Full Title: Enhancing global emergency response through reflecting on concepts of security and care in light of the COVID-19 pandemic
Rishi Bansal and Parnika Godkhindi
ARTSSCI 3A06: Literature
Authors’ Note: This essay was initially prepared on April 09, 2020, and reflects the emotions and knowledge of that time period. Though our understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic and its actual effects on society have since advanced significantly, this essay has not been updated in order to preserve the integrity of the initial reflection and offer an opportunity to revisit these thoughts and ideas.
In March of 2020, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has brought the world to its knees. What was mistaken for a ‘bad flu season’ in early January soon became an unprecedented global crisis. In times like these, people display a diverse array of reactions. Some show the egocentric side of humanity, hoarding essential supplies like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and masks while vulnerable populations and health care workers are left to deal with shortages (Katawazi; Robinson). Others produce heartwarming stories by starting “caremongering” trends and banding together to “Conquer COVID-19,” demonstrating the resilience of humanity in the face of a crisis (Moore; The Canadian Press, “Ryan Reynolds Supplies”). Both responses are entirely understandable and reflect profound societal concepts of security and care; these concepts are deeply nuanced and resist simplistic, prescriptive definitions. To further interrogate ideas of security and care, we need only look to literature, which has long served as a helpful mirror to reflect upon human behaviour and society. Barbara Gowdy’s “Disneyland” from her book Falling Angels, displays the false sense of security that comes with protecting an individual while the community remains at risk; Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” demonstrates that an individual’s needs extend beyond receiving physical care to encompass social connectivity; and Obasan by Joy Kogawa and Beloved by Toni Morrison show the power of community-based models of care. In this essay, we will use these texts to examine societal notions of security and care in sequence while focusing on the relationship between the individual and the community. Interspersed through this examination will be a discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic as a model for society’s relationship with these concepts. Finally, we will comment on the ways in which our response to emergencies might be enriched by an emphasis on community security and care going forward.
The story of “Disneyland” showcases a Cold War era nuclear family in suburban Ontario dealing with circumstances far out of their control. Faced with the imagined threat of an impending Russian nuclear bombing, the family in “Disneyland” immediately jumps to secure themselves. The father sends for a pamphlet titled “Pioneers of Self-Defence” and gets to work “as soon as the ground [is] soft enough” (Gowdy 53). The apparent solution to the nuclear threat is a fallout bunker, stocked with two weeks’ worth of supplies. It is built to the exact instructions of the pamphlet, including canary yellow walls intended to “add a note of cheerfulness” (54), and a now-obsolete hopscotch court. Even the supplies they buy include items—like a bow and arrow—that are likely entirely useless to their survival. The blind faith with which the family acts is telling of their insecurity, as the “notoriety and security of being the safest…in the subdivision” (54) is only achieved through their mechanical and unquestioning belief in the pamphlet. Yet, this supposed security is a façade. The family’s safety is neither guaranteed by the underground bunker nor the canary yellow walls, and the remainder of the story is a testament to that fact. Following the father’s inane regime, the family quickly deteriorates. Prior to the lockdown, the girls are terrorized by their father’s drills. Once in the shelter, they spend the entire period “drunk” (64), sick, and constantly at odds with each other. The psychological trauma clearly persists long after the two weeks they spend in the bunker, given that they rename their stay there as the time “[they] almost died” (64). By buying into the Cold War ideology, the family creates such an extreme threat in their minds that it justifies any measures to protect themselves. What began as a well-intentioned effort to remain safe ends up becoming an entrapment that is more threatening to their lives than the Cold War itself. The family’s actions also provoke broader questions about what constitutes security at all. The family in “Disneyland” has been led to believe that the militarized security of individuals is the only solution; since the bunker has limited space and is separated from the rest of the community, the family must “leave [their] friends to die” (54) and focus on protecting themselves. However, the fallout shelter could only ever provide temporary safety in the event of nuclear winter. If the rest of the community were to be destroyed by a nuclear attack, there would be little for the family to return to. Survival in a decimated, dystopian world would prove challenging, if not impossible, without the support and strength of a united community. Ultimately, the family lacks a sense of shared security, not realizing that larger efforts to stop the war are necessary to yield lasting safety. In such circumstances, no individual is safe until their community is safe.
Contemporary events as recent as March 2020 were not so different from those portrayed in “Disneyland.” When federal Health Minister Patty Hadju first announced that people should consider stocking up on food and medicine “in case” of a COVID-19 outbreak, pandemonium ensued (The Canadian Press, “Stockpiling for COVID”). Grocery stores and Costcos were overrun by panicked shoppers buying as much food and toilet paper as they could carry. As the Canadian case count grew and provinces closed schools and non-essential businesses, anxious citizens and profiteers stockpiled surgical masks, N95s, gloves, and hand sanitizer against recommendations (Robinson). While most of these people were not acting out of malice—they were simply acting in the best interests of their families’ safety—others saw the pandemic as an opportunity for personal enrichment. Regardless of intent, the cumulative effect of self-interested thinking was the deprivation of the greater community. In the end, much like the family’s actions in “Disneyland,” these individualistic bids for security brought neither families nor profiteers any closer to achieving true security. In the process of enriching themselves, they had pillaged and depleted their communities’ resources. As a result of the rush to stock up, vulnerable groups (e.g. those with underlying conditions) stayed away from grocery stores for fear of interacting with crowds, and in many cases left empty-handed when essentials were sold out (Katawazi). The hoarding of medical supplies had far more insidious effects. As stores sold out of masks, healthcare workers faced a sudden shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) (Robinson). Hence, hoarders made it even more difficult for the healthcare system to care for COVID-19 patients as these workers now faced a greater risk of contracting the disease and spreading it to patients and colleagues. As of early April, many hospitals were tragically running short-staffed as health care workers account for almost 10% of Ontario’s total cases (Goodfield). These events show striking parallels to those of “Disneyland,” particularly the misunderstanding that personal safety can be achieved without community safety. This is especially dangerous in the context of a pandemic, as lockdown and physical distancing measures can only be loosened once transmission among the population has slowed: individual safety is achieved by securing the community. Consequently, we must adjust our understanding of security to move past the individual. This and future crises will require humanity to come together to find a solution, and a sense of shared security will move us in that direction.
Reevaluating notions of security also requires further examination of how we care for individuals, and for each other. “The Metamorphosis,” for example, reveals that individual care must extend far beyond one’s physical needs. When salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find himself mysteriously transformed into a “gigantic insect” (Kafka 1), his family is shocked and horrified. To their credit, however, the Samsa family never stops trying to fulfill Gregor’s basic needs as they try to help him become comfortable with his new living conditions. His sister, Grete, even goes so far as to bring him a “selection of food” (20) from which he can choose what he likes. Yet as the story progresses, Grete loses her patience and “no longer [thinks]” (39)to bring him what he prefers. While she still pushes “any food that [is] available” (39) into his room, her indifference presents a far cry from her previous empathy for Gregor’s plight . His family increasingly ignores him, even using his room for storage (41). Conversely, Gregor shows the “utmost consideration” (20) for his family, but constantly seeks their attention . Desperate to escape his isolation, he “press[es] his whole body against [the door]” (22) just to hear his family converse in adjoining rooms ; he yearns to “thank [Grete]” (26) for her ministrations and wants to “see his mother” (28). Yet, these desires are often met with disgust and violence, thereby contributing to Gregor’s despondence. Faced with isolation, Gregor becomes depressed and is “eating hardly anything” (41) by the end. Eventually, he dies of starvation and neglect. While Gregor’s physical needs are ‘cared’ for, the dereliction of his social and familial needs ultimately causes his demise.
It is clear that caring for an individual involves more than just physical care. This is also true of the COVID-19 pandemic. While measures like physical distancing can guard against infection, they can also have harmful consequences on mental health and wellbeing. As we settle into this extended period of self-isolation, many individuals may develop feelings of anxiety and depression, experience substance abuse relapses, or struggle with exacerbations of underlying health conditions (Fiorillo and Gorwood 2). The elderly are particularly at risk, and in the early stages of the pandemic, were advised to stay home at all costs due to their increased susceptibility to the disease (Miller). Even after the virus has been subdued, it will be crucial for psychiatrists and mental health professionals to assist in treating the many conditions that may arise secondary to the trauma of experiencing this pandemic (Fiorillo and Gorwood 3). Evidently, COVID-19 is not simply a direct physiologic threat, and physical distancing alone is not a complete solution. People have social and familial needs that need to be attended to lest they succumb, as Gregor did, to negligent care.
While The Metamorphosis serves as a counter-example of compassionate individual care, both Obasan and Beloved offer excellent models of community-based care that we can learn from and adapt to our current circumstances. Obasan is a story chronicling the experiences of Naomi Nakane and her family as they live through the Japanese-Canadian internment camps of World War II. Throughout the novel, Naomi’s family is able to survive the internment period in part because they are resolved to “stay together wherever [they] go” (Kogawa 92). When they are sent to live in the town of Slocan in rural British Columbia, the pastor Nakayama-sensei attempts to rally Naomi’s family, saying “by helping each other…they might survive” (105). From offering a “white flannel underskirt” (98) as a diaper to caring for the “invalid” (107) Nomura-obasan, members of the Japanese-Canadian community understand that they must support each other through hardship . As a result, Slocan “flourishes” (142) as the old ghost town is brought to life by its new inhabitants . For Naomi and her family, community is the “essence of life” that keeps them going, and its destruction means the “destruction of life” (166). In isolation, these individual actions offer but a moment’s respite from the challenges the Japanese-Canadians face; however, once strung together, these moments help tie the community together and offer support to each other when it is needed. Beloved tells the story of a freed slave, Sethe, and her daughter, Denver, who are haunted by the disruptive spirit of Sethe’s dead baby girl, Beloved. When Sethe and Beloved become “locked in a love that wore everybody out” (Morrison 286), Denver is forced to step outside of their home and ask the community for help (288). When Denver asks her neighbours if they “[have] a little extra” (292), the community comes together to provide food and support to Sethe’s family (. Unlike Gregor’s case, the food is provided electively, with instructions to return the vessels. Not only does this reciprocal exchange provide nourishment, but it also allows Denver to step into the community, interact with the others, and grow into her own as she provides a soft “thank you’’ (294) for their kindness.
COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders posed a similar problem: many individuals were separated from their communities and became isolated without an in-person space for social interaction. Nevertheless, humans are also remarkably resilient and resourceful, and many have found ways to remain connected in spite of the physical distance. Technology like virtual conferencing has allowed families to organize worldwide calls to check-in with each other and connect from a distance (Miller). Across the world, communities have also come together to support each other. Canadians in particular have gone out of their way to help others, and stories of ‘caremongering’ are common in every province. For example, students have stepped forward to help healthcare workers with childcare, volunteers have started grocery delivery services, and celebrities have backed grassroots campaigns to donate medical supplies (Moore; The Canadian Press, “Ryan Reynolds Supplies”). Overall, it is vital that our definition of care adapts to involve social needs and community support going forward, as each of these factors is essential to overcoming the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gregor’s story demonstrates the worst-case scenario of what could happen if we choose to ignore this truth.
The necessity for communal cooperation with respect to our capacity to care for others is a final lesson that can be learned from Beloved. At the end of the novel, members of the Cincinnati black community feel that they must get together in order to free Sethe from the ghost of Beloved. They realize that Beloved is an “invasion into [their] world” (302) and represents the lingering collective trauma of slavery that continues to haunt the community . The women of the community gather to raise their voices and lay Beloved to rest. When they join together in a “wave of sound” (308), Sethe is “[baptized] in its wash” (308) and Beloved “[disappears]” (310) shortly after. Together, the women “[forget] her like a bad dream” (323), and only in confronting their collective past do they heal as a community. This scene can be interpreted as a metaphor that represents the global response to COVID-19. When COVID-19 first appeared and began to spread in China, the world remained largely immobile. It was only when it continued to spread outwards from China that many nations suddenly sprang into action and began creating COVID-19 policies and sending supplies where they were needed (Yeung et al.). However, it is widely recognized that if the world had worked together to create a quick and coordinated effort in the early weeks of this crisis, the ensuing catastrophic events could have been avoided. Like the women in Beloved, the world could have benefited from realizing that COVID-19, much like Beloved, is not simply a problem for China or Sethe to deal with. By having empathy for the plight of others and coming together swiftly to tackle the issue, we have the power to solve it quickly and alleviate unnecessary pain and suffering.
Literary works often provide an excellent lens through which we can reflect upon the world, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. In times of emergency, we often fall back on instinctual values that drive behavioral patterns and decision-making. As such, it is vital that these values, which include concepts of security and care, motivate actions that protect the interests of the community at large. The textual examples from “Disneyland,” The Metamorphosis, Obasan, and Beloved provide a wealth of knowledge from which we can adapt and expand our definitions of security and care. In particular, true security and care integrate the social needs of both individuals and communities while guaranteeing personal wellbeing through the safety of the community. The global response to COVID-19 has not been perfect by any means, but as time goes on, we are reflecting upon our mistakes and correcting course for the future. It is our hope that as we continue to deal with the subsequent waves of infection and the aftermath, we keep these lessons in mind and let them guide our policies and actions to best protect our community.
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