We Are the Collective Protagonist
I write this blog post from a near lockdown in New York City, one of the hardest hit areas for Covid-19. As of this afternoon, more than 5,000 people in the city have tested positive for this deadly virus, though testing remains inadequate, and some 30 people have died. The government in Washington, D.C. has pretty much left us on our own, with limited information and guidance because the current president wanted to keep his infection numbers low to help his re-election campaign. Run by his crony, the once-trusted Center for Disease Control (CDC) complied. Fortunately, New York State governor Andrew Cuomo stepped into the information and leadership void, ordering closures of non-essential business or work-from-home arrangements, stepping up local testing, and pressuring federal agencies to approve the locally generated tests that have ramped up testing capacity beyond any other state in the country. We are still awaiting the extra hospital beds via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the USS Comfort, but it may be weeks before the promised assistance comes through.
In the meantime, ordinary New Yorkers have stepped up as well. The fashion industry is turning their talent and equipment to the manufacture of masks for health care workers and others. Health care workers, first responders, and workers in essential businesses continue to show up for their jobs and stay overtime despite the dangers. Every minute they work, they put their lives on the line. Teachers are not only sending work home to their students now that the schools have closed but also volunteering to take care of the children of health care workers and other essential workers. My daughter, Maddy, featured in my last post, has volunteered to watch over these children and keep them safe and happy in the difficult circumstances they and their families face. These are the heroes of New York City.
In this situation, though, everyone has a chance to do the right thing. Staying at home, wearing a mask if one has to go to the grocery store or pharmacy, and sharing or picking up necessities for a neighbor who cannot contributes to the safety of everyone. We need to “flatten the curve” to avoid overstressing our current capacity for hospital beds, ventilators, and medical personnel. Only by acting collectively to isolate ourselves — so we don’t become sick or sicken others — can we do this. People, young and old, who congregate in bars and restaurants and on beaches put everybody at risk. Those who harass people of Asian heritage, taking their cue from those currently in charge at the national level, put innocent individuals at risk and threaten a local and global community that must work together to defeat this pandemic. For instance, will China prioritize the United States or other more tolerant lands, with vaccines, treatments, and equipment? I don’t expect mercy from countries when our leader demonizes those countries and encourages violence against Americans who look like their people.
One of my YA novels features a collective protagonist. Right now, we are all the collective protagonist. We as a global human community face a common villain — the virus that causes Covid-19. It is a human vs. nature conflict, but each of our decisions affects the ability of all of us to survive. Some of us have acted like antagonists by encouraging dangerous or hateful acts, or preventing those wanting to help from achieving their goals. Similarly, in a story involving a collective protagonist, not all the individual characters want to help, and conflicts among them threaten to tear the group apart and allow the villain to win.
When I wrote my collective protagonist novel, I never expected to become a minor character within a collective protagonist, with life-and-death stakes. But as a minor character, I can help by staying indoors (which I’m doing anyway while my ankle heals, but I’ve begun physical therapy via email and telephone rather than in person), by encouraging people not to engage in racially discriminatory acts, and by supporting my daughter who has chosen a bigger role in this collective story. I hope to be alive when this novel comes out, and I expect that its narrative structure — even though it’s not about a pandemic — will feel more familiar because of all we’ve been through.