It’s well acknowledged that we live in the age of hyper-connectivity, one in which our digital technology has in many ways rendered geographic distance obsolete. But COVID-19 has revealed another facet of our interconnectedness: how we’re tied to the rest of our communities on a molecular, bodily level.
Our bodies are porous, open to those around us; we are not the bounded individuals we’d like to think we are. COVID-19 has made this apparent in the worst of ways—it spreads when we are physically together and proximate. In other words, COVID-19 has laid bare the vulnerability of our being; the truth that we exist in relation to those around us.
Last fall, I took a religious studies seminar with Professor Michael Ing that focused on the burgeoning fields of vulnerability and resilience studies. Broadly construed, vulnerability can be understood as a shared and universal human condition: we are all embodied and therefore subject to bodily and psychological harm. In the course, we read an essay by Martha Fineman, a legal scholar, in which she proposes that we establish this understanding of vulnerability as the base from which our social institutions flow because it’s predicated on a shared and universal condition that defines who we are.
I loved Fineman’s essay the first time I read it, especially because it offers a non-partisan way of thinking about what government should be and do. But its relevance has become all the more clear as COVID-19 has raged on, revealing the inequities and generational disadvantages at the heart of American society—for example, black Americans are experiencing higher COVID-19 mortality rates than white Americans are.
If we listen to Fineman, an ethical imperative arises in this situation: we must adjust our government to respond to the fact that we all experience our embodiment differently. As she writes, “Bodily needs and the messy dependency they carry cannot be ignored in life, nor should they be absent in our theories about society, politics, and law . . . Contemplating our shared vulnerability it becomes apparent that human beings need each other, and that we must structure our institutions in response to this fundamental human reality.” If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught me, it’s this—we haven’t done such a great job of ensuring that our government can adequately care for everyone, but embracing vulnerability might be one way to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again.