At first, I thought the shutdown would lead to more quiet time with my family. While disorienting, the prospect of slowing down appealed to me. I had been looking apprehensively at a busy spring schedule, full of travel, meetings, workshops. All of that disappeared, practically overnight.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit to some initial relief. We don’t often have permission to take a break from the kinetic lifestyles many of us have stumbled into—work, family, community straining the finite.
That momentary feeling of slight repose—a luxury afforded to those who were able to stay safe at home—lasted all but a minute.
That’s how long it took to begin to realize that the social inequities that many had been speaking about, advocating on, and seeking to end were being tested like never before.
The pandemic was shaking the very foundations of our society, a foundation built on inequality and oppression; a foundation that could very well fall apart before our eyes if not for immediate government support and community resilience.
The federal government moved quickly to provide income support to workers who were often living paycheque to paycheque. Other levels of government similarly scrambled to batten down the hatches against the invisible virus that had upended our way of life without much warning. Community groups leapt into action, filling the immediate gaps.
“The pandemic was shaking the very foundations of our society, a foundation built on inequality and oppression; a foundation that could very well fall apart before our eyes if not for immediate government support and community resilience.”
We were, of course, grossly unprepared.
But it wasn’t just that we were unprepared on the supplies front. That was an easy and obvious headline. The lack of protective equipment was one thing, reflecting our slightly delusional expectation that we are always going to be alright so why bother to plan or prepare for the worst-case scenario.
It was much more than that. It was the fact that we were unprepared to face the consequences of allowing far too many people to struggle without adequate housing, health care, long-term care, retirement security, and job security. In the early days of the pandemic, Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell, during one of what has become that ubiquitous Facebook-Zoom-webinar triad, shared the well-known adage, “we are only as strong as our weakest link.”
Somehow, we continue to have political movements that purportedly advocate for the “little guy” but that are ultimately built on the concept that less government is better for the people. That has always been code for letting the hyper-capitalists mercilessly squeeze people and our climate for all their worth.
Where are those folks now? Unbelievably, some of those types are already talking about austerity and cutbacks in the post-COVID era.
It’s that kind of backwards thinking that we need a vaccine against.
Even when this pandemic recedes into our memories and history textbooks, to be shared with children and grandchildren via some new storytelling app years from now, the lessons we’ve learned must not fade away.
This pandemic has taught us many things, including the need for social solidarity, for communal strength and for allyship.
That requires that we all support the social contract—that those with more give more to the overall health and well-being of our collective. Those who have less should be afforded every opportunity to improve their lives, to reach their full potential, to be safe and secure from threats they face simply by the very nature of some aspect of their identity, be it race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, status, or a combination of these.
We’ve lived through a period in which it was easy to ignore the experiences of those on the periphery—the homeless, the marginalized, the less socially mobile, those doing work we took for granted and may have looked down upon. Yet this pandemic has centred that periphery and forced our gaze. What we see before us is injustice.
It is perhaps this full realization that has permitted the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement into society’s consciousness, not just in the United States and Canada, but around the world where societies built on colonialism have simply had enough with hypocrisy and ongoing discrimination and racism.
This pandemic’s impact on racialized communities, in particular, has been clear—even without hard data. Whether in Canada, the United States, Sweden, England, or any other Western country that claims to abide by principles of equality and democracy, the truth of the matter is that these societies have never been equal or fair for millions of people. In particular, they have been oppressive to Indigenous peoples and to Black people.
“This pandemic has awoken realizations in all of us: that we are not invincible; that disasters don’t only hit Brown and Black people; that we are not immune to the repercussions of decisions we make today.”
And those who care have had enough.
This pandemic has awoken realizations in all of us: that we are not invincible; that disasters don’t only hit Brown and Black people somewhere far away, visible only on our screens and easily scrolled away from; that we are not immune to the repercussions of decisions we make today—about how our society spends money, on whom, what, why, when, and where.
Are we spending our money to over-police vulnerable communities instead of investing in them?
Are we providing tax cuts to the rich and to the corporations they run without expecting basic wages and benefits for the workers who allow them to operate?
Do we guarantee fair treatment for the essential workers who allow our communities to function, taking care of us and our sick and elderly friends, family, and neighbours?
How do we care for those who travel thousands of kilometres to ensure we have fruits and vegetables, meat and chicken on our kitchen tables?
If we don’t ask these hard questions of ourselves and if we don’t come up with better answers than we have in the past, then we have learned nothing from this pandemic.
And that would be a tragic loss.