Almost everything I read or watch now starts with “because of the situation we are in” and proceeds to explain why things are being handled differently than usual. In many ways, I admire the creativity of people generally and of our community of photographers especially.
Those who make an income from photography are developing ways to stay connected to their audiences and are still finding ways to earn income. Others are creating unique experiences, either by showing an aspect of their talents that had not been seen before, or by offering more intimate, less structured connection time with fans and supporters. I applaud them all.
But hitting home most for me is what “this situation” is revealing about the society we live in, the life we take for granted, and the problems we have ignored for too long.
Factory farms sell to factory production plants that distribute to megastore chains. All of these require logistics that transport across continents and thousands of people to execute each day. Now they can’t, so millions of pounds of fresh product rot in farmers fields while grocery store shelves are bare and while people out of work can’t afford what food is there anyway. And even when product can get to processing plants, the plants are losing workers to the virus. Meanwhile, lineups at food banks get longer each day and stretch for city blocks.
The growing population of seniors means greater and greater need for social support mechanisms, including medical facilities, residential facilities and assisted living arrangements. But the staff who work in these facilities are often minimum wage workers with no benefits and no full-time employment. So they fill out their day by working in 3 or 4 facilities, taking whatever contagion is at one to all the others. And many seniors in Canada can’t afford to pay for private assisted living, so they are “placed” in provincially-run long-term care homes. I’ve always struggled with the concept of locking people away who can no longer look after themselves. And now we are seeing that as the pandemic reaches these facilities, minimum wage support workers just leave. I don’t blame them, frankly.
Many of us are working from home now, except where jobs require physical activity or are based outdoors. Here, there seems to be a clear divide between the wealthy and the less wealthy. Higher income earners tend to have more opportunity to work remotely. Manual labour workers do not. But sadly, manual labour workers are often less healthy, and often more susceptible to “situations” like we find ourselves in now. They can’t afford the medical care or even the healthy diets that would help to keep them safe.
Education too has moved online, where many families were already taking advantage of more “personalized” learning through online education platforms. The shift here seems to have been relatively seamless, except in school boards that again, have less funding, less support and less wealthy students. In these less wealthy homes, even having a computer is considered a luxury. But for me the more sinister long term outcome of moving online means even less opportunity for social development, as students don’t interact with each other face to face, they don’t learn how to listen, how to acknowledge each other’s contributions and how to solve problems together face to face. And later in life, personalized learning won’t be replicated in the workplace, where job demands don’t typically take into account personal preferences.
More important though is the disconnection from family interactions. Social bonds are most strongly formed by seeing, touching and being with family members. Generational ties and interfamily ties all form who we are and how we see the world. We experience a variety of environments and lifestyles through our family members. I worry about this social impact most.
Most small and even medium sized businesses can’t afford to shut down for a couple weeks, never mind a couple months. With whole cities shuttered and millions out of work, the only solution seems to be to have the government provide a safety net. But it’s not known if even half of these businesses will return. And how will the finances of the country recover if the businesses and jobs don’t? – sadly, it will be a very long road, on the backs of our children and their children. There will be another pandemic along the way too – this is the new normal, I believe.
For a bit of good news, it seems in many countries, pollution levels are down by 30-50% in some industrialized areas. There was a recent article about people in New Delhi, the capital of India, which normally has a thick blanket of chocking smog over the city, seeing the Himalayas from the street for the first time in 50 years. They called it a beautiful sight. The few people in the street would stop to stare in disbelief.
Wild animals are finding new ways to migrate through city streets and to start and raise families in areas where they would not have before. They are beginning to occupy abandoned factory sites and the surrounding lands. Or they walk down the middle of empty roads, no longer concerned about contact with humans.
Those who can contribute individually or through their company to the effort to contain “this situation” are also stepping up in an unprecedented way. Free rides for health care workers, free hotel space when workers don’t have time to go home, free daycare. Donations of supplies, offers to make supplies. Moral support too, by applause, signs posted and online testimonials. Almost every commercial on TV now is about how a company is contributing to the fight.
Courier services are working their butts off too. One delivery I had recently saw the truck pull to a screeching halt at a 45 degree angle in my driveway, the young lady literally jump out of the truck, run to the front door and place the package (thankfully nicely) before dashing back to the truck and screeching off, obviously in a big hurry. It’s even more fun for me because I can’t predict any longer when a package will show up. Some arrive weeks after the scheduled delivery date. Online tracking is useless now.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve taken in maybe 10 deliveries, all with cardboard boxes and bubble padding that then needs to be disposed of. It seems that garbage volumes are up everywhere, not only because of packaging, but because home isolation means more time to clean up your personal space or to renovate. The flipside of this is that with retail stores closed, more people are looking online even more to fulfill purchases, including second hand sites like Kijiji here in Canada. I’ve now sold items that I thought would never sell.
People are actually talking to each other too. Whether by Skype, Webex, Facetime or humble phone call, people are eager to hear each other’s voices, see each other’s faces and spend any time together. It seems phone calls have doubled in the US since the start of the epidemic, while text messages have remained fairly static. And often, in the background on these calls, are the voices of children or family pets, living their lives with mostly laughter and joyful exclamations. I sincerely appreciate the look behind the personal curtain of stiff politicians and medical experts, confirming that like us, they are people too and they are as shell-shocked by “the situation” as we are.
Of course there are always those who create problems rather than solve them. These are the neighbours of mine that still have people over every weekend, the people who get tickets for violating our provincial lockdown, and the people that make no attempt to social distance when I’m at the grocery store. Haven’t ever done that much swerving with a grocery cart – I feel like I’m on the racetrack at the Toronto Indy.
We also have to stop the “could have”, “should have”, “would have” that now seems to be dominating news stories and press briefings. There will be lots of time for looking back and for criticisms of what should have been done sooner or better, but for now, we need to let our leaders lead, while rightly bringing to their attention the things that they just have not seen yet but will act on once they know. From the outset, they told us the response would not be perfect – at least my country did – and we should allow them some latitude on that basis.
As a photographer, I’m an observer of the world. I like to watch the world go by and commemorate it visually as it does. My senses have been heightened in “this situation” to record what I see. But because of my age and background, I’m stuck inside. I write instead. Those who are out there capturing “this situation” in images have produced amazing work, ranging from images of exhausted health care workers being cheered at shift change, to planeloads of volunteers arriving to help more impacted areas, to empty streets in the largest cities in the world. We will never forget this. Thankfully we have the talent and technology available to make sure we never do.