The lessons we are learning

April 9, 2020   ·   0 Comments

By Laura Campbell

Harvard epidemiologists are calling COVID-19 a ‘once in humanity’ type of virus. But what is it teaching us? While I’m doing my own fair share of binge-watching bad TV in order to numb the pain of what I’m witnessing around me, I’m also trying to think actively about how we might come out of this. 

My current reading has echoed what a lot of us are beginning to understand. In her stunning book, ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins,’ Professor Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing argues that ‘survival’ is nothing like our popular imagination (think, The Walking Dead). She shows that “staying alive – for every species – requires livable collaborations” which means that “in order to survive, we need help, and help is always the service of another, with or without intent. […] It is unselfconscious privilege that allows us to fantasize that we survive alone” (Tsing, 28-29). Indeed, everywhere, we are working together. We aren’t just trying to survive, either, we are actively thinking about building a better world. 

What does a better world look like? The world we seek means that the homeless finally have decent shelter (in many cities, empty hotel rooms are being provided for the homeless, so they too can practice social distancing- though for some reason this has not yet worked perfectly – only 300 homeless have been moved from crowded shelters in Toronto). The realization that the health and safety of the most vulnerable people in our society has an impact on our overall well-being could only have happened in the context of this virus. (What does that say about us?) Will we commit to permanently ending homelessness when this is over? How? Universal Basic Income is a start. 

A better world means that we have food security. Food security is of course possible! One day we may not have bananas – or avocados? But instead of fretting, we should actively secure the food sources at our homefront. The virus is teaching us that the farmers in our community are crucial pieces in the business of keeping us alive and well. How can we support them? For one, we need to encourage our citizens to work in agriculture. There have been many folks scoffing that ‘the work is too hard for Canadians, they won’t do it’ (citing the need for foreign workers). Is it that the work is too hard, or that it doesn’t pay the bills? How do we get more Canadians to do this work? Again, Universal Basic Income is a start. 

Food security means not only that we have fresh, local, nutritious foods available. It also means that the most vulnerable in our society will have access to that food. There are still too many Canadians who can’t feed their families. The virus has exacerbated this silent hunger. Many in our community are devoting time and energy to supporting the food bank. But we must also push to end hunger in a more permanent way. Justin Trudeau has said “no Canadian should have to worry about feeding their family,” but unfortunately, there are over 700 familes in Dufferin that needed the food bank prior to the pandemic. How can we permanently end hunger in Canada? Once again, we can start to see how the Universal Basic Income is needed. 

If a basic income guarantee is the starting point for protecting the most vulnerable among us, and securing our food systems, we must acknowledge that this is an undertaking that requires a financially healthy country. It will require tax revenue from all of us. From the biggest corporations, to the small businesses. Unlike the claims of the oil industry, they aren’t the sole engine of our economy- they are part of it. Every single taxpaying Canadian plays an important role in securing our social safety net. A healthy economy requires a robust, diverse workforce. 

Right now, we are all learning that every job matters. Of course there are the front-line workers who deserve deep reverence, respect, and gratitude from all of us (healthcare professionals, PSW’s, paramedics – all of them are heroes). But beyond that, in the context of this argument, we have seen that grocery store employees are in many ways front-line workers too. And even further, it is the absence of our other workers that will weigh on our collective wealth: waitresses, massage therapists, entertainers, small business owners, the self-employed. All of us who are deemed ‘non-essential’ right now are needed in the long-term to build a Canada that leaves no one behind. 

Survival, indeed, does not happen because some have stronger genetic impulses (sorry, Richard Dawkins, your  ‘Selfish Gene Theory’ might be getting a run for its money right now). But what I hope this virus teaches us is that survival is not merely enough. We must seek to thrive. And we can thrive if we work together. Luckily, we can legislate our way into this kind of scenario. When this is all over, let’s take these lessons to heart.  

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