the realm of the physical and perceivable.
In theory, the detonation of a neutron bomb would leave buildings largely intact while eliminating enemy combatants. In an inverse analogy, the explosive pandemic in one fell swoop collapsed the infrastructures of the art world, leaving creative economies intact but exposed, susceptible, and affected. Brick and mortar institutions have been depopulated and the art world has shifted to virtual presences. Those unsustainable art world dynamics of crushing overheads, fierce competition, and manipulated auctions are now laid bare to be questioned, and to force change. Our future challenges and responsibilities are to build new art world infrastructures without reinstating the misguided monetary armatures of the past. Withdrawal of funding for the arts, precipitated by the pandemic, complicates this task even further.
Artists have been tested before on navigating the transition from the what of the present to the how of the future. Our creative communities now similarly see the roles of art as coping mechanisms, educational opportunities, and calls to action. Commonalities between COVID-19 and the HIV AIDS global epidemic include misinformation provided by federal authorities, poor coordination of public health strategies, and partisan willingness to allow certain groups of people to suffer and die. A principal of the World Health Organization was asked what about the pandemic kept her awake at night. Her answer: “complacency” and the headlong rush to get back to a semblance of the old normal knowing full well that it no longer exists. There is now only the disequilibrium of the new normal. Viruses are ancient, integral members of the biosphere, essential as precipitants of evolution. We can expect the SARS CoV-2 virus to be around for a while, as the HIV AIDS virus continues to be present in our current populations.
The pandemic’s requisite social distancing has sentenced us to purgatories of solitude and has disclosed the crucial importance of socialization and the power of touch. Shut-in homes with dysfunctional family members have become their own pressure cooker detention centers. School age students are increasingly intolerant and frustrated, acting out against being confined. Graduation from high school and medical school now occurs virtually without the celebratory sensory rites of passage. Banned from delivery rooms, fathers are deprived of the primal skin-to-skin bonding of holding their newly born sons and daughters. Legions are departing this life alone, robbed of the loving surround of family and community during the final moments of passing, bereft of the parting gifts of touch and voice. Bodies are being stacked and stored in refrigerated containers. Some are interred in mass graves, others are serially fed into crematoria; most are sequestered from their cultures’ mourning rituals. New psychosocial pathologies of depression and anxiety like post-pandemic stress disorder (PPSD) may well emerge.
Medical scientists will continue to fight on the front lines of halting transmission by finding, testing, and treating COVID-19 while developing effective vaccines and cultivating herd immunity, but SARS CoV-2 is a novel virus and mutations are expected. Already a subset disease may be emerging: pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome (PMIS).
Past pandemics have forced us to confront sickness and finitude and have thus molded economic policies, shaped societies, fostered new technologies, and galvanized creative and intellectual communities. Artists are the conveyors of solace, bearers of hope, agents of joy, guardians of memories, and the storytellers for future generations. The successful application of solid science research towards ultimate solutions, of necessity, factors in social psychology and vital behavioral changes. These goals are most successfully communicated and efficiently implemented through the arts, with artists as our new scouts and seers. Equitably protecting those most vulnerable is our primary humanitarian mission.
This pandemic offers widespread opportunities to reconfigure ancient stars into new constellations by which to navigate our future, for humanity’s survival lies not in perseverative behavior, but in how resiliently we respond to and look beyond these tragedies…or not.