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!

You can’t eat money.

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Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist that I have talked about on this blog before, seems to bring out the worst in a (mostly) male cohort across Europe. In The Netherlands, Britain and Italy, mocking the teenager and her autism seems to be a national sport. Grown men being threatened by a child who has been speaking truth to power is baffling to many of us, but let those voices not deter us from her message that is still incredibly pertinent.

When we talk about climate change, we often think about middle-class environmentalists and we focus intently on individual sins: your carbon footprint is too high, you should be vegan, you you should not take long showers, you should not use plastic bags or bottles and ideally you really ought to drive an electrical car and not have more than two children (or even better: have no children at all!). Individual acts to counter climate change are always welcome, but I am afraid the focus on personal sinfulness does little to challenge the systemic sins of large corporations, the current economic system, and the collective “climate delaying” by our governments. In addition, the narrative surrounding climate change seems to easily point the finger at the Global South, who are historically far from the worst polluters, rather than confront the West’s longstanding intransigence. This has to change.

Just to be clear, individual choices to live a sustainable lifestyle are absolutely necessary. We are all responsible for the planet because this is, to quote Pope Francis, Our Common Home after all. However, the scale of the change needed to avert climate catastrophe far exceeds what can be done by simple individual changes in lifestyle. As 70% of the green house emissions since 1988 is produced by just 100 companies it seems clear that our individual changes alone are not going to cut it. What is needed is radical, systemic, change that comes from the top. Like Vox reporter David Roberts said (and I’m paraphrasing): we will have to stop signing resolutions and producing reports at one point, and actually start implementing policy changes.

Leaving it up to the market to solve seems to be, to some, a rational response to the climate catastrophe that awaits us. But in a globalised world full of consumers where companies are the main polluters, and where the fossil fuel lobby still holds sway over decisions made by our government, it seems to me that the problem might be with the unsustainable capitalistic system we have now. If we want to steer clear from the absolute worst case scenario, we will have to do something drastic and possibly eschew capitalism altogether. Saying that, understandably, evokes memories of the 20th century’s brutal dictatorships, but there is very little preventing us from creating a system that is both democratic and does not worship the market and place it above human dignity or the survival of our planet and species. What is needed is the will and the vision of (young) ambitious policymakers and politicians who are not in the pocket of the industries that are commodifying our human experiences and ‘our common home’. We need to think beyond the current frameworks, and that includes looking beyond an unsustainable economic system that we have grown so accustomed to.

Alanis Obomsawin, the Abenaki filmmaker, once said that:

When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.

To effect actual change that is needed on a large scale we need to move beyond the highly atomised perspective of personal sins and individual carbon footprints. The sheer scale of the task ahead of us, the task we, as stewards of the earth, are burdened with, requires a radical approach. It requires the fundamental, and collective, overhaul of our current economic and political system. It needs to go beyond good will, treaties and pledges and towards radical policy changes. This will mean that we will all have to chip in, and more than anything that the largest fossil fuel and transport corporations will need to be taxed heavily. The fact of the matter is that we can’t eat money. Our common home is more than a commodity to be passed between hands, or a resource to be continually exploited at the expense of the worlds poorest, sickest and youngest. When children are dying because of air pollution induced asthma and when people around the world are dying because of extreme weather, it is clear we have to do something. It means listening to the scientists, to the young and ambitious politicians, and to the young activists like Greta (who deserves more than mockery for her passion for the planet and her autism). Right now it is not yet too late. But how much longer can we say that?