Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Things have changed and can still change

Imagine being told that all schools will be closed, all public gatherings will be cancelled. Hundreds of millions of people around the world will be put out of work, billions told not to leave their homes  and governments launching some of the largest bail-outs in history while landlords are stopped from collecting rent and banks letting mortgage payments to fall into arrears while the homeless are housed in hotels free of charge. Governments are helicoptering cash payments to households, writing out checks,  and some on the Right are even adopting the left-wing idea of the universal basic income. Would you have believed what you were hearing?

There is a pessimistic view is that the pandemic crisis inflames xenophobia and racist scape-goating.

Mike Davis, author of the 2005 book, “The Monster at Our Door. The Global Threat of Avian Flu” explains that “In a totally rational world, you might assume that an international pandemic would lead to greater internationalism. In a rational world, we would be ramping up production of basic essential supplies – test kits, masks, respirators – not only for our own use, but for poorer countries, too. Because it’s all one battle. But it’s not necessarily a rational world. So there could be a lot of demonisation and calls for isolation. Which will mean more deaths and more suffering worldwide.”

Some populist and demagogue politicians have blamed foreigners for COVIS-19 and have embarked upon unilateral nationalist policies rather than coordinated with neighbouring nations. In a 2008 report on the legal aspects of pandemic response, prompted by the increase in pandemic flu outbreaks, a team of historians and medical ethicists assembled by the American Civil Liberties Union suggested that  “People, rather than the disease, become the enemy.”

However there is another way of responding to a global pandemic.

Long before COVID-19, people died of diseases we knew how to prevent and treat. People lived precarious lives in societies awash with wealth. Experts told us about catastrophic threats on the horizon, such as climate change, and we did next to nothing to prepare for them. We are now aware of the extent of that can be accomplished (and quickly!) when we understand the urgency of the threat and risk. We have learned that the market cannot provide solutions to protect the public good. 

The task today is not to fight the pandemic in order to return to business as usual, because business as usual was already a disaster. The goal, instead, is to fight the virus – and in doing so transform business as usual into something more humane. 

“We’ve been trying for years to get people out of normal mode and into emergency mode,” said Margaret Klein Salamon, a former psychologist who now heads the advocacy group The Climate Mobilization. “What is possible politically is fundamentally different when lots of people get into emergency mode – when they fundamentally accept that there’s danger, and that if we want to be safe we need to do everything we can. And it’s been interesting to see that theory validated by the response to the coronavirus. Now the challenge is to keep emergency mode activated about climate, where the dangers are orders of magnitude greater. We can’t think we’re going to go ‘back to normal’, because things weren’t normal.” Salamon believes that one lesson of the coronavirus crisis is the power of shared emotion, which has helped make possible radical action to slow the pandemic. “I’m not talking about people giving each other medical expertise. I’m talking about people calling each other up and saying: ‘How are you doing? Are you scared? I’m scared. I want you to be OK, I want us to be OK.’ And that’s what we want for climate, too. We need to learn to be scared together, to agree on what we’re terrified about. It’s good that we’re entering emergency mode about the pandemic,” she said.

“The political outcome of the epidemic,” said Mike Davis, “will, like all political outcomes, be decided by struggle, by battles over interpretation, by pointing out what causes problems and what solves them. And we need to get that analysis out in the world any way we can.”

Rebecca Solnit, author of  "A Paradise Built in Hell", a study of disaters, said she was taking heart from all the new ways people were finding to connect and help each other around the world, ranging from the neighbourhood delivery networks that had sprung up to bring groceries to people who couldn’t get out, to more symbolic interventions, such as kids playing music on an older neighbour’s porch.

 The Italian political scientist Alessandro Delfanti said he was finding hope from a post-outbreak wave of strikes roiling Amazon warehouses in the US and Europe, and also the steps that workers across different sectors of the Italian economy were taking to help each other secure equipment they needed to stay safe.

The world feels strange right now because –it is changing so fast and any one of us could fall ill at any time, or could already be carrying the virus and not know it. It feels strange because the past few weeks have exposed the fact that one of the biggest things which can change is ourselves.

The pandemic reveals that people are not selfish and self-centred but possess the capacity to share and act in solidarity with one another, even in the midst of a disaster.

Adapted from here

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