Trying to find some money, then you die.

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Play The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony in a random room, and soon follows a choir of voices belting the Britpop classic’s lyrics.

Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life.

Trying to make ends meet, trying to find some money then you die.

Its lyrics are enduring, perhaps because of a visceral relatability: it is certainly true that when you strip our lives within capitalism to its bare bones, it is mostly about trying to make ends meet, trying to make some money – one might even say we’re slaves to money – and then eventually, like everything else, we die. Perhaps no time has this been more literal than during this year’s Covid-19 pandemic, where hundreds of thousands of people have been laid off or furloughed, and many more jobs are hanging in the balance. And unfortunately, many people have also died because of the interlinked nature of the ‘economy’ and our public health.

A common refrain during the pandemic, amongst a smorgasbord of liberal and right-wing pundits and politicians alike, has been that we cannot let the economy suffer at the expense of tackling the pandemic. Some people, both economists, fringe public health experts and laypeople alike, have suggested that the elderly and those with underlying health conditions should sacrifice themselves – either by accepting possible death or by self-isolating indefinitely – as ‘the economy’ is rescued and the virus is allowed to slowly and insidiously ripple through society. Like sacrificial lambs at the altar of Mammon – the God of money. The consequences of this worship of ‘the economy’ at the expense of everything else – including our humanity – has made it difficult for people who are willing to self-isolate or stay at home as much as possible to do so, if consequently they might lose their jobs or their ability to feed their families. In addition, as mentioned on this blog before, the victims of this virus are often working-class and minoritised populations (and particularly where these two identities converge), as many work in essential professions and live in multigenerational households. Students are forced back to university, likely to provide the marketised institutions with a steady stream of tuition fees, and the university residence hall landlords with tenants’ rent, whilst lecturers are losing their already precarious jobs; workers who were furloughed are forced back to work; workers lose their jobs; healthcare workers are overworked and terrified of spreading the disease to their loved ones or their patients; those with chronic illnesses and disabilities and the elderly are isolated and treated like burdens. Twas ever thus.

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The Western Church has as of the day of writing (29 November) entered into a new liturgical year which is also the First Sunday of Advent, the official start of the Christmas season. The season’s first Gospel reading starts with Jesus’s words to His disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert!” Advent is the season where we’re watchful for the Light of the World to come down to Earth, for the Word to become Flesh, for Hope to be restored. Winter, in its gloom and darkness, its withering away of leaves and flowers, makes us, I think, long for something more. For human contact, for something bigger, for something to thaw within and between us. In a similar way, this year seems to have been gloomy and dark for many of us. As of now, the much quoted adage that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism still mostly rings true. Especially as for many of us, this year indeed felt like the end of the world. We’re being watchful, waiting patiently for Mammon to be replaced with all that is good; something communal; something human; something True.

But there is more in it for us than being slaves to money until we die, and there is more than just being watchful and awaiting. There are times when we are to take action. Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, wrote that “The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history.”. Indeed, mutual aid and solidarity has found a way to grow and blossom through the arctic tundra that has been this year. Genuine solidarity and mutual aid, meeting people’s material needs and improving their conditions not in a top-down way but mutually, horizontally, is a radical alternative to the worship of the economy at the expense of human beings whose labour brings value to capital. In moments like this it is perhaps possible to envision a future beyond the current economic system. To quote Pope Francis in his timely encyclical Fratelli Tutti:

Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of “them” and “those”, but only “us”. If only this may prove not to be just another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing. If only we might keep in mind all those elderly persons who died for lack of respirators, partly as a result of the dismantling, year after year, of healthcare systems. If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless, but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected.

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It would be incumbent upon the ruling classes to remember that without human beings there is no such thing as an economy. But it is equally incumbent upon us not to let the current political-economic system – the current neoliberal order – steal our imagination. Even amongst the drudgery of life, the tundra of this Year of the Pandemic, and the desperate attempt to make ends meet, there has been an incredible impulse towards solidarity. In the depths of winter we found genuine care for one another and a sense of understanding that our futures are indeed inextricably tied together. It is only through that work, the work that starts on the ground and within our communities, that we can start to imagine a better future. It is true that we get to be watchful and that we ought to look forward patiently towards the Light, but it is equally true that we are called towards action and care for each other in the material world. This life might be a bitter sweet symphony, but when in our own lives and within our own community we refuse to let Mammon reign, refuse to deify the economy, and start building towards a world thatprovides land, housing and work for all’, we move away from “capitalist realism” and towards a world where every human being’s life is truly inherently valuable rather than measured against productivity and the amount of use it has for Capital. That seems like a truly glorious start to this Christmas season.

A Covid-vaccine mustn’t be hoarded.

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On July 20, researchers at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute released preliminary Phase I data on the immune response of their vaccine candidate, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, in The Lancet. These findings are helpful and bring a glimmer of hope that perhaps a vaccine could be found to prevent (severe) COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. On the same day the World Health Organisation (WHO), cautioned the world that indigenous peoples in the Americas, the current epicentre of the pandemic, are particularly vulnerable to the virus and its severe ramifications. This only strengthens the urgency with which we must avoid hoarding a potential vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 away from the most vulnerable in the world.

As we have seen over the last months, this virus and the disease it causes does not hit every one of us equally. The epidemic’s epicentre has shifted from China to Europe, and is now currently in the Americas. What we have seen is that many vulnerable people have borne the brunt of the pandemic, with the burden of mortality mainly shouldered by minoritised and racialised communities in Europe and the United States and key workers in general (many minoritised and racialised communities are also more likely to be frontline workers), as well as those with lower socio-economic backgrounds. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Dr Tedros, the Director General of the WHO, has recently mentioned how indigenous communities in the Americas are currently most at risk of suffering the effects of the Covid surges throughout the continent. Presently, the spike in SAR-CoV-2 infections in recently contacted indigenous peoples in the Amazon have raised alarm. Furthermore, although some countries with weaker health systems have seemingly been able to relatively contain the virus, it has nonetheless been a terrible strain, especially in countries that are also still dealing other communicable disease outbreaks such as a recent Ebola and measles outbreak.

Recently, the United States bought up most of the world’s supply of Gilead’s remdesivir which, other than the drug dexamethasone, is currently the only hopeful candidate treatment for COVID-19. Even though there is as of now limited evidence for remdesivir, and the cheap drug dexamethasone at time of writing seems more promising, the move by the United States sets a worrying precedent.

As I have stated so many times on this blog, health is a human right. To ensure accessibility and equity in healthcare we have to act accordingly. When countries with relatively strong healthcare systems and strong scientific infrastructure to research and produce vaccines and medicines to prevent or treat COVID-19 end up distributing, or even hoarding, these vaccines and treatments for their own populations, there is a strong possibility that countries with disadvantages, many incurred because of a history of colonialism and extractive capitalist exploitation, will end up holding the metaphorical baby. Within these countries the poorest and those made most vulnerable (including indigenous peoples) will suffer the most. Beyond vaccine hoarding, the selling of vaccines or treatments for profit by pharmaceutical companies will also disadvantage the world’s poorest and those in (mainly) Global South countries. Moreover, there are some concerns that neocolonial approaches to vaccine and medicine testing will end up using the African continent as testing ground.

Dr Tedros has reiterated in the daily briefing that a potential vaccine should be a public good. It must be continually emphasised that access to healthcare is a basic human right. Many countries have pre-existing issues with being able to reach their most vulnerable communities and provide them with appropriate healthcare, and while the pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of all of our health systems, some countries and some people will be more disadvantaged than others. It is imperative that countries with more advanced health systems do not return to an ‘each man for himself’ mentality, but act in the spirit of solidarity.

A post-Covid world could – indeed should – be one where healthcare is accessible, health is treated as a human right, and our approach to global and public health is one of internationalism and solidarity.

A vaccine or treatment must be freely accessible to all people. The importance of healthcare as a human right must underpin every step our governments take moving forward. The pandemic has shown us that in an increasingly connected world, our health systems are really only as strong as the weakest link. In a neoliberal capitalist world it is progressively common to see everything, including our human rights, through the lens of profit margins and winners and losers. Austerity, the privatisation of healthcare, and growing inequality have direct impact on global and public health. We cannot, then, in good conscience apply the ‘logic’ of the market to a global pandemic where many vulnerable people are needlessly losing their lives and suffering. A post-Covid world could – indeed should – be one where healthcare is accessible, health is treated as a human right, and our approach to global and public health is one of internationalism and solidarity. What better way to laud in the new world than to use these principles as the way out of the pandemic? What better way to increase equality, health access and diminish the possible catastrophic effects of a next pandemic than to work together to make vaccines and treatments freely accessible? It is not just a nice thought; I would go as far as to say that this is our moral duty. The time for complacency is over and the time for solidarity is now.

Quarantine Foodies

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I, myself, am a self-professed foodie. Unsurprisingly, the lockdown/quarantine life has been the perfect time for me to fulfil my New Year’s resolution and spend more time cooking and baking, experimenting with new recipes, and sharing the fruits of my labour with my neighbours. It seems that I am far from the only person who has used these uncertain times to refine their cooking and baking skills. Many people have been sharing their new, delicious (and more or less successful) creations on their social media, though the endless stream of sourdough breads found on timeliness and explore pages has drawn ire from some people as well. Cooking and eating is far from just nourishment to our species, which is a rarity in the animal kingdom. So why is it exactly that humans have developed such a foodie culture?

During this time of quarantine I, too, have started creating my own sourdough starter. Her name is Prof Marie Curyeast.

Chimpanzees and gorillas have a rather monotonous diet compared to us, even though they are our closest living relatives. Drs Karina Fonseca-Azevedo and Suzanna Herculano-Houzel, Brazilian neuroscientists, have researched the possible reasons we, as humans, have such large brains compared to our other primate cousins. Their research suggests that perhaps our large brains compared to both our bodies and our primate cousins’, might be a result of having learnt how to use fire to cook. As brains are energy intensive organs, many raw-food-eating primates have to spend more of their time eating than humans do. Moreover, a primate living off of raw food with a brain of our size would probably spend most of their waking hours eating. Perhaps, then, cooking, which causes us to take up many more calories in one go than consuming solely raw foods would, has been an evolutionary trade-off making our bodies smaller, our brains larger, and our feeding time more special.

Dr Julie Mennella, amongst others, has done research on how children develop preference for certain foods. Her research suggests that children innately have a preference for sweet things and a dislike for bitter things, as a result of our evolutionary history. Furthermore, her research suggests that we learn about our food preferences through exposure in utero and, for breastfed babies, through breastmilk. Though later on babies on solid food can learn to like foods they initially dislike through repeated exposure. In the Season 2 episode of Babies on senses, Dr Mennella rightly points out that for human beings, ‘food is much more than a source of nutrients or a source of calories. It gives us pleasure.’

So perhaps our culinary endeavours during this unsure time are just ways for us to grasp at something seemingly fundamental to our humanity – where we can see cooking and baking as a form of community, connectedness and comfort, even in darkness and uncertainty.

Evolutionarily there might be a reason we have started to cook more, and science gives us somewhat of a perspective of why we have developed such a foodie culture as a species. There is so much more food means to us on a personal, individual or cultural level than just explained by evolution. The science suggests us that we are already connected and involved in our family’s or culture’s food structure from when we are very little, our tastes ever evolving with the wider scope of exposure to different foods. Cooking can tie us to our family histories, can make us feel connected to those that have gone before us. We can find a kind of grounding and deep humanness in plunging your hands into dough or salad. Food is a way in which we show love and care, through which we maintain social connections with our friends and families. Our recipes are what we pass down to the children in our lives. So perhaps our culinary endeavours during this unsure time are just ways for us to grasp at something seemingly fundamental to our humanity – where we can see cooking and baking as a form of community, connectedness and comfort, even in darkness and uncertainty. The real test will be if we keep up our cravings for nostalgia, comfort and connectedness now lockdowns are easing and people are trying to find a new sense of normality in abnormal times. But one truth remains: food, and subsequently foodie culture, is integral to human nature, in good times and in bad!

Science communication in the time of pandemics

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Recently, science communication (scicomm) has gained a lot more respect within the scientific community than it historically has had. Young (mainly, but not exclusively, female) PhD students and recent graduates have been using social media platforms like Instagram to communicate their research and other scientific findings to the general public in a more accessible, bitesized way. Many posts including selfies or science related makeup looks. Both this new wave of young (mainly female) scicommers using unconventional methods, and the more traditional scicommers have faced critique from within the hallowed halls of academia. At the same time, science communication has been taken more seriously, is seen as an integral part of a scientist’s job, and has even been turned into university courses. It seems that, perhaps especially during the pandemic, the scicommers have their work cut out for them.

Throughout this pandemic, many countries’ politicians have been criticised for unclear and muddled communications surrounding the novel coronavirus. Beyond social distancing rules and lockdown regulations, the uncertain and novel nature of SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes means that the scientific evidence is ever changing and expanding as days go by. It is a “truth” universally acknowledged that the uncertainty that goes along with the scientific process, particularly when not or poorly communicated, can sometimes cause people to throw the towel in and disbelieve everything scientists say. Even in the best of times scientists and science communicators (these categories sometimes but not always overlap) have trouble communicating uncertainty. This task can sometimes seem Sisyphean in a pandemic caused by a virus we are learning more about in real time.

The science communicators, science journalists, science podcasters, and scientists with Twitter accounts have their work cut out for them. The task of monitoring a virus, the resulting illness, explaining the science, and at times informing government policies is for many an unenvied position to be in. Muddled communication, such as that surrounding the use of face masks by the general public or the initial uncertainty surrounding the human-to-human transmissibility of the virus, can cause resentment and distrust in the general public. But at the same time, some science journalism and science communication by the new rockstars of the scientific world (that is: virologists and epidemiologists) has showed us how important scicomm is in times like these.

Scientists are used to talking amongst each other in terms of uncertainty. There is discussion on ‘suggestions’ ‘probabilities’, ‘confidence intervals’ and ‘statistical significance’ with an ease that makes it more difficult to communicate to the general public when you become so used to speaking in jargon. Yet, as we can see, communicating science effectively can have life or death consequences when it pertains to public health. Research suggests that being clear about uncertainty does not necessarily harm the public’s perception of science and scientists, and so perhaps the best way to deal with uncertainty in the midsts of this unprecedented crisis is to be honest and to embrace it.

Uncertainty is a fact of life, albeit an uncomfortable one, and is just as much a byproduct of the scientific process as it is of living.

It seems that whether we use Instagram, find newfound fame on Twitter, use traditional print media or communicate science to just the people around us, the one undeniable fact is that there is so much we do not know yet about the current crisis we find ourselves in. The only thing we can do is take on board the changing science and eventually we will likely be able to have a fuller and more accurate picture of what is happening surrounding the pandemic. Scicommers are, as a whole, already more adept at communicating science’s uncertainty, but the SARS-CoV-2 induced pandemic adds another level of pressure to get it right – or at least as right as possible. Uncertainty is a fact of life, albeit an uncomfortable one, and is just as much a byproduct of the scientific process as it is of living. Scicomm is hard in the best of times, but as laypeople and non-experts perhaps, however hard it is, the best thing we can do is embrace the in-between.

The shakiness of our foundations

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Karl Marx wrote that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’. To many people the idea of class struggle seems archaic and belonging firmly to the 20th century. An equally 20th century idea is that of living through a deadly pandemic – a scenario that has for most of us only been conveyed through history books, and a scenario in which we have collectively been thrust by the once-in-a-century unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. This current pandemic is exposing the problems within our current economic and social systems, and most importantly exposes the fragility of the human right to health. It turns out that the emperor is naked.

Inequalities in access to healthcare between Global North and Global South countries have, rightfully, long been the focus of conversation surrounding global health. Soon after the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the Director General, Dr Tedros, pointed out that this virus could be most lethal and dangerous for countries with weaker health systems, largely (though not uniquely) corresponding to the Global South. Beyond ‘developing’ and conflict-heavy countries with weaker health systems, the current pandemic has exposed the health inequalities that exist within the Global North as well. In many Global North countries, in the years after the crashing down of the neoliberal order, austerity (to varying degrees) has been the go-to policy with public sector jobs being cut, and many people being thrust into unemployment and even poverty. This has had many consequences on health (both mental and physical) and has caused many of our countries to be woefully underprepared for something as catastrophic as a pandemic.

In recent weeks, governments have been calling on ‘essential workers’ and their skills. Many people across the world have been applauding their healthcare staff from their windows, balconies, living rooms and their palaces. We have, rightfully, been supporting ‘essential workers’, but what does that mean when essential workers have been devalued for years within our societies? When many of the people we have elected have been the ones to systematically cut funding for healthcare and the minimum wage is still not necessarily a living one. Many essential workers are in low-paying jobs, and additionally many essential jobs are traditionally feminised roles such as caring professions and domestic and service jobs. This exacerbates already exiting inequalities where they exist.

One of the most effective ways to slow the spread of infectious disease is through social – also called physical – distancing measures such as working from home, staying at home as much as possible, and avoiding close physical contact with other people not part of one’s household. However, for many people, many of whom economically disadvantaged and/or marginalised, this is nearly impossible, increasing the burden of mortality for this group. For many these people working from home is impossible because of the nature of their jobs, staying at home would mean a loss of income and livelihood, and there is a lack of paid sick leave and no (affordable) available childcare.

But beyond income inequality and depletion of resources for many of our health services and the low-wage nature of many essential jobs,, there are other vulnerable groups who will be suffering from increased difficulty in accessing healthcare during the pandemic. An example of this are the homeless who will not have the opportunity to social distance in the same way those with a home do, and who will often not be able to access quality healthcare as easily. Another example of a vulnerable group who might experience more difficulty are prisoners. Prisons are often not adept at containing major infectious disease epidemics. Thirdly, immigrants and refugees who are currently living in dire conditions in camps and settlements, particularly as these people will likely live in crowded places with poor sanitation and more difficulty to access healthcare. Beyond the elderly and those with underlying conditions, there are so many other people who might be particularly at risk in this time. Many of whom have been neglected by society, but all of whom are particularly at risk of having their human rights abused.

This global pandemic has shown us that, even though health is a human right, it is only as viable and attainable as the strength of our health systems and our care for the most vulnerable in society are.

Health is a human right as recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The decade of systematic cuts to our health systems and the secondary effects of austerity of thousands of people working in precarity and dealing with failing living standards have caused us to be woefully unprepared for a catastrophic event like this. This global pandemic has shown us that, even though health is a human right, it is only as viable and attainable as the strength of our health systems and our care for the most vulnerable in society are. In a world where the rich are able to self-isolate in mansions or second homes, and get access to tests even when others can’t, it seems difficult not to imagine there might be an aspect of class strife involved. It seems clear that we won’t be able to return to normal after the pandemic is over. The shaky foundations our systems are built on are not likely to survive in tact after this. It is then up to us to decide what’s next and to prepare for the next pandemic – which will come – in more comprehensive ways such as defending the right to healthcare, increasing its access, funding our health systems, implementing fairer labour policies, and redistributing wealth. We must applaud our essential workers, but we must also not forget them when this pandemic is over and they ask for more than just verbal appreciation. We, after all, are only as strong as the weakest link and at the moment the tower is crumbling.

On the (possible) return of community

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The world has been under the spell of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) first discovered in Wuhan in 2019, which has quickly transformed from a semi-local epidemic to an unprecedented global pandemic. The disease’s epicentre has rapidly shifted from China to Europe, with Italy being the first domino to fall on the continent and many countries following swiftly. At this point Spain and France are (almost) in complete lockdown, and other European countries are contemplating the best course of action.

Public health officials have advised a measure called ‘social distancing‘ – perhaps better called physical distancing – where we are encouraged (or mandated) to avoid large gatherings, work from home, stay home as much as possible, and in many cases are closing schools and businesses altogether. Social distancing has as its main goal the reduction of the spread of disease, and ‘flattening the curve’. ‘Flattening the curve’ is, not unlike ‘social distancing’, a term that has got more attention in the media and popular culture (the graph has gone viral…pun not intended) lately. It refers to how the social distancing measures we take – in particular staying at home – can effectively spread out and slow down the number of infected cases so our health systems can still operate at capacity rather than overburdening the already fragile systems.

These unusual and drastic measures have in many cases, for example in Wuhan, Italy and Spain, brought out the best in people, with neighbours singing and chanting in unison, and neighbourhoods applauding their brave healthcare workers. At the same time, this pandemic has also brought out the internalised hyper-individualisation many Western societies have been experiencing for a long time. Many countries are experiencing empty shelves in supermarkets as people are hoarding products, and people across Europe and the United States are still not quite taking the pandemic seriously and are still going to bars, cafés and other events with a large number of people around.

Indeed, it seems like we are at a juncture where we can either increase our sense of community and solidarity and turn a new leaf, or we can get more entrenched in our internalising of the neoliberal lie that it is every man for himself. In a pandemic situation where community solidarity is essential to our mutual survival, it seems to me clear what the best course of action is. This means, perhaps ironically, to limit physical contact with other people as much as possible. This means checking in on our loved ones and the most vulnerable in our communities (that is: the elderly and those with underlying conditions). The current circumstances can, and in some cases already do, bring us together. In a world of constant distraction, it is perhaps an uncomfortable but nonetheless perfect time to return to the heart of what matters to us as human beings: love and community.

For many Christians around the world, the pandemic coincides with the Lenten season where we deny the flesh, contemplate our fleeting mortality, and try to give alms and care for those in our communities. Contemplation is an essential facet of the Lenten fast. However, beyond the religious, many people have a longing for something more; people long for the knowledge that there is more to life than can be found amidst the hectic and distracting nature of our societies and constant competition within our hyper capitalist contexts. In that moment, a pandemic that asks of us to isolate ourselves and return to our core out of community solidarity, might cruelly be the thing that can bring us back to ourselves and our communities. This is the best possible time to do some shopping for your infirm or elderly neighbours, to spend more time reading, with family, or alone in silence. Now is the time for self-reflection and for deciding how it is we can bring back our connection to our local communities and our central humanity.

Even though it might seem easier, or more pleasant, to be amongst each other in bars, pubs, shops, clubs and cafés instead of at home at a physical distance from our friends, there is little to despair. The act of isolating as much as possible at this time is an act of profound love and care for the least of these, for our neighbours, for those who are working in healthcare and are trying their best to save as many people’s lives as possible.

Within the Latin Church there is an antiphon that is chanted during Holy Thursday which proclaims: ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est – where charity and love are, there God is. Even though it might seem easier, or more pleasant, to be amongst each other in bars, pubs, shops, clubs and cafés instead of at home at a physical distance from our friends, there is little to despair. The act of isolating as much as possible at this time is an act of profound love and care for the least of these, for our neighbours, for those who are working in healthcare and are trying their best to save as many people’s lives as possible. Even if you are alone, remembering that where charity and love are, there God is, should bring a sense of profound peace, whatever ‘God’ means to you. So, please, stay at home whenever possible – binge your favourite Netflix shows, read, sit in silence, spend quality time with your loved ones if they live with you. But also check in on your elderly relatives and neighbours, help your chronically ill family, friends and neighbours out with groceries. Help and care for each other. Fight against the voice in your head that says it’s every man for himself. Stand in solidarity…from a sensible distance and without shaking hands!

There is power in a union

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In September of this year, many university workers in The Netherlands started rising up against the abominable conditions many academics, non-academic university workers, and students alike face in academia. Many joined unions. In the United Kingdom, academics in November of this year again decided to picket and protested their precarious contracts, pay, and called for the protection of pensions within academia with many students picketing in solidarity. Indeed, it is clearer than ever that the majority of university staff, academic or otherwise, as well as its PhD students, are workers too and that love for the field does not preclude exploitation by bosses or dire working conditions. The fight between labour and capital within academia and wider society alike has escalated. Workers across the spectrum are uniting and unionising. In the words of Joe Hill (by way of Billy Bragg): there is power in a union.

The ivory tower – the hallowed halls of academia – are often seen through rose-tinted glasses. To many within it the work they do is indeed something they are passionate about and work often doesn’t feel like work at all. But the privilege of doing something you love, and the hallowed halls themselves, have been blinding many within and without from the decline in working conditions amongst its dwellers. Many academics are overworked. This state of continual working is, amongst other things, caused by scarcity of permanent academic positions, precarious contracts, the pressure to ‘publish or perish’, and also the internalisation of the neoliberal instinct to see each other as competition. We have normalised working in uncertain conditions on temporary contractsPhD students – who aren’t actually students but workers too – suffer from mental health issues, and there are ever slimming chances of getting a job within the hallowed halls that many of us hold dear. However much we might want to pretend that we are not the same as other workers in other sectors, the facts suggest otherwise.

Union membership in The Netherlands has been declining. The decline in union membership is a trend seen in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom as well. At the same time, workers across the spectrum have been seeing a decline in their working conditions, increase in precarious contracts, and stagnating wages. The decline in union membership, and in some cases their bargaining power, has not come out of nowhere but is the result of systematic policies. Many people, especially young people, may believe that unions are therefore an anachronism and have no relevance to the life of a modern worker. I believe nothing could be further from the truth. Organised labour gave us the five day workweek and many other gains. Both in academia and outside of it, the need for workers to organise against exploitative bosses and bad government policy is more pertinent than it has been in a very long time.

Both in academia and outside of it, the need for workers to organise against exploitative bosses and bad government policy is more pertinent than it has been in a very long time.

If we are going to organise against austerity, against the dismantling of our universities and gutting of public services, against precarious contracts – if we are going to organise against the exploitation by capital of our labour – we, within academia’s ‘hallowed halls’, are going to have to understand that we are not somehow better that other workers or the exception to the rule. The time to stand in solidarity with other workers who are striking, picketing, speaking up and fighting for better conditions (whether it’s health workersteachers, transport workers or others) has come. We can change the system not just for ourselves, but for each other with each other.

I believe that academia and its promises are worth saving. There is such passion for its reform within many of its workers, academic or otherwise, because we value education, research, and curiosity. In this moment of awakening and awareness of our conditions, and that of our fellow workers across different sectors, it is imperative that we stand in solidarity with each other and that we use our collective bargaining power to make life better for everyone involved. Trade unions have a great history of protecting, fighting, and gaining (for) our rights. They are not obsolete, but instead can help us progress. Solidarity between workers of all stripes is the only thing that will move us forward. There is power in a union, indeed.

On the decline of community

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I have, for a while now, been lamenting the decline of community. And, as far as I am in tune with the Zeitgeist, I reckon I am far from the only on who has. Indeed, this endless roaming, this frantic search for community, has manifested itself in different ways – many of which unsavoury – in society in the past five years (or arguably even longer). The answer seems to be searched for amongst the segments of the internet that have effectively radicalised young men, increasing nationalism manifest in Brexit and Donald Trump, in the addictive scrolling on the internet and its social media influencers, and endless consumption of new technology, clothing, and other commodities. At times one is overcome with confusion and cynicism and ends up, like Pontius Pilate, exclaiming ‘what is truth?’. But this is, in my opinion, not the answer.

Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party once exclaimed that ‘there is no alternative’ to market (neoliberal) capitalism. Perhaps complimentarily, she also stated that ‘there is no such thing as society’. These two adages, although perhaps not publicly endorsed with as much fervour as in the past, seem to have percolated through society as a whole – even decades later. To me, these two famous slogans embody the decline of community better than anything else; if there is no such thing as society, and there is no alternative to neoliberalism, then surely this system is what we have to do with, faults and all.

Many people have been suffering from depression and loneliness. We have seen an increasing atomisation of society, and an alienation from others, ourselves and our work. A constant need to compete with oneself, each other for jobs and social capital, and the system as a whole, has caused us to see each other less as fellow travellers and more like potential enemies. I am far from the first person to suggest that neoliberalism has caused this epidemic of loneliness and mental illness we have been living through, and I think this is something more and more people are taking seriously. These are the symptoms of the system.

We have seen an increasing atomisation of society and an alienation from others, ourselves and our work. A constant need to compete with oneself, each other for jobs and (social) capital, and the system as a whole, has caused us to see each other less as fellow travellers and more like potential enemies.

When it comes to offering diagnoses, the system itself will convince us to consume more and malevolent individuals and groups might point in the direction of immigration, open borders, and women. The former might push us to see Youtubers, celebrities and other ‘influencers’ as our friends and our community, whereas the latter might make us find solace in online forums and controversial ‘thinkers’. The symptoms are identified, but the diagnosis is made incorrectly.

The era of strong trade unions, a connection to places of worship, community service, free and open third spaces such as libraries, and perhaps even a closer relationship with one’s neighbours might have given us a sense of community. Certainly in The Netherlands religion and political affiliation used to be central to one’s personal identity and sense of community. The era of neoliberalism has eroded the power of trade unions in many ways, and many previously public third spaces have been privatised. Indeed, after the financial crash many people made the diagnosis that the system was failing, however we are currently still living in its final convulsion. The symptoms are identified, the consequences are seen, but many people are scared to make the correct diagnosis.

So what do I think is the correct diagnosis? And more importantly, what do we do to cure it? As I have tried to express in this piece, I believe neoliberal capitalism is part of the reason why there is a sense of loss and a very human search for community. Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no alternative’ has been internalised so much that many would state that we just have to contend with the system, and that it is just ‘human nature’ to be competitive and atomised. I suggest that that is just a small part of the vastness that is ‘human nature’. In fact, we came so far as a species because of cooperation and altruism – is this not human nature too?

There is resistance in creating your own communities locally, and in serving these communities. This can be through volunteering, joining your trade unions, protesting, demonstrating, running for office or simply paying some attention to your neighbours and performing some acts of kindness to strangers. Will that overthrow the system? Probably not, but it shows not only that society exist, but also that there is indeed an alternative, and maybe, just maybe, it means that we find it within ourselves to band together and create that alternative. The system, after all, was not given to us by the Holy Spirit, but instead was created by humans. That means it can be changed by humans too. And looking at glimmers of hope in the world today, I think it will.

Health in the Time of Disaster

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Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas, and is set to make landfall in the United States. A hurricane, in itself not extraordinary during this time of year, that has undoubtedly increased in ferocity due to the changing climate. Humanitarian crises and disasters like these will only increase in frequency as well as intensity as time goes on. As we reckon with what the consequences of a planet heating beyond repair would mean, the question of what it will mean for our human rights, and in particular the human right to health, remains under-explored.

Perhaps the most obvious consequence of the increase and violence of natural disasters, is the fact that it will be more and more difficult to physically reach the people affected, affecting their accessibility to healthcare. Indeed, an increase in humanitarian crises will mean that more people will have difficulty accessing clean water, food, and medicines,  and will be more at risk of developing infectious diseases. Unsurprisingly, the most vulnerable and poorest populations, both within countries and between countries with the Global South more affected than the Global North in this respect, will be hardest hit when disaster strikes. The vulnerable and poorest being hardest hit means that they will be likeliest to need medical assistance, and simultaneously means that it will be harder to reach these communities. This is a bind that most, if not all, healthcare systems are likely not sufficiently prepared to tackle, but it is already a reality for many people around the world.

As briefly mentioned in the above paragraph, another consequence of a global rise in temperature is the increase in infectious diseases and parasites. The global rise in temperatures will likely make previously uninhabitable parts of the world for parasites more attractive to them, and they will increasingly appear where they would normally not be found.  In addition, water scarcity as a result of drought can lead to poor sanitation which will increase the incidence of diseases such as cholera. Again, unsurprisingly the people bearing the brunt of these issues are poorer communities in the Global South. 

Beyond communicable diseases, mental health issues are an under appreciated consequence of the global climate emergency. ‘Ecological grief‘, a sense of grief borne out of the changing ecological landscape, and a loss of a way of living, seems to be particularly felt by people who live in synchrony with nature. Indeed, indigenous communities, like the Greenlandic Inuit, have increased mental health issues related to a loss of their way of life, their ability to live with nature and off of nature. Voices of many indigenous communities who have been losing their land, their livelihoods, and their ability to live in synchrony with their ancestral lands are rarely heard, but the climate catastrophe has dire consequences on their mental health. Ecological grief, ties together the climate crisis, mental health, and indigenous rights. In general, a sense of climate despair seems to be affecting people’s mental health across the world, making many people question the point of existence as a sense of hopelessness about the situation takes over. Whether our mental health services, especially in a world where there are not an awful lot of mental health professionals, are capable of rising up to this challenge remains uncertain.

Health, whether physical or mental, communicable or non-communicable, is a fundamental human right that is under pressure in a changing world.

The United Nations rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty, has said that human rights might be threatened due to climate change. The world’s wealthiest might be able to escape the worst of climate change’s effects whilst the world’s poorest will have their right to housing, food, life, safety and, as I outlined here, health, threatened. When it comes to human rights, and particularly the gains we have made in health and the precariousness of these gains, it is imperative that we keep them at the heart of our climate policy and the societal debates we are having on what best to do to tackle the climate crisis. Health, whether physical or mental, communicable or non-communicable, is a fundamental human right that is under pressure in a changing world. The potential repercussions of that are dire if our policymakers and health systems do not adapt to these realities quickly. Conversations surrounding ambitious policy proposals like the Green New Deal ought to centre human rights in general, however the right to health should not be underestimated or kept on the back burner. At the end of the day, vulnerable, poor, and indigenous communities will bear the brunt of our complacency, and we cannot afford to let that happen.

Indigenous rights and the climate emergency

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“The lungs of our planet are on fire” was a common refrain heard in the past days as a response to the unprecedented wildfires in the Brazilian Amazon. An international outcry from politicians, celebrities, and regular people on the internet alike, was urgent and panicked: we need to do something now or we’ll lose the forests, we’ll release high levels of carbon stored in the rainforest’s trees into the atmosphere, and we’ll lose the Amazon’s immense biodiversity. However, the focus on the inhabitants of their ancestral lands, however fleeting, came much later, even though they have been raising concerns about the Brazilian government’s rhetoric and its encouraging of illegal exploitation of indigenous land for a long time.

A couple of days before the Amazon wildfires reached global headlines, Brazilian indigenous women marched against Bolsonaro’s government. This was just one instance of the Amazon rainforest’s indigenous tribes – and in particular its women – fighting to preserve their ancestral land even when we aren’t paying attention.

Environmentalism has regained its fashionability as our winters feel like summers and our summers become infernal, and young voices are getting more earnest about what climate catastrophe would mean for them and the next generations to inhabit the planet. However, it seems like the movement has its internal issues it ought to, but doesn’t nearly as much as it should, contend with. One of the main issues with the movement was showcased when the emphasis was placed on the Amazon being the ‘lungs of our planet’ without mention of the many people who have lived there for generations and the systematic destruction of their homes, livelihood and land at the hands of governments and Western consumer behaviour. When the plight of indigenous tribes across the world are mentioned, it’s often from a Western perspective with an insidious sense of paternalism rather than highlighting the voices of the people on the front lines. The United Nations itself has said that indigenous peoples play an important role in tackling climate change. But it goes beyond just including, or even centring, indigenous voices in the climate debates. When indigenous people, in particular women, are still disenfranchised, abused, incarcerated, have trouble accessing a basic human right like healthcare and still fight for a say in how their sacred land is used, it is imperative that we do not just see indigenous peoples as resources to be used to fight the climate emergency, but as communities that are vulnerable to climate change’s effects and many social injustices. It is clear that if we are going to be serious about environmentalism, that we will have to centre indigenous voices and fight for the (human) rights of indigenous peoples.

In the Congo, Baka people have been pleading with WWF and the European Commission to stop funding a national park that threatens their way of life. Sadly, this is hardly a unique situation when it comes to indigenous people’s rights and livelihoods in the conservation industry. Human rights abuses seem to be commonplace in conservation, with a recent scandal haunting the world’s most recognisable conservation NGO the WWF. Local poor and indigenous people are being murdered, raped, attacked and shunned, all in the name of conservation. The narrative we have constructed says, sometimes implicitly and sometimes not, that we care about indigenous land and its biodiversity, but not about indigenous peoples. Simultaneously, we seem to place the blame of climate destruction squarely on the shoulders of the poor and indigenous rather than face our own patterns and unsustainable economic systems in the metaphorical mirror.

The narrative we have constructed says, sometimes implicitly and sometimes not, that we care about indigenous land and its biodiversity, but not about indigenous peoples

To have environmentalism, conservation, and climate change activism mean something, we will have to centre human rights and indigenous voices. Climate activism without social and economic justice and respecting human rights is nothing but a self-congratulatory movement that does more harm than good. Caring about, and centring, indigenous voices means taking a step back and listening when necessary as well as amplifying and lobbying on tribes’ behalf when asked.

Whether it is indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon, or Baka people in the Congo, the rights of people living on, and in sync with, their ancestral land should be respected and should be front and centre in the climate debates. For our activism, lobbying, policies and worries to mean anything we need to listen and act when required. What use are lungs without the peoples that make up the body?

(consider donating to Amazon Watch, Survival International and the indigenous women’s march in Brazil.  Also consider writing your MP/MEP and sharing indigenous voices on social media)