April 2, 2020
By Jim Harding
Epidemiology, the study of the distribution of any disease, can be a great moral teacher. Epidemiology might even be called a moral science. It is not “science” and technology in the service of warfare, human domination or corporate expansion. It involves collective action based on the best available science and technology to reduce collective harms.
Compassion, gratitude and mindfulness all come into better focus as we recognize our fundamental interdependence during this pandemic. Solidarity and kindness can better bind us together.
The dominant economic culture nurtures a pervasive “us and them”. Self and Other get pitted against each other in the pursuit of egotistic or “tribal” self-interest. We are encouraged to live parochially within our particular social space within the stratified world. This helps distance us from the suffering of others, whether from inequality, discrimination, pollution or isolation, both near and afar.
Now, we constantly hear people say that “we are all in this together”.
The homeless in our community have had some access to charitable programs, which faced scarcity of resources. But they were never guaranteed safe, warm places to sleep and eat. Sleep, along with diet, enhances our immune system. Public officials are now realizing that street living doesn’t allow physical distancing and that the homeless could become Covid-19 “spreaders”. Some places are setting up beds and meals for homeless people in empty, heated auditoriums.
What did we mean when we said the homeless were “in our community”? What did “our” mean? Homeless persons had serious unmet needs before this pandemic. Does there have to be self-interest for us to take concrete acts of compassion? Will the insights, compassion and caring persist after this unprecedented crisis?
We are on a steep learning curve about our interdependence. Health and care workers on the frontline face major burdens, including health risks, so the rest of us can reap the benefits. Yet, in spite of ongoing international warnings about a pandemic, as little as two months before the Wuhan outbreak, we didn’t ensure that these essential workers had protective equipment to lessen their burdens.
We can no longer take any aspect of the supply chain for necessary goods and services for granted. If we are going to be able to “stay home” to reduce the spread of Covid-19, then we need grocery, pharmacy, truckdrivers, farm and other workers to provide essential services. Our sense of gratitude for each other is thankfully growing. Perhaps, through this, we can learn about the dignity of labour, including of the low-paid, perhaps new immigrant, cleaner who disinfects public spaces. And commit to a living wage across Canada.
When we say “we are all in this together”, we need to remember that it is the frontline workers, not the independently wealthy, or the retired middle class that are keeping things going. There is a “caste” of workers that will keep the supply chain going for the rest of us, at greater personal risk. Their burdens and our benefits are locked together in our pursuit of justice in this health crisis.
Social Justice as The Guiding Light
Strengthening our feelings of gratitude matters. But social and economic justice policy has to also step up. Income security is needed if people are going to be able to self-isolate to help flatten the curve. Federal emergency benefits initially were only a 10% wage subsidy for laid off workers in small businesses. In the EU the subsidy ranged from 60-90%, while in the U.S., the “land of the free”, without universal healthcare, there is no such comprehensive program. Thankfully the Canadian subsidy was quickly raised to 75% and government soon realized it needed to include non-profits.
But what about the business that is too small to benefit? Or businesses, such as in hospitality, that are extremely labour-intensive, with a very slim economic margin? And, what about unemployed who are not even eligible for this wage subsidy? What about extremely high bank interest rates on credit cards, which will be some people’s only short-term financial resource?
Polling shows that one-third of Canadians are worried about not being able to pay their rent. Utilities can’t be paid without an income. So that people can stay at home, and stop the spread of this virus, we have to confront how difficult it is for some of us to keep a roof over our head. Much more not-for-profit housing is needed everywhere.
Food, mental health, addiction, childcare and senior support programs that depended on regular infrastructures, that have shut down, will have to be created anew. Much innovative care-giving is going on behind-the-scenes.
Meanwhile some construction and pipeline projects carry on without any chance of physical distancing or the opportunity for workers to stay at home with wage subsidies. Why is this happening, when these are not essential services and these activities will also place others at risk? Indigenous communities will be at greater risk if resource “Man Camps” aren’t quickly shut down.
Protecting future work in the mainstream economy is in the public interest. But we have to be discerning; subsidies for low-carbon energy technologies, for sure, but not for uneconomic tar sands corporations or the greatly over-built airplane industry. Now is the time to phase out the massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Decision-makers need to carefully think through the desired outcomes, while we change from “business as usual” during this crisis. Economic aid should be speeding up the conversion to a green economy. This can reduce emissions, the loss of biodiversity, and the future threat of pandemics.
An Ideological Correction Is Underway
The 2020 deficit could be from 140 to 180 billion, which will greatly raise the federal debt. However, economic bailouts should not be going to corporations with millions in stranded financial assets. If anything, taxing the profit-taking and stashed wealth should be central to the economic recovery strategy.
It is remarkable how quickly the most adamant supporters of the “corporate free market” joined the call for massive government intervention. Many vulnerable recipients of the subsidies likely supported the Conservative Party’s ideology of “smaller government” and “lower taxes” in the 2019 election. Now they want the government to be there to save them, at almost any cost, from the faltering economy. Hopefully, recipients of subsidies will remember that “we are still all in this together” if their businesses again become lucrative. Hopefully, through this period of social generosity, small business owners and workers will better realize that their interests are not served by corporate free market ideology.
We are having to learn solidarity the hard way. That “we are all in this together” can be a plea for some people to realize that their behaviour can put others at risk. Early WHO messaging stressed that most people, and particularly younger age groups, wouldn’t face serious Covid-19 symptoms. However, some opportunistically took this information about low risk as an excuse to carry on with their gregarious activities. And community spread of this virus escalated. Dentists went to a mammoth convention, doctors went to a curling bonspiel, snowmobilers went to a large rally and banquet, and worshippers attended religious gatherings or funerals. New Orleans just shot itself in the foot, with a skyrocketing of Covid-19 cases after it refused to cancel the Mardi Gras. Yes, we are all connected; some vulnerable people in our communities will die because of community celebrations.
The virus does not discriminate, but the way it spreads, and the harm that results, does. However, younger age groups are also at risk; those under 50 make up 12% of Canada’s hospitalized. Older men infected with the virus are at more risk of dying than older women. However many “medical preconditions” that greatly increase the chances of elderly dying involve socio-economic disadvantage.
This Will Be Destabilizing
It is unsettling to accept that this pandemic is truly happening and that it is moving closer to our community and homes. The sense that our home is a retreat from the frenzied world is coming undone. We can no longer psychologically distance ourselves, when we see news of thousands dying in Italy or Spain or, now, in New York. The seemingly uncontrolled outbreak in laissez-faire United States, headed by a dysfunctional Madman, can be personally threatening. Our American neighbours face an unprecedented historical challenge with their Presidential election coming during this pandemic.
It is destabilizing to accept our personal risks and to have to change our everyday behavior to lower the risks in our community. It takes a lot of energy and commitment to survive a pandemic. Some will encounter severe anxiety and perhaps depression. However, much more precariousness was already a way of life for millions of people abroad before this pandemic. And the pandemic will make it much worse for them than for us. So, how “are we all going to be in this together” in our fractured world?
We need to admit and face our own fears and concerns for our loved ones. Some jurisdictions are no longer considering anyone over 60 for a ventilator. I am coming 79, with an asthma condition. If I get this virus and serious symptoms during a surge, I may have to try to survive at home. The recurring coughs of my spouse, or of one of our sons, over the phone, seem louder than they did before this outbreak.
This collective and personal “reset” goes against the grain of most norms and expectations in our mobile society. Upcoming generations have become ever more self-serving with the expansion of the global marketplace. More choices seem available in international travel and on the internet. The return to more first-hand communication and mutual support may prove to be uplifting.
Self-referential living remains widespread. Some “snow birds” even started trips abroad after Covid-19 was already spreading from China. Yet, when trapped abroad, many expected a quick government rescue. Time taken to return those from infected cruise ships probably slowed down instigating a proactive, mandatory and enforceable self-isolation of all snow birds scurrying through infected airports to get home.
Rethinking Freedom and Authority
This pandemic fundamentally challenges us all to rethink clichés about freedom and authority. The “libertarian” couple that says “no bureaucrat is going to tell us that we can’t travel when we want, where we want”, might be among the first to demand quick government assistance to get home. They might also be among those who put themself above the rest by shopping on the way home from the airport.
Our inherited views of “left” and “right” are also up for grabs. Partisan polarizations have not served us very well as we learn to face unfolding climate and global health disasters. We have become confused about the difference between freedom from and freedom to; it is one thing to be free from oppression, it is quite another to live in a society that provides us with the freedom to do things that enhance our quality of life. Our individual freedom to go to a doctor under Medicare, regardless of income and wealth, depends on the exercise of authority by democratically-elected officials.
The growth in identity politics has added to our confusion. Rights can’t exist without responsibilities. We can’t expect to have our rights respected if we don’t take responsibility to protect the rights of others. We are literally “all in this together” when it comes to the human rights that need to be strengthened across the diversity of humanity.
But we have become mixed up about human solidarity from all the neo-liberal, anti-government propaganda about how privatization, deregulation and free trade will inherently serve all of us. We have all been bombarded by these messages since the late 1970s. Corporate globalization can’t and won’t serve the fundamental public interest, as this pandemic so vividly shows. The ultra-nationalistic and anti-intellectual backlash to unfettered, bottom-line globalization, is, however, not a cure. This just creates an even more rigid “we and they”, which makes everyone more vulnerable when a pandemic like this emerges. Our solidarity must go from local to global; that is what this pandemic so convincingly shows. Yes “we really are all in this world together”.
After this global health crisis subsides there will need to be a major reset to review dependence on particular supply chains, to enhance local food security, and to make our societies and communities more resilient. We are already setting in motion a Guaranteed Annual Income. A supply chain that was truly built to serve human needs around the planet would look a lot different than the one we now have. It would be far less wasteful and less carbon-intensive. The reduction in global emissions and pollution, the return of air and water quality, and habitat health that we are now witnessing, with the brakes put on economic growth, must continue to be pursued. Our solidarity has to encompass taking care of our common ecological home, the planet.
The UN Secretary General is calling for billions to ensure this pandemic doesn’t fester, anywhere, and thereby create a deadly second wave. He calls this “enlightened self-interest”. Perhaps this foresight could also come from deepening compassion, gratitude and mindfulness and from a great outpouring of human solidarity. The pendulum has to swing towards more, not less, multi-lateral cooperation, not just to avert further pandemics, which could surely come from our long-term ecological disregard. Let us all recommit to seriously address the common threat from the climate crisis, while we so clearly see that “we truly are all in this together”.
Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies. He is a founding member of the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association (go to: QVEA.CA). Since the 1970s he has taught, and authored multiple articles and chapters, about environmental health.