Sara Sidner is a CNN national and international correspondent, based in the network’s Los Angeles bureau. She has led coverage from Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd, from Seattle during the Covid-19 pandemic, and also investigates hate in America. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)For a long time, I have struggled with the realities of what war does to human beings.
When I covered armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Sri Lanka, Gaza and Israel, I always knew I was putting myself in danger. It was a personal choice whether to go or not, and when the decision was made, I pushed the fear and my own frailty to one side and charged in with my intrepid crew members. I knew that if I survived a particularly dangerous assignment, I would leave the battlefield behind.
Those suffering the bombardments could not. They had to witness their homes, their businesses and their very lives being taken from them. I have never gotten over the incredible guilt of being able to walk away from a place under siege because my assignment was up.
The images and sounds come back from time to time as the memories swirl and fade and are reborn. The faces of the dead. Children with severed limbs. The wails of mothers. The desperate croaks of fathers trying to subdue their grief. The sigh of someone’s last breath. The begging for God. The way the eyes look when the spirit is gone.
War terrorizes the mind as much as it does the body. With Covid-19, I’m once again doing war coverage — but of a different sort.
This is a battle that has come to all of us
— friends, family, neighbors and people I have yet to know. It is unrelenting and invisible. And it is cunning because it isn’t happening to everyone all at once, tricking some into thinking it’s not their problem.
It’s a war where there are no refugees because there is nowhere in the world you can go to fully escape the possibility of being attacked. The bombs are droplets from a cough or sneeze of another person who isn’t intending to hurt you. There is no negotiating with the enemy.
This is a quiet war. A lonely war. A wait-it-out war. A war of uncertainty.
There are no deafening sounds of war planes above or teeth-rattling tanks on our streets. There is less noise than anyone can remember in the major cities. Mostly, what you hear is the hopeful sound of birds chirping all day long. The sunshine beckons, making it hard to resist wanting to socialize with everyone you know — and in person, for goodness’ sake.
Then the occasional ambulance siren blares. Reality sets in. The virus doesn’t promise to kill you, but it has killed hundreds of thousands across the world so far. In some of us, it doesn’t show itself at all
. In others, it debilitates for weeks
. And when it does kill, it can mean a lonely death
, one surrounded by people whose eyes you do not recognize and who are wearing clothes that appear meant more for a moonscape than this earth. This enemy is cruel that way.
For millions of Americans
, the coronavirus is sucking the life out of their livelihoods. It breeds fear about the future health and wealth of our households, never mind the nation as a whole. The fever many of us are experiencing is of the cabin variety. Cooped up with our own thoughts, worrying about our children’s education or our parents, grandparents and friends’ underlying conditions. Wondering how this will end, and worrying that our world will never be the same even when the pandemic dies out. It is of great solace to look back and realize we are not the first to have lived through a thing like this
But this viral war is ravaging certain communities with deadlier consequences
, and it is terrifying how callous we have become when that community is not ours.
That indifference is evidence of the other war that rages alongside the coronavirus. It is an old war and also a disease, one that we as Americans have lived with for centuries without ever completely conquering it: Racism. In 2020 the two wars converged; the coronavirus met racism
with all its debilitating tentacles.
A singular incident reignited the old war. We were all supposed to be staying at home in our cocoons to stave off Covid-19, but the snuffing out of George Floyd
under a police officer’s knee propelled people into the streets.
The outcry against injustice simultaneously put one of the most vulnerable communities to the virus in a potential Covid petri dish. One sign I saw in the streets of Minneapolis summed up the sentiment: “F**k the virus. End Racism Now.”
While many who marched wore masks, I was told by demonstrators over and over again that they were risking their health, and potentially their lives, because marching against police brutality and racism was more important.
Fighting against that old war took precedence, even in the face of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that Covid-19 hospitalizations
for “non-Hispanic black persons have a rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic White persons.” Health experts will tell you there are a myriad of reasons why the virus is especially vicious to Black Americans, just as there are a myriad of reasons why hatred still permeates our society, striking at Black and Brown people with the same kind of overexaggerated vengeance.
If you’re Black American, you figure that both this new war and the old can take your breath away. It is just a matter of time.
But they are also keenly aware that one fight has a potential for a vaccine within a certain timeframe
. The other has the potential to plague the Black community until the end of time if change isn’t worked on with the same fervor.