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  • Writer's pictureJulia Lee Barclay-Morton

Choice and consequences: COVID, class & the myth of romanticized vulnerability

from a walk yesterday in Inwood Hill Park where the Hudson and Harlem Rivers meet at the top tip of Manhattan

I am still recovering from COVID so any fuzzy thinking here please attribute to my weird mush of body and mind. But I have been mulling a series of thoughts about Where We Find Ourselves Now and hoping they will cohere. I know I am supposed to pitch this as an Op-Ed and try to get paid. But I have no ability to even think that way right now, so blog it will be. If you get anything out of it and want to share, feel free. It's lovely to know when thoughts resonate.

I have been mulling in bed staring at the wall as I recover from COVID about issues of class and COVID, and how choices are class-based—even if you want to get all existential and say Anyone Can Choose, the fact remains the consequences for those choices will vary considerably based on your class. Also included in terms of consequences are race, gender, occupation, education level, access to health care, geographical location, etc., but all these variants all refer back to class in terms of how they affect your choices.

And I have been contemplating, too, how choice and consequences relate to the reality versus the romanticization of vulnerability. Since BrenéBrown hit the scene, many people, primarily professional upper middle class women, have talked about how important it is to accept vulnerability. They recognize that trying to tough things out is getting them sick, etc. So vulnerability as a positive has become a bit of a buzzword. While Brown has great points about this for privileged people, it is equally true that if vulnerability is a choice, you are not truly vulnerable. You are allowing yourself to feel emotions, and maybe not armoring yourself so much, which is great, but you are not in the strict sense of the word: vulnerable. As in when people talk about "vulnerable populations," people "vulnerable to the Coronavirus," or "vulnerable to freezing outside when homeless."

So, let's look at the spectrum of vulnerability to privilege.

Yes, everyone can get COVID, even the wealthy. If you are on a ventilator in a hospital you are truly vulnerable, no matter what class, race, gender, etc. However, if you are in the most vulnerable category: too poor to go to hospital or afraid of deportation if you do, you are probably someone who—even if you have acute COVID symptoms—will die at home, which is what is happening to 200+ New Yorkers a day. Yes, that is accurate. 200+ people a day in NYC are dying in their homes, most likely of COVID, since this is an unprecedented number. The usual amount of people who die in their homes any given night in NYC is about 25. Now it's over 225. A night. These are people who have not been tested and are not counted when the death counts are given.

Let's call these people—along with homeless people dying on the streets and subways—as the most vulnerable. It is not a choice. Or if there was a choice, they did not know it existed, which is in essence the same as not having a choice.

On the other extreme end, you have wealthy people who got themselves prophylactically tested for COVID and have been able to isolate themselves in ways to protect themselves and their families. Or even if one gets sick, they have access to the best medical care available, and they have space in their home and financially, to quarantine themselves off from this family member (which most people in NYC do not have by the way—we mostly live in small apartments with each other and the ideas of how to quarantine one from the other is quite simply laughable to us). And even if one wealthy person dies, they can afford a funeral and burial. Does this make the death any less tragic or sad? Absolutely not. I am not valorizing or demonizing one life over the other. Just showing the difference in choices. The people dying at home or in the hospitals alone and unclaimed are being buried by prisoners at Riker's islands in a potter's field. This also includes people who die anywhere, but no one can afford a burial.

But these are the extremes. Most people are on a spectrum. I am somewhere in the middle: I am vulnerable because I have COVID and am on Day 27. I cannot get UI benefits yet, and there is no way of knowing when they will come through, because the system is kerflumoxed, mostly thanks to restrictions on the money from the federal government the states have to somehow satisfy before disbursing (though Jeff Bezos has in the meantime made billions, so hey, whatever, right?). I have not received a stimulus check from federal government either, because did not have direct deposit in 2018 because I do not own any property that would afford me a deduction (renters get no deductions) and am self-employed (also why UI benefits are delayed).

However, I am privileged because as of now my husband is still receiving his paycheck and my mother is helping me until the UI kicks in. If it kicks in. But since the help is coming from a family member, I don't have to stress about a debt collector appearing in a few months.

The way more vulnerable are those with zero dollars coming in, even more so the single parents with kids who they are trying to feed. However, those with jobs that are working are mostly vulnerable, because they are working in dangerous occupations, like: health care workers without adequate protective gear (most of them), grocery store clerks, postal workers, delivery people, the MTA workers, home health aids. Many of these people, a huge majority people of color and undocumented immigrants, are getting sick with COVID. And God help them if they also have to try to claim unemployment or if they do not have adequate health insurance. It's insanity.

There are the semi-privileged, those people who can work at home. If they don't have kids it's easier, but it's not always simple even so. But if they do have kids and are also trying to home school those kids, they are vulnerable to extreme stress and burn out. But at least have a paycheck.

So, you get my point here.

If you are financially well off or OK and have time and space, you can enjoy your quarantine time and learn a language and get in touch with yourself or whatever, but if you are struggling to survive financially and/or physically with COVID or any other disease, you do not have time to think about all the philosophical implications of ennui.

So when we talk about choice and "how to" cope with quarantine, we have to stop and think: wait, who am I talking to here? What level of privilege does my point of view imply? Am I judging myself or others against impossible standards. I'll give you my own stupid example. For the past 27 days with COVID, when I look at Facebook and see everyone's statuses about making bread, writing their novels, making masks, etc., I think wow, I am such a loser. I'm not doing Anything. It takes me a while to talk myself off that ledge and realize I am sick. And am healing, which is its own kind of hard work.

But, the fact I have time and space to writing this implies a level of privilege and a certain lack of true vulnerability. I am well enough today to sit up and write. I have enough of a financial buffer at the moment to weather this storm. I was able to make the choice to press pause on all my clients (private coaching, classes and workshops), because there should be UI money appearing and not about to get evicted. It doesn't feel like a choice because the two days I tried to work I was shattered afterwards and realized I could not continue. And in that sense it is a necessity. But what if it was that or get evicted? I would probably have kept trying to muscle through and hurled myself down a pit of serious illness again, maybe ended up in a hospital. I also had to cancel summer writing retreats that are a big portion of my income over the summer because of travel restrictions that will most likely still be in place. That was a situation of no choice, the kind many people are facing.

But regardless, we have to look at the consequence of choices. They are as important as the choices.

My desire is to see a world come out of this catastrophe in which people can make choices for their health and well being without worrying about being evicted or starving or losing their kids. Countries exist outside of the US (mostly in Scandinavia and Western Europe) where this kind of social safety net exists. And I hope we will work towards that. I am not even going to discuss the current leadership of this country because it is so absolutely corrupt, insane, and sociopathic it does not deserve mention.

I think our job, and by "our" I mean people who have space and time to think outside of needing to scramble to survive, is to consider how we can create a world where everyone has real choice and where no one has to be truly vulnerable, except in the ways which cannot be mitigated.

The project I will be working on when I have the energy again is my book about my non-linear yoga journey. One of the Yamas (restraints) in Yoga is asteya"non-stealing" and another is aparigraha"not being acquisitive." I think when we live in a social system that is so corrupt and skewed towards the wealthy, we are propping up an entire culture of stealing and acquisitiveness. The Yoga Sutra (2.37) for asteyareads: For those who have no inclination to steal, the truly precious is at hand.The Sutra (2.39) for aparigraha reads: Freedom from wanting unlocks the real purpose of existence.

I quote these Sutras of Patanjali with humility, knowing that I am talking about a culture and philosophy that—even though I have been studying it for 20 years—is not the one I was born into. However, in Hindu yogic philosophies I have found a lot of guidance. Indeed, for my COVID recovery, the most important piece has been my yogic breathing practices. The doctor who is monitoring my case remotely at Mt. Sinai asked me for the video of those practices, and has sent them to other docs and patients. I was privileged enough to attend Yoga Teacher Training at Kripalu last summer (with the aid of a generous scholarship) and now teach (by donation) yoga. I have had to put that on pause, too, which I hate, but I can't give what I don't have.

But again, it is because I have the privilege to have the ability to make the decision to heal fully I am. I hate that my body is so vulnerable to this virus, but yes I have to accept that. When I tried to muscle through, it told me: NO. True physical vulnerability sucks.

My lovely doctor agrees. She says, when I apologized to her for turning her into my therapist, "this virus is scary because there is so much we don't know. People ask me when will I get better and all I can say is: I don't know. But, I am a clinician, and it's OK to talk about all these feelings. That's what we are here for. We are in the unknown here, and it is scary."

So, that's a great doctor. Wow. The weirdest thing that has come out of this is access to a better doctor than I have ever had in my life, simply by saying yes when asked if I would participate in this program monitoring people daily.

There was a time in the past when I would have been freaked out by this level of monitoring and considered it controlling. Now, it makes me feel safe.

So, this is me now: vulnerable and safe, precarious and privileged, constrained but with some measure of choice.

Tell me your experience. I think there may be healing in telling our stories.

However, I don't know when I can respond. My energy waxes and wanes like a tide without a moon to guide it, mysterious forces coursing through my body to which I am, yes, vulnerable. The doc assured me when I told her that every time I ebb and symptoms recur I feel like a failure, by saying no, you are not. You are doing all you can. This is just how it is for some people.

So, I hope you are well wherever you are. With or without COVID, vulnerable or safe or as with most of us a combination that perhaps waxes and wanes of both. We have no choice but to walk through this. Let it wash over us. Hope not to drown. It's a good time to learn to swim, learn to float. Or if you have the time, energy and resources: build boats that can ferry others who cannot swim or float safely to shore.

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