How To Get Beyond Punitive Thinking in a Pandemic | Sojourners

How To Get Beyond Punitive Thinking in a Pandemic

An activist in New York wears a mask that reads, "Stop Evicitions Save Lives." Activists gathered outside the governors office in January to protest the end of the moratorium on housing evictions due to COVID-19 hardships. Photo by Lev Radin via Reuters.

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the death toll is continuing to rise due to the omicron variant. The current surge has exacerbated the United States’ ongoing failures in responding to COVID-19. Whether it has been mask scarcity, long waits for testing, or hospitals and schools barely being able to function due to staff illness, we have seen how our government’s half-measures to stop the pandemic have not sufficed.

Currently, the leaders in our government are continuing to fail by refusing to implement drastic mitigation measures or support legislation that would provide additional financial aid for the millions of Americans impacted by the pandemic. Leaders are using the supposed “mildness” of the omicron variant as an excuse to avoid urgent action. Public officials are drawing divisions, not only between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated but also between “healthy” individuals and those with pre-existing comorbidities.

This leads us to the following question: What would accountability for the continuing failure of leadership and compassion from our government look like?

In today’s polarized political environment, the Left’s criticism of the Biden administration’s inaction in response to COVID-19 is taken as an electoral threat. We are told that to criticize Biden’s effectiveness in general, and his response to COVID-19 specifically, will only lead to the Democrats being punished in the 2022 midterms — resulting in the concomitant success of Republicans taking back the Senate and the House. In this framing, “holding the government accountable” is synonymous with the threat of electoral punishment — and if such punishment leads to a worse Republican resurgence, then any sort of criticism directed toward the Democrats must be stifled.

But as an abolitionist, I do not believe that accountability is synonymous with punishment. In fact, abolitionists often reject the language of “holding someone accountable,” as we recognize that accountability, unlike punishment, can only be chosen, never imposed. In other words, when we have done harm, other people can impose punishment or consequences on us, but that isn’t accountability; accountability is when we choose to try and understand the harm we did, make amends if possible, and then act differently in the future.

As restorative justice practitioner Danielle Sered writes in Until We Reckon, “when we cause harm, we misuse our power, and accounting for harm therefore requires that we invert that misuse and put our power in service of repair.” Accountability for the government’s inaction, then, would be putting every governmental resource behind pandemic mitigation measures and supporting marginalized groups who have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic.

Such a broad view of accountability is consistent with the ways activist-critics of the U.S. government are making drastic policy demands from Biden and the Democratic party. We are not only demanding mitigation and public health measures but also remedial economic measures — such as direct payments which Biden promised during his presidential campaign — and student debt relief. Measures like these would give workers greater power and with that power, they would then possess the ability to leave jobs that don’t make sufficient accommodations for safety. We are also demanding necessary labor provisions such as paid family leave and sick leave.

In other words, embracing accountability requires giving people material resources to make better decisions in the face of a pandemic that has been exacerbated by politicians abrogating their duty to the common good in service of capital. It’s not enough to ask people to make individual choices in an effort to end or curb the pandemic. As activist Ana Mardoll explained on Twitter, you can't just tell people to stay home if they want to while also telling them to “work if you want to eat.” People who are immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable need to be able to keep themselves safe — by choosing to stay home from work — and meet their basic needs. Politicians must focus on legislation that gives people the power and the resources to more safely respond to COVID-19 and its subsequent variants.

In the meantime, what “we the people” can do is change conditions of power to encourage positive, constructive accountability. We can do this through collective organizing and pressuring our elected representatives to change their actions. While the Biden administration resisted and even mocked the idea of sending free rapid tests to people’s homes, collective pressure encouraged their reversed course. More important than just political pressure, though, is a recommitment to the work of mutual aid and collective care for one another.

Ultimately, the hard truth of this work is that we can’t hold the government accountable. If pressure does not cause our leaders to reevaluate their responsibilities and choose to take accountability, then we must continue to emphasize that accountability is a project of collective care. Now more than ever, we must recommit ourselves to the practice of caring for one another in the face of the government failing to respond to the pandemic.

Paul offers a reflection on accountability and community care when he uses the metaphor of a body for the community, writing, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Accountability requires seeing that we all belong to one another as members of the human community. This is why efforts to distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, the “healthy” and the “disabled,” the “deserving” and “undeserving” is antithetical to an ethic of accountability.

Creating divisions and categories of people will only ever lead to punishment. The discourse suggesting the unvaccinated “deserve” the punishment of contracting the deadly COVID-19 virus is an example of how such divisive language leads to punitive thinking. As activist and journalist Kelly Hayes said recently on her Movement Memos podcast, “The recreational dehumanization of other people, who are dying horribly and alone, is a really bad sign, in terms of where we’re at as a society. In the years ahead, as things get harder, what spectacles of suffering will we accept, or welcome, or allow ourselves to enjoy? I think we’re making those decisions now.” Accountability — which is the opposite of such dehumanizing punishment — rejects such divisive dehumanization in favor of solidarity with one another.

Accountability looks like mutual aid groups meeting the needs of neighbors when the state fails to do so. It looks like neighbors sharing rapid tests and N95 masks when they are unavailable or unaffordable. It also looks like building on the informal social groupings — from “pods” to churches to political associations — that already exist in order to provide substantial material support.

Support can range from childcare to food banks or mental health services, to simply sharing money. Such an emphasis on voluntary associations instead of a reliance on governmental intervention is common in traditions as radically different as anarchist thought to Catholic social teaching. Nevertheless, the existence and potential of such informal social structures does not excuse the abandonment of responsibility by our government over the past two years.

Prison scholar and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes the abandonment of poor and marginalized communities by the combined forces of government as “organized abandonment.” Gilmore uses this language to emphasize that the marginalization of certain communities is not an accident, but a consequence of choices made by those with economic and political power to move resources out of marginalized communities and into other places, benefiting those who already hold power. What we have seen from our national leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of this organized abandonment, as the needs of various marginalized communities, from disabled people to “essential workers,” are being ignored in favor of “reopening the economy” or “returning to normal.”

One remedy to organized abandonment in this situation is what we might call “organized presence.” Organized presence can be described as engaging in our communities to meet the needs of each other by whatever relationships and means are available. Whether it is using the tools of electoral politics or personal and community relationships, organized presence is the practice of solidarity and investment in giving people the resources and support they need, beginning with the most affected and most marginalized. Such organized presence would represent a recommitment to practicing accountability — real accountability, not a doubling down on punishment — for the ways ongoing inequities in our society have been magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic.