Who Cares? Care in the time of Coronavirus

Alexandra Chang, Price Institute Interim Associate Director


Sci-fi enthusiasts with an eye for dystopic planned utopias could hardly have created a more unsettling reality than our current global pandemic and how it has manifested in US along with racial violence. Based in the theoretical future of 1992, in the original Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, more-than-human robots are asked questions via empathy tests to see if they can be detected as human or android. If they give a specific empathetic response, they are human. The rest are other-than-human and thus, in the world of the blade runner, expendable. This imagined world, it seems, is also expendable, doomed to a cloud of toxic radioactive dust, from which most of the inhabitants have already emigrated to colonize other planets. The terminologies of colonial expansion and extraction remain. Apparently, in Dick’s future present, we have not learned from our pasts.


Meanwhile in 2020, expanses of the world are threatened by alternating manifestations of the ongoing climate crisis. And empathy, this alleged human response, is at the heart of the Covid-19 Crisis: the need for care - from the small everyday gestures to the dramatic acts of care we have bared witness to for our loved ones, community, and others - and the highlighting of the lack of care especially for those who need it most. Care — both its absence and the providing of care—underlines the major issues lurking in the underbelly of the US at the intersection of long-held and not unknown historic racial and economic injustices. And while the pandemic has highlighted these issues, they are pervading, ever-constant, but perhaps depending on one’s positionality, usually less visible.


The term “care” is being questioned in terms of who has access to care, who is providing care, and who is dependent on care from others. Also, importantly, the question is flipped, asking who is providing care unequally and identifying how we as a society relegate expectations and delegation of the responsibility for care. Whose care are we forfeiting when we are providing care for others, and who does society allow to get away with the shunning of that responsibility for providing care.[i] These are questions that have been at the heart of feminist and people of color issues for decades. Now (once again) we see how deadly these issues can be, who is on the privileged end of receiving or deflecting care (ex. the refusal to wear masks for others, or the refusal to provide PPE and testing for all), and who is on the disenfranchised margins.


We see African American communities being devastated due to structural inequalities that have led to communities living in polluted landscapes that in turn cause higher cases of asthma and a higher risk for complications with Covid-19. We see the passing of nurses in the Filipinx community who have, due to immigration and labor, been at the frontlines as healthcare workers. We hear of poorly paid meat factory workers who are falling ill, yet must work because they are deemed essential workers and otherwise would be denied unemployment. The elderly have been referenced as practically expendable in a backward social Darwinist turn by certain state and federal government leaders. Asian Americans are being targeted for racial violence. Living as at-risk and targeted people of color is not new to these communities in the US. But with the pandemic, the risks and what is at stake has been heightened.


During the pandemic, Asian Americans have commented that racism and microagressions have been an everyday fact of life that stems from beyond this time. There is a fear however that the heightened racism of the pandemic will be normalized post Covid-19. But this is not new either. Heightened anti-Asian sentiment and actions have reared their heads at many instances throughout the long history of the US, from nineteenth-century Chinatown massacres to past and current forced concentration and detainment camps to deportation programs. What happens when racial physical and verbal assaults take place? What is the responsibility of society in terms of the care of the community? The current response by society is to document it, to note it exists. Community members echo concerns about stepping outside to do everyday things for fear of their safety if they wear or don’t wear a mask in public—harm that is at once physical and psychological. African American, Native American, Latinx, and diasporic Pacific communities are and have long been going through this intensified lack of structural care every day along with what Covid brings.


And, on February 23, 2020,— Ahmaud Arbery is murdered by two white supremacists as he goes jogging.


TOGETHER we grieve.


On May 1st a “care” emoji was released by Facebook amid Covid-19. The yellow smiley with anime eyes hugs a red heart shape, perhaps offering a hug where a physical one is absent for many who are self-isolating. I had always felt the lack of an adequate emoticon for what seemed to be the need for an emoji that was equal parts disbelief and exasperation, because what also came with Covid-19, and has been populating our newstreams, has been the results of the polar opposite of care that started its slow accumulation and found its footing long before the global pandemic — incidences of inequalities and racism, the polluting of our water and land due to the petro-economy, fires burning through old-growth forests, and mass extinctions of birds, ocean mammals, coral, frogs, and insects — now only acerbated due to the lack of PPE, hospital beds, and ventilators; the lack of healthcare, housing, and job security for many communities; violent racialized acts; and the increased rollbacks of environmental protections under the smokescreen of the virus. These online streams provide an outlet that has become our collective rage. The anger emoticon no longer suffices for this element of emotional depletion, this outrage that has come to the point of an ongoing lament and disbelief that we are in a world where the norm has become a sustained flashpoint.


And, on March 12, 2020, Two young children and their father are slashed at Sam’s Club by a man who wanted to kill them because they are Asian.


TOGETHER we grieve.


Has social media become our empathy test, where hearts and quickly clickable emoticons have been displaying our reactions long before social distancing required remote interactions? They allow us to see ourselves in a stream of social interaction and pictogram emotions: We all feel this certain way or perhaps object, reaffirming our self-belonging with one group or another. Gone are the subtleties of emotion and non-verbal cues have been supplanted by these stand-in icons first created by mobile phone carriers. They allow for the virtual stitching together of networks of care and they also allow for bullying and a herd mentality that may serve as part of the building blocks of othering in the first place.


Thinking about care seems to endlessly set me forward and then two steps back again, but does not cease to shake me to be attentive to it as the potential answer to so many questions at this moment, set off by the coronavirus and societal structures millennia in the making.


The question begs if we can train ourselves to care? Is empathy innate? Can it be “turned on”? How are we teaching care to the next generation? How do we perpetuate care without setting forth unattainable and forced utopic models? Rutgers University-Newark’s diverse campus and dedication to the idea of civic engagement and community-based education as its responsibilities as an anchor institution points us toward the direction of care. Art practices and humanities-based education and practices that underline that our stories and stories of others matter point us in that direction as well.


Artists have long been revealing to us our sociopolitical realities. Take for instance Picasso’s 1937 large-scale painting Guernica that has famously been juxtaposed in the same room at the newly installed MoMA with Faith Ringgold’s 1967 American People Series #20 Die. Picasso’s painting depicts the atrocities committed at the bombing of Guernica by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War in support of the Spanish fascist regime. The image portrays a scene of carnage encompassing men, women, children, and animals. Faith Ringgold’s large-scale canvas is a part of a larger series of work titled American People Series reflecting the context of the mid-1960s experienced by the artist. Die directly addresses the communal violence being perpetrated at the time in the U.S., a bloodied portrait of black and white divisions, and tellingly, also includes children, who are at the center of the painting. Perhaps she is underscoring a warning for our future as well as othering’s indiscriminate absence of care.


And, on March 13, 2020, — Breonna Taylor, who was an EMT, is murdered as she slept in her bedroom by police.


TOGETHER we grieve.


I think about the work of Montreal-based artist Chu Hua Catherine Dong titled Skin Deep and I Have Been There, in which the artist covers her face and her body in a Chinese brocade cloth. For the work Skin Deep, her face becomes almost invisibilized with the background pattern, possibly fading into this representation of Asianness. During quarantine, she has developed the ability for people to join her to don this mask as an animated Facebook skin. In her performance series I Have Been There Dong lies face up, dressed in black under a pei traditional Chinese funeral blanket at well-known sites around the globe. Although created before the pandemic, the piece now deeply resonates during this time of the global pandemic. I think about the work of late artist Tseng Kwong Chi who passed from complications due to AIDS in 1990. Donning a Chinese Republican army suit that is often mistaken for a Mao suit, he documents himself with his Hasselblad camera, globe-trotting to famous sites, always the alien other. Amplified now during the pandemic, these are reflections of the lived realities that have always been quietly holding residence throughout the lives of Asian Americans and extends to a collective multigenerational experience of visible minorities globally.


And, on April 5, 2020, an Asian American woman has acid poured on her in a hate attack.


And, the May 2020 issue of the CDC Emerging Infectious Diseases journal uses a cover image of an eighteenth-century Chinese court official’s silk fabric badge from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The agency denies any intention to affiliate the coronavirus with China.


TOGETHER we grieve.


Yet, even so, through the work of the artists above, communities of care emerge — from international artists working together with the poet Juan Larrea having influenced Picasso’s creation of Guernica to POC artist support networks to groups supporting artists with AIDS. These communities of care have been and are currently formed by people of color and the ever-marginalized arts community to support and provide an element of care where it is missing from official infrastructures. Presently I see individuals building networks of support, such as the Aunties Sewing Squad (folx sewing masks to protect against Covid-19) led by performer and comedian Kristina Wong. The mostly POC Facebook group of more than 750 are sewing masks for others and just finished donating a total of more than 45,000 masks for all.[ii] They are both caring for others and also, as a group, serve as a form of self-care for the individuals who are a part of it. “Rage sewing,” as noted by Lisa Mummy-Wallig, has also become a therapeutic practice in which our rage at the injustices of care can be transferred into providing care, and providing self-care.[iii] The squad also has a dedicated Care Coordinator, long-time arts organizer and former executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative Gayle Isa.


The arts and people of color communities can help us realize the inequities and possibilities of care at this time. Although often disenfranchised and poorly funded, they have been there for decades holding up our communities widely. And during the pandemic, they are also the furloughed—feeling the effects of further financial precarity as groups who are already on the edge.


And, on May 24, 2020, an African American colleague who is also a national organizer with NAACP posts in solidarity on her Facebook her outrage and condemns the recent verbal assault of Asian American CNN reporter Natasha Chen. She questions if Anti-Asian sentiments have become so commonplace that we barely acknowledge it.


And, on May 25, 2020, — George Floyd is murdered as he is arrested with an officer kneeling on his neck despite his and onlookers’ pleas that he cannot breathe.


TOGETHER we grieve.


The moment has always been NOW to change our path that is and has not been working for centuries. Minnesota is on fire today and emailing an artist I work with, together we grieve as POC mothers for sons, husbands, and brothers and ask between two persons that all communities work together.


Laying on my sofa, the orange feral tabby we took in last fall sits on my chest and I am reminded again of Philip K. Dick and his electric sheep, created so that in a society where you are expected to care for another being, and it is empathy that makes you human, you can at least play-act it with an inexpensive sheep to fit in. It’s a sham—beings living entrapped in a failed utopia. But perhaps, minus the dark cynicism, can we become conditioned to care or create a society that will attempt to care for one another and this world in which we live? Or at least can it be expected of us to feel an obligation to do so — that it is our undeniable responsibility to all participate in this care for all by all even if it seems to be approaching a utopic dream? It seems that moving toward and building avenues of education and enforced policies toward forwarding care is exponentially better than the alternative, leading to an emotionally distanced, divided, and uninhabitable world.


There is hope if we work across communities, acknowledging our unequal structures of care as a part of an attempt to remedy them. Consider what past alternative models of community care and instances of solidarity teach us as we see them adopted during this time of crisis. We need to more closely consider how these principals of individual and community care, developed through the needs of the arts, advocates, and POC communities throughout the past two centuries, will undoubtedly help to inform our futures and to push forward much-needed agendas of enforced civil rights and care for all, both now and after the pandemic.



[i] For more on the ethics of care, see Inge van Nistelrooij and Merel Visse, “Me? The invisible call of responsibility and its promise for care ethics: a phenomenological view.” Med Health Care Philos. 2019; 22(2): 275–285. Published online 2018 Oct 16. doi: 10.1007/s11019-018-9873-7.

[ii] As noted on one member’s Facebook page on May 25, 2020.

[iii] Lisa Mummy-Wallig, “Radical Hospitality & ‘Rage Sewing’ in the time of Coronavirus,” Art2Action.org, accessed May 26, 2020. https://www.art2action.org/post/auntie-sewing-squad-radical-hospitality?fbclid=IwAR1t5J1_gwivxnZH_0bMn14nMG1sD7J9HwAi5ss205oIkXfBmb0s1C9Scdc