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  • Writer's pictureChaire UNESCO en démocratie, citoyenneté mondiale et éducation transformatoire

A reflection: Love, and social solidarity, in the time of Coronavirus (Paul R. Carr)

A reflection: Love, and social solidarity, in the time of Coronavirus

Paul R. Carr

The Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez wrote the wonderful and epic Love in the time of cholera in 1985, evoking a multitude of contours of love and society during a half-century period starting in the late 19th century when cholera was a significant impediment to life for many, especially the vulnerable.

Cholera is still around today, and tens of thousands of people are killed annually by a disease that could be controlled and, arguably, exterminated if the world—principally those able to make high-level decisions, share resources, and influence policy, programs and practices—prioritized this unnecessary and disgraceful calamity.

Social inequalities, cultivated by, and marinaded in, a bath of unbridled neoliberal capitalism, and imbued in a hegemonic political and media stew-pot, are a breeding ground for poverty, discrimination and marginalized life experiences. Ultimately, major health crises are connected to over-arching political and economic dynamics.

In the time of the Coronavirus, what has changed? In a word, lots! And in another word (make that two), not much!

On the change side, we now have the ultra-sophisticated technology, applications, the most extravagant video games, rockets launched into space with unimaginable budgets, dangling on military contracts, travel to anywhere, online this and that, massive amount of cultural genius, including music, poetry, art, film and theatre as well as flash mobs, architectural marvels and the consumer as producer phenomenon that makes us all our own production companies. Clearly, we can see, if we want, endless acts of kinds, empathy and solidarity, and there are all kinds of social movements ebbing and flowing from #metoo, Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, the unrelenting and vigorous environmental efforts, etc.. People are mobilizing, uniting and moving forward, despite what you read or hear or see in corporate media. Thus, substantial potential for change lies at our doorsteps, everywhere.

At the other end of the spectrum, we still have the horrors of racism, sexism, xenophobia, feminicide, islamophobia, homophobia and many other forms of hatred, discrimination and exclusion. And, in 2020, we still have the militarization of the planet, led notably by one country, in particular, but with many others also in the game. Why have military bases and personal in other countries? Why produce, market, sell and use armaments, which have only one function (ultimately, sadly, to neutralize and kill people)? Why do we know so little about this, and why are discussions on it typically avoided, omitted or shut down? We have also created political structures that support “our guys” here and there, regardless of what they’re up to, including brutal regimes, often supplying them with the requisite arms and diplomatic winks and nods that make things seem normal, when they are anything but normal.

So, in a way, despite so much visible change in the air, lots of things have not changed, including oppression and debilitating, insufferable inequalities, often supported by antiquated power structures.

I’m wondering if the notion/concept/meaning of democracy should also be a relevant part of this equation. Do we live in a democracy? How do we know? How do we participate in this democracy? If elections are the key, do we consider them to be democratic? And the real question, from my vantage-point: what is the linkage to education? Do we learn to engage, critique and shape democracy, and, if so, how? There is, I believe, significant reason to be concerned about the type of education we’re developing in order to create a more vibrant, meaningfully-engaged democracy.

Citizen participation is at the base of societal solidarity, and is also a vector to address our most significant and widespread problems. It is, I believe, intimately connected to education, which is intertwined in the Venn diagram loop with democracy. Citizen participation is also fully ensconced within global citizenship.

We are now facing a universal, highly contagious health threat, which risks bringing our political and economic systems to their proverbial knees. I have no crystal ball, and, like all of us, am hoping that the self-quarantining, self-distancing, hand-washing, proactive testing, targeted healthcare provision and significant, critical public education and leadership will diminish greatly the impact of COVID-19. The impact, however, has already been enormous, and the fear of it infecting entire populations is quite real and serious.

We are all vulnerable, and many of us are questioning what it is all about. However, the vulnerable are even more vulnerable, and we know this from every crisis we have ever faced.

This is clearly an extremely serious health crisis but it is also a significant political, philosophical, moral and cultural crisis.

There’s so much discussion about what is happening that we need to interrogate if, for example, the stock market has taken precedence over our societal needs? We’re all somehow connected to international commerce through pensions, investments, government loans, debt and financing, international organizations and the like. Yet, it seems that the concern about a collapsing economic system, one that has not been a satisfactory response to the needs of large swaths of the world’s population, is too predominant in how we handle COVID-19. Those well off will most likely be disproportionately protected, and those the most vulnerable are likely to be disproportionately affected.

We’re also linked into the common mythology that our “democracy” will enable us to weather any storm. But this particular virus, which we can see and feel and inherit, is not ensconced in the Global South (at least not today but the evolution is so eerie and contagious that I cannot imagine the dire prospects for vast populations already facing serious challenges if, and when, it arrives), so we are now forced to reconcile our own political and economic systems and structures that often mask, underplay and/or discredit the notion of basic unfairness. Noami Klein has effectively captured this in the shock doctrine, and Canadians can, I believe, understand without too much pressure that, in general, the First Nations do not have it easy in our society. Capitalism has not been a good friend to most people, yet it is somehow tethered to (normative, representative, hegemonic) democracy as if there is no other way to function as a society. Our democracy is, perhaps, not as strong, vibrant, resilient and inclusive as we might like to think that it is. I offer this not as an insult about cultural life and manifestations but, rather, in relation to power relations that dominate and underpin many of the choices, options and experiences we encounter.

Cholera is still with us, even if we can end it with clean water, better living conditions, and, importantly, social solidarity, massaged through formal, informal and nonformal education.

I am hopeful—not in a romantic, Pollyannaish way but in the critical theoretical sense— that COVID-19 can also be addressed, if that is the word for it, through concerted efforts, research, massive healthcare resources and supports, and a priorization of this pandemic over other political and economic concerns.

This may not be the time to embark on the process of re-imaging democracy, to make it more… democratic, but we should not put it off for too long. Social solidarity needs to start with love, and continue through the eradication of social inequalities, which is, I believe, an endless process, not a finite outcome.

There are no easy solutions. The almost spectacular demand for, and level of consumption of, —is it possible?—, toilet paper, matched only by mainstream media reports of how the shelves are bare, needs to be accompanied by the social interactions and interconnections that can make for a more understanding, compassionate and decent society. Public engagement and transformative education, aligned with including and involving all people in the living together project may sound theoretical but it means re-considering what this is all about, even if our daily needs, concerns and realities may not permit thinking beyond or outside the box at this time.

It is almost beyond belief that the borders are locked down, international travel is being blocked, and the strictest controls are being put in place to keep non-citizens out, yet special measures are being developed to facilitate access by select foreign workers to come here (in Canada, and likely elsewhere) from countries in the Global South to pick crops so that our agricultural sector can stay afloat. Are these workers paid sufficiently less, is there a risk for them to contract the virus and, thus, be carriers back home, and what does this say about our own economy?

Ironically, despite all of the cultural innovation, joy and pride that exist at the local or national levels, we are intimately enjoined and inter-dependent, across the globe.

The environment is our common battle-ground, and the political and economic rumblings as well as the privatized and monopolistic behaviours of a small group of people in most societies must be recognized for what it is, and it is not very helpful for the masses of people around the world. This is not to say that all people are not part of the equation, that culture and cultural practices are not a factor, that other complex social relations are not central to remedying this pandemic. But social inequalities are also a fundamental base in these jarring and shifting tectonic plates that undergird our health and wellbeing.

“Flattening the curve”—the new mantra to contain and constrain the virus— should also mean unabashedly smoothing out the inhumanity swimming in the waters that sustain us, those reservoirs that allow us to live. Half of our body weight being constituted of this precious resource is only the type of the ice-berg but it is a metaphor for global struggles, global resources, global power and global dignity.

At this time, the immediate, specific enemy is dangling within unknown encounters, a fearful, risky, dystopian (sur)reality that makes thinking about everything else extremely uncomfortable, and also almost impossible. In a global catastrophe, should we be thinking about global solutions, even when the local problems, although similar, are tearing away at the social fabric?

This is the time, I believe, for far-reaching, and global, love and social solidarity in the time of the Coronavirus. (And because the situation is evolving so rapidly, I am fearful that my reflection may have to be re-thought in a few hours, beyond the dire predictions that we, or at least I, see on March 18, 2020.)

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