Winder, Georgia is a small town northeast of Atlanta. It is a town with a racist history. It is also my home, the place where my dad is buried, where my brother got married, where my mom lives, where I go when I say, “I’m going home for the holidays.” And as it did in virtually every US town, suburb, and city, Coronavirus came to town in the spring of 2020.
18 months BC (Before Coronavirus), my brother and I were faced with something no adult children ever want to face: our vivacious, obstinate, wonderful mother couldn’t live at home alone any longer. We looked for alternatives, but my brother’s house wasn’t accessible, my home in California would remove her from her support network, independent living didn’t offer the kind of medical support she needed, and 24-hour home healthcare was far outside our financial ability. We were finally left without an alternative, and so on a Thursday afternoon, my brother moved mom into a room at Winder Health Care, Winder’s only nursing home.
It was an adjustment, of course, for mom and for us. And, like a lot of adult children faced with this choice, we felt immense guilt. But we also felt deep relief: now, we could be sure that mom would be safe and cared for.
Then Coronavirus came. And the place that we’d chosen because we desperately wanted to keep our mom safe became a terrifying place to have her be. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. In Georgia, when the state government finally began sharing information, it was devastating: as of early May, over 650 (almost 50%) of the state’s COVID deaths were nursing home residents.
In April, Winder Health Care confirmed its first case; within days, there were 19 confirmed cases. And still we couldn’t get the state to test everyone. Then, when the National Guard finally arrived to test, they were called away at the last minute. (They were setting up the testing equipment in the parking lot when they were redirected.)
When testing was finally done in May, nearly 80% of the 119 residents at Winder Health Care tested positive. And my mom was one of them. I cannot, despite the work I do with words on a daily basis, find the ones that will explain what it feels like to get this particular call. What it feels like to wake up at 6 am PST to a flurry of text messages and missed calls from your family and know exactly what they’re going to say. What it feels like to listen and try hard not to cry as your mother, diagnosed with a disease that by the 1st of June will have killed over 100,000 Americans, comforts you and tells you that she’s going to be okay.
As of early June 2020, 17 of my mom’s fellow residents have died from the virus. My family (and so many other families) spent April and early May fighting for testing; we spent the rest of May and now June hoping and praying that we wouldn’t lose our mom or any more of her friends.
My mom has been officially declared recovered, but the fear lingers. It’s indelible. And it colors everything. We wanted and needed information. We wanted and needed testing. We wanted and needed a concrete plan. Local, state, and federal officials did not address this virus and its devastating impact with the urgency it requires. And still, I know that the whiteness of Winder and of the population of my mom’s nursing home made her safer than she would have been if she were Black or if Winder were a majority Black town. Black people and other people of color have been disproportionately killed by COVID-19.
But, conversely, the fear and urgency that I felt (and still feel) has made me desperately aware of the need to wait. We don’t know what the long term health impacts of the virus are. We don’t know whether we’re staring down a second wave or have even survived the first. We don’t know about the impact on our educational system or institutions of higher education. We don’t know about the impact on our students. On our colleagues. Or our pedagogies. There’s so much that we don’t know.
And so, I think, though it feels counterintuitive, we must go slow where we can go slow. (Certainly, slow is not always the answer; for racial justice, slow is absolutely not the answer. Black Lives Matter. We’ve already gone far too slow in making that a reality.) On this particular subject, though, we must resist the desire and the calls to declare that we “know” something about our pandemic experiences. This is not to say that we shouldn’t talk, write, or speak about our experiences. As Audre Lorde reminds us, articulating our experiences and the harms done by systems of privilege and power is important and necessary and brave: “I was going to die, if not sooner, then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” We can speak. We must speak. But we should resist the foreclosure of conclusions. We should recognize that what we “know” is incomplete. It’s provisional. So we must go slow.
In “Slow Circulation,” Bradshaw (2020) argues, “many of the speedy, viral circulation models with which we are so comfortable…are unfit for the types of rhetorical work some…advocacy groups aim to do.” Instead, he argues, we need a model of slow-ness, where “rhetorical positions slowly, persistently circulate…until they accumulate a cultural ethos that can begin to affect wider change and deeper impact.” The same can and should be said for the kinds of political, scientific, and pedagogical shifts heralded by the pandemic.
Vaccines take time. (Only about 10% of clinical trials succeed. An HPV vaccine took 15 years. And, speaking to the New York Times in late April, Vijay Samant, the former head of vaccine manufacturing at Merck Pharmaceuticals, said of the process for a COVID-19 vaccine, “The manufacturing task is insurmountable.”)
And our pedagogical decisions should take time. We don’t yet know what the impact of our pandemic spring will be on equity gaps, contingent faculty’s already precarious positions, and the long-term divestment from institutions of higher education. We don’t yet know what the impact will be on graduation rates, time to degree, and student loan burdens. We don’t yet know the impact on faculty and students’ mental health. There’s just so much we don’t know yet. So here, where we can take the time to be thoughtful and deliberate, let’s go slow.