Pandemic Déjà Vu

Crisis Cities is a public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, co-organized by Public Books and the NYU Cities Collaborative. Read series editor Thomas Sugrue’s introduction, “Preexisting Conditions,” here.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has been described as an unprecedented global event. Yet for some, the virus arrives with uncanny familiarity.

In Puerto Rico, 2020 began with a jolt. January brought the onset of an earthquake “swarm” that rattled the southern coast, bringing homes and schools to the ground while sending emotional nerves skyward. In just one month, over 2,500 seismic events were registered by the local seismic network, along with over 272 “felt events” of magnitudes between 2.0 and 6.4. Most of the quakes came in the wee hours of the night. As a result, thousands found themselves sleeping in their cars, in tents, or on park benches, afraid to reenter their homes. That is, if their homes were still standing.

As with Hurricane Maria, the tremors were followed by political-corruption scandals, mismanaged emergency aid, and failures within state agencies. Once again, locals were left to their own devices, forced to take recovery and community care into their own hands. While the Department of Education dithered in inspecting quake-damaged schools, parent groups and community associations began organizing homeschooling efforts and setting up donated tents for makeshift outdoor classrooms. While the central government stalled in delivering aid, caravans of citizens created traffic jams bringing emergency supplies to earthquake-impacted neighborhoods.

Unpredictably but unsurprisingly, the earth kept shaking and citizens eventually became accustomed to the unstable ground. Hurricane Maria taught many to live without electricity or running water. Now the earthquakes forced us to sleep in our running shoes, with our survival kits by the door. After all, Puerto Ricans are experts in resilience. We’ve learned how to live with state failure. We’ve become accustomed to crisis. Maybe because of this, when the COVID-19 outbreak began in March, Puerto Ricans quickly treated it as yet another plot point in our compounding disaster.

This feeling of layered crisis is perhaps best visible in the popular memes that began to circulate on social media in the wake of the pandemic. One example features a book cover for an imagined illustrated guide to recent Puerto Rican history. It displays three emblematic objects: first, a gas canister like the ones used to fill generators during power outages after Hurricane Maria. Second, a backpack representing the survival kits that residents were exhorted to prepare during the onset of the quakes. And lastly, a surgical mask, the latest emergency object that residents are obliged to acquire in order to mitigate the latest existential threat.

Like many other forms of crisis and emergency, the pandemic is a socially produced event, driven not by biological forces or natural hazards, but by the deeply rooted social inequalities that shape our experiences of those hazards to begin with. The pandemic is thus also a disaster in the manner often described by anthropologists and other social scientists: a totalizing and disruptive event that reveals long-standing fragilities and creates new possibilities—both economic and political. Disasters not only destroy and damage, they also reveal. They peel away the blinders of habit and routine and cast new light on what might otherwise remain obscured.

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, some began to see Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States in a new light. Across the states, many “discovered” that their nation was actually an empire. They felt outrage at the unequal treatment of the colonial citizens they never knew were their political kin. Even within Puerto Rico, where we do not have the privilege of forgetting our imperial ties, the true nature of Puerto Rico’s colonial status was laid bare. For decades we had been told that the tradeoff for our lack of sovereignty was the protection we received from “the most powerful nation in the world.” Yet after Maria, weeks turned into months and eventually years without the federal aid we had been gaslit to believe would come.

The revelation of this political lie began long before Maria or even Trump arrived on our shores. During the Obama administration, the severity of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis began to reveal itself, and our colonial status, long obscured by euphemisms and legal sleights of hand, was suddenly and crassly asserted. In lieu of a bailout, the Federal government installed a Fiscal Control Board, funded by Puerto Rican taxpayers but accountable only to the federal government. Caught in a political limbo with neither the protections of a state nor the fiscal sovereignty of a nation, we found ourselves unable to define the nature of our debts, the severity of our austerity, or the limits of our endurance.

When President Trump arrived in Puerto Rico, hurling paper towels in lieu of emergency assistance, many in the United States were scandalized. But in Puerto Rico, Trump’s spectacle was simply an unvarnished symbol of the state violence that has underpinned our relationship to the United States since our acquisition. His tweets and stunts are but an extension of how Congress has long treated the administering of federal programs as colonial benevolence, rather than as a national responsibility.

Perhaps this long history of imperial disdain and forced resilience prepared us for the pandemic, or at the very least paved the way for our lack of surprise at its mishandling. Long before testing kits were scarce and PPE was in short supply, Puerto Ricans had learned that they alone were in charge of their well-being. When Jared Kushner stated, in a White House briefing, that pandemic supplies in federal stockpiles were not meant for distribution throughout the 50 states but were, instead, meant for “us,” many in the mainland US wondered what he referred to. But in Puerto Rico we had already discovered the rhetorical figure of a federal government with its own set of needs, priorities, and logics that don’t necessarily align with the desires of its constituents, much less the needs of the disenfranchised.

Puerto Ricans thus have watched the many scandals that have shaken the nation during the pandemic with an eerie sense of déjà vu. When the USNS Comfort spent weeks virtually unused in New York City’s harbor, Puerto Ricans immediately thought back to when that very same ship circled empty off our shores, even as local hospitals were overloaded and forced to turn away the sick. While many in the US were appalled at the politicization of medical equipment and the ways in which Trump bragged about refusing to help governors who were not “nice” to him, we remembered all too well how he sparred with the mayor of San Juan while residents struggled without electricity, phone service, or running water. When mainland citizens were shocked to learn that stockpiled ventilators had gone to waste due to lack of maintenance, Puerto Ricans saw this as yet another instance of spoiled aid discovered in mysterious warehouses, abandoned airstrips, or rotted shipping containers on the vacant lots of party loyalists.

In Puerto Rico some have speculated that COVID-19 has become the United States’ “Maria moment”; that is, the point at which residents discover that they live in a “failed state,” with gutted infrastructure, inefficient state agencies, and a populace that emerged from the 2008 economic crisis with stark divisions between those who can manage to live through a hurricane, an earthquake, or a pandemic, and those who cannot.

This might also be the moment in which Americans discover that the future is a canceled promise. Puerto Ricans, and many others across the globe, long ago realized that climate change, neoliberal austerity politics, the dismantling of social-safety nets, and unsustainable global capitalism were heralding a troubling future. Long before Maria, young people in Puerto Rico were grappling with bleak prospects for even finding employment, much less for achieving a better standard of living than their parents. It is thus with great irony that we view a headline from the Wall Street Journal lamenting the state of millennial graduates from top universities in the United States who, due to the COVID crisis, are now said to be “walking into a hurricane.”

Disasters not only destroy and damage, they also reveal. They peel away the blinders of habit and routine and cast new light on what might otherwise remain obscured.

This feeling of déjà vu is not exclusive to Puerto Rico. Within the United States itself, what for some is a sudden crisis, for others is simply the extension of an already existing state of insecurity. While some are only beginning to discover a negligent government capable of putting their lives at risk, residents of Flint, MI, enter the pandemic on the sixth anniversary of their still unresolved water crisis. While many wring their hands over government officials who minimize the harm of a deadly virus, AIDS activists recall battling against the negligence of some of the very same politicians who are in charge of managing the current pandemic. As controversy swirls around the nature of a newly revalued “state sovereignty” in places like California, indigenous communities wrestle with their decimated ability to manage their own affairs and care for their own communities. And while some discover the limits of federalism, others have long known that the US is a federated empire structured precisely to ensure an unequal distribution of rights.

The truth is that the pandemic is a disaster in the sociological sense: a sudden catastrophic event but also a revelation of failures, an episode that exacerbates already existing inequalities, and a moment of reckoning. Many across the globe are currently struggling with feelings of collective mourning and grief for the loss of loved ones, for the sacrifice of strangers, for vanished personal goals, projects, and plans for the future. For some this is experienced as a sudden crisis, while for others it forms yet another chapter in a larger narrative arc of shock, trauma, sacrifice, and forced endurance.

However, we must be careful not to romanticize this knowing déjà vu through well-worn platitudes about “resilience” that reduce the harm of repetitive trauma, the slow wear and tear produced by structural violence, and the risks that come with being deemed “essential” while being treated as expendable. Indeed, it is partly their overrepresentation as essential workers in industries such as health care, sanitation, and food service that has placed African Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. And it is their already constituted vulnerability that makes this exposure much more deadly.

In the context of Puerto Rico, the COVID crisis has been depicted in memes and other popular representations as simply the latest “season” of a long-running drama that has featured hurricanes, earthquakes, mass uprisings against government corruption, and years of austerity measures and colonial governance. Yet the way the pandemic is experienced in this space of catastrophic sedimentation might offer some lessons to a world that now collectively faces a post-disaster future.

It is telling that two kinds of protest movements have emerged in the United States in the wake of COVID-19. On the one hand, there are protestors who long for a return to “normal” and resent how the lockdown has restricted their individual “freedoms.” On the other hand, there have been the historic uprisings for Black Lives as well as demonstrations supporting rent strikes, demanding greater social assistance, and requesting more protective gear for essential workers. Thus, while some remain desperate to uphold exclusive notions of individual liberty, others are fighting for structural change and denouncing how both the risks of the virus and the burdens of the lockdown are unfairly distributed.

While some seek to narrowly circumscribe lockdown politics into false debates over individual versus collective rights, or social versus financial health, others are questioning the very terms of these debates. Across the many communities for whom COVID-19 arrived with the déjà vu of state violence, demonstrators have emphasized how gender violence, poverty, food scarcity, colonialism, racism, and austerity were already threatening community health, long before the arrival of the novel virus.

In fact, the very same day that armed protestors stormed the Michigan capitol with loaded weapons, activists in Puerto Rico carried out a “caravan for life” demanding increased testing, more government accountability, and greater social assistance for those struggling with food insecurity, domestic violence, and police brutality during the lockdown. Much of this work has been carried out by feminist and LGBTQ activists who have also been using the lockdown as an opportunity to educate residents about the rise of gender and transphobic violence, to denounce predators, and to seek justice for the victims of hate crimes.

These communities are also forging new ways of thinking about state obligation by pushing back on the scripts of coerced resilience that for so long have placed an uneven burden of care on individuals. Rather than simply accepting that they must work to “flatten the curve,” citizens are also calling on the government to “raise the bar” and provide an infrastructure and a social-safety net that can protect us from future pandemics, disasters, and the crises endemic to pervasive health and wealth disparity.

At present, Puerto Ricans, like so many others around the globe, are being precipitously ushered out of lockdown and implored to get back to the work of producing and consuming, even as rates of COVID-19 continue to climb. This is not because the state has taken the necessary public-health measures; in fact, Puerto Rico remains dead last in terms of testing rates across the United States and its territories. Contact tracing has yet to be properly implemented, and even basic statistical modeling and information sharing has failed. However, as in other parts of the world, business owners are exerting pressure to get back to business, suggesting that employers are best equipped to ensure the health and safety of their workers. All while Washington debates immunity legislation to protect employers from litigation if they fail to do so.

While both local and federal governments increasingly shrink from their responsibilities—failing at testing, tracing, and prevention—the burden of care is increasingly placed on individuals who have become the targets of both intervention and blame. However, the political effects of all this coerced resilience should not be underestimated. Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was soon followed by historic protests that led to the toppling of the governor who had mismanaged the disaster. Many involved in the protests cited as a motivating factor the awakening they experienced after the government failed to protect its citizens from infrastructural collapse and refused to account for its human toll. If COVID-19 is indeed the United States’ “Maria moment,” it remains to be seen how nationwide protests and the collective awakening produced by state failures of care might open up new political possibilities and bring an end to the violent déjà vu. icon

Featured image: “La Puerta de la Bandera” in San Jose Street. Photograph by Jose Santiago / Unsplash