I was wrapping up a conversation with Victoria Wylie the other day about a gun violence memorial project when I offhandedly mentioned the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, before most people reported for work that day, another person was shot and killed in Philadelphia, which increased the number of people gunned down in the city just three months into a new year to more than 60.
I’m firmly in the Purell stockpiling camp, but what Wylie said made me think, mostly because if the coronavirus outbreak has laid bare anything, it’s that this country’s well-documented disparity extends to epidemics.
We’ve been calling gun violence — which claims about 100 people a day in this country alone — an epidemic for a while now, but we’ve never treated it as one, not really:
Imagine declaring containment zones in the wake of a shooting?
Imagine deploying the National Guard to the hardest-hit neighborhoods to help.
Imagine leaders from every corner — political, medical, academic, religious — doing whatever necessary to keep the plague of gun violence from spreading?
Schools closed. Museums shuttered. Athletic events canceled. Whole cities (and countries) locked down.
We’ll reopen once the shooter has been turned in, and illegal guns surrendered!
Wylie’s comments made me circle back to Aleida Garcia, a mother of a murder victim. Her son Alex was gunned down in 2015. Garcia had done her coronavirus due diligence. She’d gone to Walmart only to see shelves stripped bare. Not a squirt of hand sanitizer or square of toilet paper to be found, she chuckled, though she was able to get some gloves. She has a trip planned to Puerto Rico, and with so many people canceling, she figures an empty plane is probably as safe as any place these days.
Levity aside, though, she said the response to coronavirus reinforced to her how reactions to situations depend solely on whether people (usually those in positions of power and privilege) perceive a direct risk to their own lives, or the lives of those they love.
It was something Wylie mentioned, too. How many white drug users made heroin a public-health problem, an epidemic that now has folks scrambling to erect a safe injection site with the passion and political will that is still mostly missing around gun violence — especially the daily gun violence in cities like Philadelphia.
“If coronavirus was just in North Philly and Kensington, there’d be plenty of toilet paper left," Garcia said.
Gun violence affects us all, but because people can theoretically draw a line and declare that it happens in “those” neighborhoods to “those” people, they can — and do — look away.
It’s an epidemic in name only. At least for those who don’t live with the very real threat every day.
Coronavirus is proving to have no borders. No one seems to be immune (without a vaccine, literally and figuratively) though the privileges of preparation are very real. Those who have the money or position to stockpile supplies, to work from home, and to — more important — stay employed and probably healthier while they take precautions (rightly) expect and demand that their leadership respond appropriately.
That kind of attention should be applied to every epidemic, whether it’s a virus or violence.
We still have a long road ahead of us, as the spectacular bungling from the top continues. But with the right might and motivation, society can manage to do whatever it takes to stop a killer.