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

Still reflecting : What does it all mean? (Paul R. Carr, April 6, 2020)

Still reflecting : What does it all mean?

Paul R. Carr

April 6, 2020

What does it all mean? A few countries in Europe—Sweden and the Netherlands—have not shut everything down. Some countries—United States, France and Great Britain—were hesitant, and then moved to enact measures. Others—South Korea and Taiwan—have adopted massive testing, isolation and treatment programs. Some countries—Italy and Spain—have been severely enmeshed with rampant community transmission. In Canada, the number of cases increases daily, and the risk of transmission remains high. No country has the full and complete answer, and all countries, despite everything, will need to work together on this global pandemic. COVID-19 is not a hoax, nor is it fake news, and it has the potential to affect everyone. And people are dying.

I have not mentioned the Global South because, like all other issues, there is less reporting on what is happening there but the fear of an extreme catastrophe is a serious concern. I do follow events in Latin America, and it is truly heart-breaking to see what is happening, especially in Ecuador, where dead bodies have been left in the streets. I wonder if we in the Global North would have been has locked into this crisis if it were only, or primarily, taking place in Africa, for example. I guess I’m posing a rhetorical question here, to a certain degree, but one that is tethered to how we are living through and assessing COVID-19.

Along the way—and the date for everything that is said is extremely important, given the rapid evolution of this public health crisis—, we’ve learned about social distancing, asymptomatic conditions, testing reliability, the function of respirators, the shortage of masks, gloves, gowns and everything else (there is no point in referring to the toilet paper debacle), and the highlight points of graphs that include peaks, valleys, flattening and a wide array of interpretations. A vaccine is 12-18 months out, and some drugs that may help treat the virus are being tested in several countries. For many infected, surviving COVID-19 is a real possibility but dying, especially for older people and those with a range of health conditions, is also frighteningly a possibility.

Some people continue to “play” outside, and the “authorities” have issued fines to keep them inside. A group of guys just received $1000 fines for engaging in a soccer game at a public park in Montreal. Some people believe that gathering in large numbers is no big deal. The notion of encouraging people to go the beach in Georgia (USA) is truly bizarre but it is happening. And there is an endless proliferation of posts, messages, comments, images, memes, videos, reports, diagnoses and information on this crisis. Does social media usage mean that we are more, or less, engaged? And what will be the effect?

Money figures into this equation in palpably inextricable ways. Awkwardly, the notion that living on minimum wage is impossible has been exposed as a real revelation to many in government, the business sector and elsewhere. Supporting those vulnerable populations now, those living in poverty or not far from it, is a real problem, and COVID-19 has laid it bare.

Paying people working in “essential services”—those working in seniors’ residences, daycare centres and grocery stores, for instance—who make low wages exposes the uncomfortable truth that… they have always worked hard but the system did not or does not work for them. These people were never slacking but, conversely, were keeping everything in balance so that everyone else can keep on keeping on.

Many people are the proverbial one paycheck from being on the street. This is not meant as a smarmy slogan. We all know this, and now, in addition to seeing it and feeling it, we are made painfully aware that large numbers of people are applying for emergency assistance, deferment of payments, renegotiation of loans, cessation of eviction orders, handouts, and, it would seem, that everyone wants that a sense of order will be restored (as soon as possible).

The normative news doesn’t talk much about violence toward women, racism, and other unsightly acts that speak to the most contorted and xenophobic realities that have also increased in many regards during this time of social solidarity. Violating women, attacking people of Asian origin, discriminating against the poor, and ignoring hegemonic war activities all taking place at this time is all part of the context. Of course, not everyone is doing it, nor condoning it, but this does not negate the impact. Some White supremacist groups, it has been reported, have even sought to weaponize COVID-19.

According to United Nations organizations, some 25,000 people die of hunger every day, and some 50,000 die every day from curable diseases. Money is part of the equation but so is empathy, compassion, caring, and making “democracy” work for people. I don’t raise these points to diminish the seriousness of COVID-19 but, rather, to frame it in the hopes that we will build something more humane and human afterwards.

The war industry continues unabated. It has not stopped, incredibly. Tightening the screws on your enemy seems to be de rigueur during a global health crisis. Cutting off supplies, enforcing sanctions, selling arms, under-documenting or omitting news of military conflict, and maintaining troops all over the place underscores the politico-economic context before, during, and, most likely, after the Coronavirus.

What does it all mean? It means that there is every justification imaginable to take the steroids out of the capitalist arm that pumps the iron feeding us the romantic belief that we are only individuals, that governments should be at the service of the wealthy, first and foremost, and that everyone needs to fend for themselves. When people die, when they need not die, then this is the moment to evaluate why we have such huge, debilitating and disenfranchising social inequalities when it is not necessary for them to exist at that level they exist.

Public healthcare, which, I believe, should be twinned with public education, can heal the infections, bacteria and viruses that make us ill. Of course, these are institutions built, supported and imagined by human-beings, replete with ethical, moral, political, philosophical, operational and other shortcomings. But human-beings can re-imagine their social circumstances, relationships and… institutions. The destruction of the social fabric, social institutions, social interactions and social justice leaves the potential for social/common good diminished and frayed.

There are many inspirations out there—and having just read texts by Arundhati Roy, Henry Giroux, Noam Chomsky and a few others, in addition to the engaging work by Democracy Now—and one can have the sense that there are movements, efforts, projects and solidarity aimed at building something more sustainable, more equitable, more decent and more socially just. Of course, this generally lies outside of the tightly structured and controlled mainstream framing of the problem, and, ultimately, the potential solution. But this doesn’t mean that people’s lived realities are not real, nor that they cannot be changed, even transformed.

What does it all mean? In part, it means that our economic and political systems need to be realigned with our environmental, health, education and social systems. How will “we” do it? No one person has the answer but, collectively, it can be done. This will not supersede defeating the virus but it should not be swept away to create what existed before, as quickly as possible, to get back to “normal”. It was never “normal” to have such social inequalities, and re-imagining society so as to not be further impaled by this illness of human degradation is not only possible but necessary (if I can loosely weave together some of the inspirational pleadings of Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela, among many others).

Public health intersects with the public will to build a sustainable society. The need for social solidarity (and love) is now. And afterward as well.

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