Surviving the coronavirus requires escaping the status quo (together)

Paul R. Carr, Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO)

The world was ill-prepared for COVID-19, despite SARS, Ebola and many other public health crises and despite numerous reports, commissions, warnings and even prescient films like Contagion.

We’re stuck in a social class quagmire that disadvantaged the majority of citizens leading up to COVID-19.

The killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by police in the United States, and the ensuing massive protests, have underscored that entrenched, systemic racism is ripping society to shreds.

As we near the 100-day mark of the COVID-19 pandemic being declared by the World Health Organization, I have three proposals for escape hatches from the status quo: reimagining democracy beyond elections, reconciling before taxation and humanizing global interactions.

The objective is to underscore that there are paths that allow us to stop cultivating extreme vulnerabilities and social inequalities after COVID-19.

The corporate-dominated, elite-based political model leaves little room for democracy. The hyper-capitalist or neoliberal model of governance underpinning elections has come to define democracy. This includes endless campaigning, fundraising, polling, marketing and strategizing. The goal is to win, not to support or build a democracy.

This hands over endless resources, authority and decision-making power to a small group — a political party — with a primary goal of maintaining or obtaining power. There are also problems of representation, inclusion and citizen participation.

Concurrently, there are significant social movements — like Black Lives Matters, Idle No More, #metoo, Occupy, the environmental movement and the peace movement — and innovations, projects and mobilizations taking place around the world despite the traditional forms of democracy that underpin public policy and programs.

Reimagining democracy beyond elections should be a priority in the post-coronavirus world. Transformative and critically engaged education needs to be aligned with this goal. Similarly, participatory budgeting, consensus democracy, solidarity-based economics, mandating representation for marginalized groups and innovative citizen participation initiatives should be considered.

Eliminating off-shore tax havens, considering a ceiling for a maximum wage while augmenting the minimum wage, instituting a substantial guaranteed annual income and making housing a human right for all homeless and disadvantaged people should all be part of the equation.

Read more: Basic income: A no-brainer in economic hard times

Lastly, eliminating fundraising from political activities and publishing data on racism, poverty, discrimination, corruption and discretionary spending, along with action and accountability plans overseen by citizen groups, could all be part of this conversation.

Reconciliation before taxation

We can’t continue to live in a society with rampant inequality as if it doesn’t exist, or as if those most affected by generational and systemic injustice somehow deserve this treatment.

The reconciliation process in Canada has been ineffective, and going on for so long that generations of First Nations have been negotiating without much light at the end of the tunnel.

Before every successive government proclaims how we need to reduce taxes, we should consider how we can first plan for a meaningful reconciliation.

As we continue the standstill, Indigenous languages are being lost and young people are being denied life and educational opportunities. For some, potable water is still a privilege, not a right, health care is woefully inadequate, discrimination is a debilitating reality and legitimate land claims are being ignored. If not now, when?

Read more: How the COVID-19 crisis calls us towards reconciliation

Reconciliation, at several levels, can no longer be considered a throwaway campaign pledge. The political, economic, social and moral cost is simply too high to pretend that it doesn’t matter.

We could consider pegging a percentage of all federal budgets to rapidly enhance socio-economic conditions for First Nations. We could develop solidarity programs between every secondary school in Canada and Indigenous communities, making it a condition for graduation.

We could slash investments in military production and transfer the funds to Indigenous knowledge, culture, development and self-governance. We should also enlarge reconciliation to address the legitimate and long-delayed concerns of racialized communities, notably Black Canadians.

Humanize global interactions

Stock-market indices, unemployment rates, home sales, trade imbalances and profit margins aren’t helpful in determining the health, welfare, happiness, liberty, engagement and humanity of a society.

Those indicators don’t indicate the state of poverty, racism, sexism, discrimination, conflict, corruption or access to health care and education. Notably, the environment is neither prioritized nor seriously addressed in neoliberal globalization.

Who benefits, how and to what degree?

Do we have the courage to denounce structural global inequities and racism against migrant workers and immigrants while simultaneously asking why Canada and the United States need to import low-wage agricultural workers from Mexico, for example? Why does Canada, and a host of other countries, continue to sell arms to just about anyone?

Read more: Canada’s checkered history of arms sales to human rights violators

Why do we invade some countries, destabilize the regimes of others and blockade still others? Why do we set up mining operations around the world amid widespread claims of corruption, collusion, environmental catastrophe and the assault on Indigenous Peoples?

Extreme poverty, vulnerability, desperation and degradation lead to a multitude of global forces that impact and affect everyone, including mass migration, environmental catastrophe and political and economic instability.

Eliminating exploitation, corruption, racism, military conflict and nefarious globalization should be a necessity in the post-COVID-19 world.

And the most global issue facing all of us — environmental destruction — must be at the centre of international affairs.

What’s next?

Our environmental, political, economic, social, health and education systems are intertwined and interdependent.

They have been constructed, upheld and operated by human beings, and, as such, they can be changed for the greater good of everyone. Canadians have low voter participation, so creative, imaginative solutions must be found to unleash more equitable, meaningful and engaging ways to participate and live together, outside of elections.

Within the American context, scholar and activist Cornel West put it succinctly: The American empire is imploding. In Canada, the mysterious death in Toronto of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Indigenous-Black woman, has highlighted the fragility of race relations here.

Surviving COVID-19 means reconsidering what type of world we want to build and live in, together. We can no longer feign being a democracy that is not democratic.

Paul R. Carr, Full Professor, Département des sciences de l’éducation & Chair-holder, UNESCO Chair in Democracy, Global Citizenship and Transformative Education (DCMÉT), Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO)

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