COVID-19 has exposed society’s upside-down priorities

The pandemic is teaching us about what really matters — and has been possible all along
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Before anything else I want to acknowledge what is unfolding in Canada and around the globe as a human tragedy. Even as this crisis offers an object lesson and has things to teach us, it is important to never lose sight of the scale of calamity in terms of suffering and loss of life.

Just in the last week all the rules have changed. Canada has been turned upside-down. Of course, our country is just now coming to grips with the same form of crisis other regions have been grappling with for weeks or months, and that the entire world will be dealing with for the foreseeable future.

But as the world is changed and the country is turned upside-down, some things are becoming abundantly clear. The veil is lifted. The rose-coloured glasses are coming off. The pandemic is providing us with an object lesson —a practical means of learning something important and essential about our country and about the world.

This object lesson has many aspects and will continue to reveal more aspects as the crisis unfolds. Here in the early days, I want to briefly discuss just a few that seem to me immediately obvious: 1) What has always been essential; 2) the experience of insecurity; and 3) what has always been possible.

What’s really essential

As the social and economic life of Canada grinds to a halt, there are some things it is apparent that we can do without, and some things that are absolutely essential. Simply think about what work must continue to be done, and what work can be put aside.

There is no need to create a hierarchy of essential work, but it is clear that in the present crisis that health care workers and all forms of activity that support health care are absolutely vital. Support for workers in health care, both material and emotional, needs to be a major priority going forward.

Along with workers in health, vital work includes that done in food production and distribution. Agricultural workers (a significant number of whom are migrants and sometimes undocumented), truck drivers, warehouse workers, and grocery store and shop employees are all absolutely essential.

People need more than to simply feed the body. Especially in times of crisis, they also need to feed the soul.

Then there are also essential people like cleaners, sanitation workers, utility workers in electricity and water and sewage, childcare providers, postal workers, and a range of other workers that allow life in a state of emergency to continue. All of these workers are taking risks with their health and the health of their families.

Many of these workers are the very people who have been the targets of round upon round of austerity and belt-tightening by provincial and federal governments for decades.

I would also add, though perhaps not in the same category of vital but still in my opinion essential, all the artists and creatives who have produced the cultural products that so many now consume while secluded in their homes. People need more than to simply feed the body. Especially in times of crisis, they also need to feed the soul.

I am not going to list the range of occupations that do not come close to being essential. It is straightforward enough to simply think about all those things that make little difference to human wellbeing at this time. Though it should be said that these are the occupations and sectors that tend to be the most privileged and highest paid in the “normal” times before the rules changed.

The experience of insecurity

The new “normal,” for the foreseeable future, is uncertainty. No one really knows what might happen in a month or two, and it is not difficult to imagine the rules that have changed so radically in just a matter of weeks will change even more. People are losing their jobs, their savings, and their investments. People can no longer carry out everyday activities or leisure, and even necessary activities like getting food require planning and caution.

This is the lived experience of insecurity.

Some commentators and politicians liken the situation to wartime. Canadians, for the most part, have little experience with the insecurity associated with war, but it is easier to imagine how difficult life in conflict must be from what we have experienced just for a few days. It is easier to imagine the impossible decisions so many refugees of conflict must face, how terrifying it must be to shelter against the possibility of aerial bombardment and bullets. The threat we in Canada now face might by comparison be called benign.

But this crisis also teaches us about the insecurity that so many people inside Canada have faced for so long. Those in poverty or who are experiencing homelessness, those who are marginalized, those who are disabled, those who are abused or subject to forms of physical or systemic violence.

Insecurity has existed in many forms in this country. And now that insecurity is the lived-experience of the majority, it is even worse again for those who have experienced insecurity all along. The vulnerable are even more vulnerable now.

Insecurity means that everything becomes difficult. It causes stress and anxiety and panic. It means that the taken-for-granted, simple, everyday things that were easy yesterday may become impossible tomorrow. And as general widespread insecurity becomes the new “normal,” we are called as neighbors and communities to care for one another, especially the most vulnerable.

What is really possible

Along with these lessons about what is really essential and on what insecurity means, the COVID-19 crisis is also teaching us about what has been possible all along.

The system was always in a position to do something about the yawning inequality and injustice in the country.

Just in the last few days, the federal and provincial governments have enacted far-reaching measures to address the crisis. Enormous financial packages, suspension of evictions, programs for the homeless, and presumably even more elaborate schemes as the days and weeks go by.

The federal government has proclaimed that it will deploy some of the massive “fiscal firepower” at its disposal to help ordinary people in unprecedented ways.

Obviously this was something that could have happened all along. The system was always in a position to do something about the yawning inequality and injustice in the country. It was always possible to help the vulnerable and downtrodden. It was always possible that things could have been better for everyone.

But that’s not the way the world before was. The country was, in the days before the crisis, punctuated by greed and hoarding on a massive scale. Selfishness was prized and awarded bonuses, even as working people were told to tighten their belts and to do without, and even as social security and programs for collective wellbeing were gutted.

Let us never lose sight of this unfolding tragedy as first of all a tragedy of human suffering. But let us also learn the lessons this crisis has to offer. Let us look with a clear vision at what has always been essential and what has always been possible.

And as the old world crumbles let us build something better, something fair, and something that addresses for good the insecurity that has plagued our country for so long.

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