“We’re all in this together.” To me, the tagline seemed like less of a rallying cry and more like a desperate plea as store shelves were emptied of necessities like paper products, cleaning supplies, and ingredients for bread. I could almost tangibly feel the anger and frustration building. When people are angry, they don’t come together. They get pushed farther to the edges, like the poles of two magnets.
I watched as people who I had called friends shouted into the social media void about their anger, their rage – and I was in awe that the topics were so disparate. Some of these injustices were real, of course. Violence continued against People of Color without any true redress. Amazon employees worked seven days a week to package and deliver the books, toys, and baubles to those “stuck at home.” On the other hand, to the frazzled mother trying to work from home while entertaining her child, these items must have seemed completely essential. Two of employees fit that description. A third worried about her chronically ill parent. It soon became clear to me that not everyone was experiencing the pandemic in the same way, similar to an observation made by Lindsay Donaldson.
I also wrestled with this term, “essential,” during the pandemic. My job was called essential, but I was one of the lucky ones who could almost always work from home. In the first few weeks of closures, our contact center received more calls than the system could handle, causing crashes, disconnects, and more frustrations. Those who did reach a representative often waited close to an hour. Those weeks were exhausting for me and even worse for my team. Many of us worked six days a week, twelve-hour days. Meanwhile, the memes and stories circulated in social media about those who could not work and found themselves bored after having cleaned the house multiple times. I was thankful that everyone at my agency was provided with options that allowed for at least partial pay if they could not work, but I know staying home indefinitely was difficult for most. At the same time, I was also angry – so angry – that my department was drowning in work while others would have been eager for employment to make enough to keep their families fed and a roof over their heads. But this was only temporary, right? It would take too long to train people, they said. But we’re all #INThisTogether. It’s apparently acceptable for people to wait months for their unemployment checks to come in. But we can’t pay them to learn new skills and receive their first paycheck in less time? It wouldn’t have been the solution for everyone, but seriously, why couldn’t that have helped some? Why couldn’t we get more creative? We had money to pay for overtime and to compensate people for an extra twenty to twenty-five hours a week, but we couldn’t afford to hire more people? None of this made any sense to me.
While the pandemic has forced most of us to reevaluate the way we live life day-to-day, it certainly has not affected everyone equally. For example, those like me, who were able to work from home, generally saved money by cutting costs on travel expenses, car maintenance, and restaurant bills. I am fully aware, though, that my ability to work from home made most of the difference, and that ability has come from access to high-speed internet (access both in terms of the availability at my location and the money to pay for it), and the type of work that I was privileged to do, that of a manager at a contact center. I was lucky, too, as our department had already been working on the transition to work from home most of the time. That plan just became expedited. Not everyone was so fortunate. As Linda Poon described in her 2021 article about the “Digital Divide,” many homes remain without reliable internet. This not only affected adults’ ability to work from home, but also school children’s ability to learn. Issues of inequitable access became much more real to many who had never considered it before.
Through a conversation described in Adolph Reed Jr.’s 2006 article, he poignantly describes the aversion that many Americans have to “big government.” After being pressed for more information, the correspondent’s response of who should take on the coordination of resources after a disaster was a vague amalgamation of wealthy individuals and organizations. The problem is, though, that in the absence of centralized leadership, very little will be accomplished. Someone needs to coordinate the efforts; otherwise, there is a risk of redundancy, inefficiency, and catastrophic oversights. Ironically, these are the very things that private corporations are assumed to do better than the government. In this pandemic, the lack of a clear, consistent message only served to create more divisions and deepen the disaster of the pandemic.
Above, I’ve included a picture of a commemorative license plate used as internal marketing to encourage us that we are #INThisTogether. I’ve also included a picture of my phone case with the inscription “ME TO WE”. These sentiments can be powerful and important, but they are cheapened when used only to sell products or improve a brand’s image, as mentioned by Francesca Sobande in her 2020 article. I wish we really were all in this together. I wish this painful time had actually caused everyone in our country and world to stop, reevaluate our priorities, and choose compassion for one another. My fear, though, is that the same forces that caused these polarizing divisions will continue long after the pandemic has fizzled out. Forces like deliberate misdirection by our “leaders” and the glorification of privatization and capitalism as the answer to all modern problems continue to reign supreme. If only once in a while, each of us would put the “we” ahead of the “me,” we might stand a chance at making a positive difference in this world.
Donaldson, Lindsay. 2020. “Covid-19, (In)visible Mothers, and the State.” Society for Cultural Anthropology website, May 11. Accessed April 5, 2021. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/covid-19-invisible-mothers-and-the-state.
Poon, Linda. 2021. “To Bridge the Digital Divide, Cities Tap Their Own Infrastructure.” Bloomberg CityLab website, Feb. 8. Accessed March 20, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-08/cities-try-new-ideas-to-narrow-digital-divide.
Reed, Adolph, Jr. 2006. “Undone by Neoliberalism.” The Nation website, Aug. 31. Accessed February 27, 2021. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/undone-neoliberalism/
Sobande, Francesca. 2020. “‘We’re all in this together’: Commodified notions of connection, care and community in brand responses to COVID-19.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 23 (6): 1033-1037.