Hung Out to Die


Canadian wildfire smoke moves across map, spreading bad air quality to Midwest, East Coast (USA Today via
Thousands of COVID-19 cases still reported every week | Fact check (USA Today via

I was almost completely unable to do anything but life’s basics for a couple of days last week. As the air quality maps quickly showed my little corner of Wisconsin falling into the purple zone, for “unhealthy” air quality due to wildfire smoke, not only were my eyes almost constantly stinging, but any attempts to walk more than a few steps at a time led to me getting a stomachache. This was despite the fact that I never left my apartment that whole time, and never opened a single window, not even overnight to help cool things down here.

Since I’m only teaching one asynchronous online course this summer, there wasn’t much that I had to do right away, and once I started feeling better as the air quality improved here, I was able to catch up on the things I missed doing earlier. I’ve certainly felt a lot worse at various points over the course of this past year, but those were related to illnesses and the knee sprain I suffered this past winter. Those were things I could overcome, and while getting through them was difficult, that process was tolerable because I knew that things would get better, and I could tell when I was slowly getting better, and even when that process wasn’t moving as quickly as I would have liked, it was still ongoing.

We came back under an air quality advisory again earlier today, and while we’re only in the “yellow zone” as I type this, my eyes are stinging and drying out more quickly than usual. One forecast says that the Canadian wildfire smoke issues may continue to plague us until October, at which point I will have been walking back to campus every weekday for about a month. If another “purple” flareup happens here in September, I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to teach those classes without moving them online, and students who are signing up for in-person college classes right now, after dealing with all the online learning that took place in the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic (and probably signing up for in-person classes because they know those are a better fit for how they learn), deserve to have as much of their coursework taught in-person as possible.

This is the third year of the last four where I’ve had to deal with significant health advisories due to wildfire smoke. It’s not like forest fires were unheard of before 2020, but they happen with such regularity now that it’s hard to avoid feeling like these smoke issues are becoming normalized — just considered a regular part of our everyday lives now — and that those of us with health problems exacerbated by the poor air quality are just going to be expected to “grin and bear it” so everyone else can pretend that nothing that serious is happening, while the world is literally burning up around them. The parallels to COVID-19 nonchalance, and the idea that the virus is “over” when new variations of it are literally being tracked in America this very minute, should go without saying.

All this is reminding me of how in the era of modern school “reform,” advocates for corporatizing schools often cited executive Jack Welch as a role model, including his draconian policy of firing ten percent of his workforce every year, regardless of how well they were performing, if they weren’t performing as well as their colleagues (by whatever, likely flawed, metrics were chosen for that measurement). Not only did this policy inculcate a deep culture of fear among employees, but it also normalized the horrors of losing one’s job and all the perils that come along with that. It didn’t matter how good you were; you were always a step away from being not good enough, and pushed down the slippery slope to personal and family ruin. These policies were already ballooning attrition rates at schools across America before the start of the pandemic, and they remain in place across the country to this day.

In the same way, it feels more and more likely that people, especially those in power, will be so dead-set on acting like things are “normal” that more and more people with health concerns will simply be seen as expendable. The eugenics-laden rhetoric about people with advanced risk factors for COVID-19 has been part of our national discussion for years now, and with the air quality issues in America worsening even more this year, it now feels likely that those who are more susceptible to health problems caused by poor air quality will soon become the next targets. This continent is already burning in a literal hell of its own making, and even as co-workers and friends and family members succumb to these blossoming disasters, the message from those in power remains the same: “This is fine.” It’s not.

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