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When our lungs can no longer expand

Most days of the week, people come into my dad’s office and tell him about their lungs. I’m having trouble breathing, one might say. Or, I’m dizzy. My chest hurts. I’m feeling sick. My father will prescribe medication, run tests, scribble a quick note. This method of care works—even conditions with a historically extremely high mortality rate have become treatable. 

Now, it seems like everyone is talking about our lungs. We know that a smoker’s lungs are eventually no longer able to sustain the body; we know how they eventually blacken and deteriorate. But diseased lungs can take different forms too, and this newfound national awareness is terrifying. Wildfires ravage the forests in California and Oregon and Washington and they also ravage our bodies. Tear gas gives us irritated eyes and chest pain. Coronavirus, in severe cases, fills our respiratory system with fluid and debris. People are burning on the outside and drowning from within. And we’re confronted with the reality of no treatment, no painkiller, no cure. 

The last guest speaker in my spring-semester journalism class was NYT journalist Dan Barry, who described his long, near-death struggle with cancer. A few months later, he wrote the heartbreaking front-page article about the 100,000 lives lost to COVID in the United States. I scrolled through “The New York Times” interactive over the course of a few hours, attempting to internalize that every shadowed figure was a person; every person, an entire world. 

It feels strangely characteristic that I’m writing this article on nine-eleven, one of the largest tragedies in US history. It seems like everyone in the US can remember where they were that day: my Grandma was on an airplane; my Grandpa was in his office, a block away. These moments are called flashbulb memories—when something traumatic happens, we store the event in our brain in a vivid (but not necessarily correct) way. 

What proceeded nine-eleven was a time of collective mourning but also deep Islamophobia,  domestic white-supremacist terrorism and US violations of international human rights law, including torture and destructive wars. Most of us who did not experience this violence firsthand don’t remember these events as vividly, because they cannot be contained within a moment. 

When something becomes normalized and drawn-out, temperature increasing only one degree Fahrenheit per minute, it’s easy to stay dangerously long inside of the hot tub. Which is to say: it’s easy to forget that people are dying when our lives seem normal. It’s easy to deny that we’re slipping into fascism until a genocide occurs. 

Now, we’re almost at 200,000 COVID deaths. One hockey arena can seat twenty-thousand people. We’ve filled ten of those arenas. I imagine Dan Barry sitting at his desk, writing new snippets of eulogy. 

Is there a lack of collective mourning, or are we simply choosing to forget? The statistics may speak for themselves. Before coronavirus, the US was still battling a pandemic every single year.  In the year 2000 (the most recent comprehensive study of poverty) “approximately 245,000 deaths in the United States...were attributable to low levels of education, 176,000 to racial segregation, 162,000 to low social support, 133,000 to individual-level poverty, 119,000 to income inequality and 39,000 to area-level poverty.”  I do not want to even calculate the number of hockey arenas filled—it feels callous and cruel and exhausting. 

In a country that seems to value freedom and democracy, there’s also a flippant disregard for human life. Or maybe it’s increasingly insidious: maybe the United States views death as more than inevitable. Maybe death is a marketing strategy for our white-supremacist, capitalist, imperialist world-domination. 

Because what we’re seeing right now is nothing short of genocide. 

In the United Nation's 1948 Genocide Convention, genocide was in part defined as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

The conditions we’re experiencing are consistent with this definition: preventable, avoidable, purposeful. BIPOC have experienced increasing amounts of racial terror:  “Black boys and men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white boys or men, and are ten times more likely to be killed by gun violence than white men.” Black and Latinx and Indigenous folks have died from COVID at exponentially higher rates than those of us with white skin. Trump, wrote Bob Woodward in his new book, knowingly concealed the true threat of coronavirus. Our high healthcare costs, low medical capacity and lack of universal coverage made the US uniquely vulnerable to COVID. We reopened our economy, despite warnings by expert Anthony Fauci of ‘needless suffering and death.’ Corporations dumped oil and chemicals into the neighborhoods of poor people of color and smog into our cities, which caused unprecedented wildfires: twenty-eight people are victims of premeditated arson. 

I’m struggling deeply with what it means to be at Duke in the midst of genocide. I oscillate between compassion fatigue and denial. My therapist tells me that sometimes it’s good to be in denial—it’s our body’s way of protecting us from burnout and immense world suffering.  I just think that I’m really privileged to afford a therapist I can talk to about my denial in the first place. 

I try to be acutely aware of my own role and complicity as a white person in a world that craves trauma porn, especially of BIPOC. I’m also aware of the power dynamics and potential for saviorism that arise from my positionality. So I won’t elaborate too much. 

However, I will say that, ten minutes ago, I just received a message from a woman who’d requested funds from Duke Mutual Aid: she didn’t have money to buy food for her children for the night. I worked at the Community Empowerment Fund over the summer with a man who had spent five years in solitary confinement for a nonviolent crime (not that the type of crime even matters) and had been sleeping on the street for almost two months. When quarantine began, I was sent pictures of medical bills, of pricked fingers, of husbands with catheters in their hearts. And here I am, attending an institution sitting on an 8.6 billion dollar endowment, sleeping under the roof of a gothic-styled tower, while mothers beg for a twenty-dollar bill to ensure that their baby will live for another day.  

If there’s one belief I’ve unfalteringly adopted during these past few months, it’s that the world does not have to be this way. In an alternate universe, millions of people are practicing collective care and localized forms of community. In an alternate universe, we’d have the resources we needed to combat a large-scale yet highly-anticipated, deceptively-predictable pandemic. There’s another world in which I’m holding my friends and family tightly in my arms. 

But that world can be ours. Radical imagination is possible—radical imagination that is driven by solidarity and is present within “shared experiences, languages, stories, ideas, art and theory.” Mutual aid groups have formed through an awareness of our symbiotic relationships with others and the earth, therefore addressing the gaps created by capitalism. Black and Indigenous folks are driving—and have always driven— the most transformative movements for environmental justice. Progressive candidates have swept races up and down the ballot. There’s been a quasi-awakening to the systemic racism in this country: it’s not anywhere close to enough, but potentially it’s something. 

We can rebuild and regrow and recover. Indeed, some of us already are.

So when I talk about lungs, I’m working to not automatically think of my own mortality and the crumbling of our organs into ash. Instead, I’m beginning to see the breath and life that I receive and circulate and give—the parts of humanity that are beautiful, immortal, timeless.  

Lily Levin is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. 

Correction: a previous version of this column incorrectly attributed the UN's definition of genocide to the Geneva Convention. The definition originates from the UN's 1948 Genocide Convention. The Chronicle regrets the error.


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