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Once Upon a Lockdown, Before the End of the Public Health Emergency

By Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson

Image credit: Tumisu

Masks off, everyone! Pandemic protocols are over. May 11 is going down in history as the end of Evillene—erm, the COVID-19 public health emergency. Can’t you feel a brand new day? In 2020, we were living a completely different reality. Lockdown had just begun with no end in sight. And the vectors of disinformation, poverty, and violence were raging overtime along with disease. It’s all documented in A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year by award-winning historians Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson. Lest we cast those times down the memory hole, let’s see what May 11 and the subsequent days looked like three years ago in these journal entries.


MONDAY, MAY 11, 2020

Two months since the NBA shutdown

“No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become,” Matthew Desmond says in his transformative book, Evicted. Six million Americans are out of a job. Many are surely losing healthcare, unable to pay the rent, have children going hungry. But this situation has been happening to the poor in our major cities long before the pandemic. This helps explain why the latest Gallup poll measuring the percentage of American adults who consider themselves to be “thriving” has dropped ten points. That represents about twenty-five million people, worse than 2008 recession levels.

Today, Trump claims “Obamagate” is to blame for . . . something. When asked point-blank what the current president is accusing President Obama of doing, he has no answer. In Trump’s Twitter tirade yesterday, it was clear that he hopes the word “corrupt” sticks to Obama and Biden like “crooked” stuck to Hillary Clinton.

More information about the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery comes to light today. The men who shot him planned the attack and received institutional support in the cover-up. This news underscores how we remain two Americas, with two histories and two realities. One America believes in law and order as a protection provided to all. The other America views law and order as a tool for supporting a white, wealthy, nativist status quo. It allows certain people to shoot a man three times and walk away free. In the words of Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, “It’s funny how in America if you break the law and look a certain way, you’re a criminal. But if you break the law and look a different way, then you’re a freedom-loving American exercising your rights.” Arbery literally ran into that second America, where white men assumed they could do what they pleased. Arbery must have thought, or at least hoped, that law and order would protect him, too.



According to marketing analysts at Forbes, we have entered the “Escapism + Optimism” phase of our virus experience. Forbes tells marketers how best to profit off the moment. They have been tracking, and can evidently predict, our consumer behavior, even during a pandemic. Evidently, in the early days of the shutdown, Americans searched for how to make a home office and how to cut our own hair. The following month, people searched for what to send in a care package and what to wear while they worked from home. Now, these marketers claim, we are in the third phase. A VP at marketing analytics firm VaynerMedia says Americans are now interested in spending their money on positive and hopeful plans that project their “utopian view of a post-COVID world.” Searches for “virtual sleepover” jumped 800 percent, as have those for “free virtual field trips” and “kids virtual birthday party.” People are looking for apartments they might move to and wedding venues in which to someday celebrate. Many are already planning for the wonderful summer they expect will come after states relax health restrictions, which is already happening. This desire for temporal agency creates profit-making opportunities, they say. For marketers, utopias are the perfect commodity, pitched as something people can access through their own consumer activism.

All of this marketing data is critical to firms looking to expand. In spite of antimonopoly laws designed to protect capitalist interests, we are witnessing mergers that would have been blocked before the pandemic. Many companies are using the “failing firm” argument, claiming to be in danger of folding under the pressure of the lockdowns and arguing only a merger with a former competitor can save them. It used to be very difficult to get government approval based on this argument because it eliminated competition. But antitrust regulators are increasingly allowing it, which means the companies that come out of this pandemic are likely to be larger, more powerful, and face less competition.

Companies are also using a different “failing firm” argument to declare that they must reopen, regardless of the danger to employees or customers. Tesla Motors CEO, Elon Musk, decided to open his Fremont, California, factory and informed his employees. Flying in the face of California law to benefit his company, Musk says workers must come to work now if they want to keep their jobs.


SUNDAY, MAY 17, 2020

“Imagine I’m a closeted lesbian that is back in a homophobic house because of COVID-19,” Avery Smith, a podcaster and leader in the LGBTQ+ community, shares with me. Smith hosts a highly respected podcast Blessed Are the Binary Breakers and writes the blog Queerly Christian, highlighting the struggles and triumphs of the LGBTQA+ and gender nonconforming community. For too many younger LGBTQA+ and gender nonconforming people, these stay-at-home orders have become nightmarish. “Or say you’re at college, living away from the people who are maybe even hostile toward you.” Smith’s voice drops, “There’s a pandemic. You’re sent home. You’re stuck now—you’re stuck. . . . You don’t have your ordinary connections.”

“I have a friend group . . . that consists almost completely of trans-plus-autistic and/or otherwise disabled young adults,” continues Smith. “This group of friends meets every Sunday evening at the house four of them rent to make and eat a meal, play games, and just chat and have fun together. They have not been able to hold these weekly dinners since February. And for some of the group, that was the one time all week they could be themselves: wear the clothes they like to wear, talk about trans and autistic stuff with people who Get It, and/or not have to worry about getting misgendered nonstop. So, it really sucks that the dinners can’t take place. A lot of my friends are experiencing some bad drops in mental health because of that loss of community.”

And there are still more tangible difficulties now. “For instance, say a cishet person becomes homeless because of pandemic, and so does a transgender person. The cishet person might be able to find a homeless shelter to stay in; meanwhile, the transgender person may not be able to find a place that will take them in or that will guarantee their safety from transphobic violence. Another example: say a trans person ends up in the hospital for COVID. They may face transphobic remarks from hospital staff, misgendering, or even outright refusal to treat. I know of many trans persons (and other LGBT persons) who will not go to the hospital unless they’re literally on death’s door because they’ve been traumatized by health providers in the past. And it’s a pandemic!”



Over 1.5 million cases 

I spend an hour this morning looking at my favorite paintings on the internet, trying to get collected for another day in the new normal. If you have ever stood in front of a Kandinsky or a Vrubel or a Glenn Ligon, you know that no image on a screen or on a page can begin to capture the awe-inspiring, lived experience of art. I suspect that, in order to truly emerge from the trauma of this year, we will need the shared-language-that-lives-before-language that art provides.

I speak with Zachary Levine, director of Archival and Curatorial Affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The world’s museums and libraries closed back in early March, many permanently. Well-known spaces with large endowments—the Met or the Smithsonian—will survive. Others have been working to move online. Historical archives, where people like me do our hardest work, are digitizing their materials to allow scholars and students (and now homeschooling parents) access. The role of the museum, Levine argues, was already starting to shift before the pandemic from being an authority delivering information to passive visitors to a convener of people around a particular subject. People want to participate and engage. With the pandemic, the successful programs will be those that include the visitor in an active dialogue, even if it is only online. Eventually, there will be an opportunity “for cultural organizations, museums, and art galleries to work very differently from what we’ve seen in the past.” While lots of media attention is focused on the closure of sports and music venues, Levine reminds me that it’s institutions like his that we’ll need the most in the long run.

Study after study shows the economic benefits of cultural institutions to cities and neighborhoods; they bring many, many more dollars than they cost. Besides, Levine reminds me, “in the wake of all this death and loss caused by coronavirus and the lockdowns, the role of museums—of those that survive these few months, anyway—will become even more central.” Museums help us work through tragedies precisely like the one we’re experiencing now. Perversely, the museums are closing. “You know, there are estimates that 50 percent of museums could fold right now,” Levine says.


About the Authors 

Dr. Margaret Peacock is a historian of media and propaganda in Russia, the United States, and the Middle East, with graduate degrees in history and information science. She currently teaches at the University of Alabama.

Dr. Erik L. Peterson is a historian of science and medicine, with graduate degrees in history, philosophy, and anthropology. He currently teaches at the University of Alabama.