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Tiny Virus, Big Picture

The Tyee asked 13 thinkers how the pandemic will change Canada and the world. It could get radical.

Geoff Dembicki 27 Mar 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times.

With millions of lives at risk, economies being obliterated, mass unemployment and one-fifth of the world’s population living through some form of social lockdown, it’s hard to dispute the argument, made with ever greater frequency and urgency these days, that there is no going back to normal once this coronavirus pandemic is over.

So what comes next for Canada — or for the world?

Over the past week The Tyee posed that question to activists, journalists, filmmakers, artists, caregivers, party promoters and others with keen insight into the truths that COVID-19 is making plainly visible. Using this U.S.-focused Politico story as a jumping off point, they described monumental changes to our way of life that only weeks ago may have seemed unthinkable — everything from the food we grow to the art we produce. The ways we care for our most vulnerable, the political stories we tell ourselves or even the places we party and dance are all up for renegotiation.

Think of this, then, as the opening lines of a vast new social contract. Here are some ways our futures may be rewritten by a coronavirus.

THE RESURRECTION OF THE WELFARE STATE, BIG BROTHER STYLE

Geoff Mann is a professor at Simon Fraser University who studies the politics and political economy of capitalism. His latest book is Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future.

When all this is over — whenever that will be — the support payments, monthly stipends, mortgage and loan deferrals and other social assistance programs promised by governments will not be easy to dismantle. Sure, there will be a lot of pent-up consumer demand when all the storefronts are open again, but it is going to take many months for the economy to return to a level of activity that can absorb all those who have been forced out of work by the coronavirus. Unwinding these assistance measures will be complicated and politically fraught. Folks will need help for quite a while, and most governments will be reluctant to be the one to shut down the income supports.

But pressure from the better-off, who will have weathered the crisis much more easily and back at work much sooner, will mean the largely lower-income people who remain on support for a long time will not have it easy.

One of the things the state is getting better at by the day right now is monitoring and surveillance. Making sure that no one deviates too much, keeping an eye on things. Those lessons won’t be lost on the directors of the newly revived income programs. Technology the original welfare states never imagined will make the daily life of the poor that much more visible to the state. Unless, of course, we make sure that doesn’t happen.

THE WEALTHY WILL WALL THEMSELVES OFF FROM THE REST OF US

Patrick Condon is a professor at the University of British Columbia with over 25 years of experience in sustainable urban design. His new book is 'Five Rules for Tomorrow’s Cities: Design in an Age of Urban Migration, Demographic Change and a Disappearing Middle Class.'

Social distancing is finally kicking in and you can see the fear in the eyes of those walking their dogs. Suddenly narrow sidewalks are not ok. I think the rich will withdraw even more behind the protection of doormen and gated communities. Sanitized cars with drivers on call. Everyone else will be more fearful of any public contact. At least for a number of years if not a decade or more. Remote work will dramatically accelerate.

I think this will be another blow to urban transit, which is ironic because transit will be needed to solve the climate crisis and some argue that the global pandemic is caused by disruptions to nature's systems caused by an altered climate. Similarly, those public gathering places that are already being weakened by the internet will be further weakened. And with public resources shifting into plague control they will suffer a drop in funding. So I see an unfortunate continued slide in our civic infrastructure and reduced taxpayer support for these functions.

COLONIALISM WILL BE EXPOSED FOR THE KILLER IT IS

Cindy Blackstock is executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. She is also a professor at McGill University’s School of Social Work and a member of the Gitxsan First Nation.

For well over 100 years, the federal government has failed to ensure that First Nations children receive proper levels of life-saving health-care services. Now as COVID-19 strikes, inequalities in basic public services, including basics like water and sanitation, means First Nations are less able to protect their community members — many of whom are more likely to have underlying medical issues linked to inequalities that have been around since confederation and residential school trauma.

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Cindy Blackstock: ‘Ultimately, it will be First Nations peoples who pay the ultimate price.’

The government’s idea of handing out tents in First Nations communities and giving some money for remedial measures may help some, but you have to address the inequalities AND implement proper health infrastructure and policies to give First Nations peoples a fair chance.

There is no way around it. Until the Canadian government reforms itself and rinses out the colonial residue in its ways of thinking and acting, we will look back at COVID-19 as another tragic example of where Canada knew better and did not do better. Ultimately, it will be First Nations peoples who pay the ultimate price.

INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES WILL EMERGE STRONGER

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is a writer, director, producer and actor. She is a member of the Kainai First Nation (Blood Tribe, Blackfoot Confederacy) as well as Sámi from Norway. She is co-director of the acclaimed film The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open.

Not long ago, a friend of my father’s passed away from tuberculosis. Like many Indigenous children, he contracted TB in residential school. It remained dormant in his bones and returned in old age. Sarah Robinson, founder of Rainwatch Advising, pointed out that the death rate of COVID-19 is roughly four per cent. When disease epidemics swept through Indigenous communities after settlers arrived, communities were decimated by 50-90 per cent. That trauma and its memory is recent.

My mother’s a physician back home on the Blood Reserve. She keeps saying “Don’t worry about me. I do well in crisis.” Sadly, it’s true. With each wave of the opioid crisis, despite overwhelming barriers and extremely limited resources, our people get better at organizing and strategizing. The reality of this new pandemic is grim but here we are, once again, fighting an uphill battle armed with the strength of our ancestors. We will get through this.

A WAKE-UP CALL FOR THE PRIVILEGED AND ABLE-BODIED

Sharona Franklin is a Vancouver-based disabled artist whose work confronts perceptions of disability and chronic illness. Her first U.S. solo exhibition, New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing, is currently running in New York.

Prior to coronavirus, the disability community had already been advocating for restructures of health care, education and employment. Now due to COVID-19 affecting able-bodied communities, these accommodations are suddenly being made possible for the masses. Capitalism is designed for the able-bodied and disabled folks have been systematically overlooked. Self-quarantine is common for the chronically ill and immunosuppressed community; we work hard every day to not die from colds, infections, the flu and our diseases while working within an ableist system.

Employers and curators should begin to self-educate about disabilities and value the accommodation of disabled folks. This is the time for radical change, empathy and awareness for one another. For some, isolation, lack of access and powerlessness is new, but this is a reality that many marginalized folks deal with everyday. Through this pandemic, I hope we can develop equal access, and create new infrastructures with sustainable community support.

THE ENERGY TRANSITION IN ALBERTA WILL SPEED UP

Max Fawcett is a freelance writer who covers energy, business, climate change and politics. He is the former editor of Alberta Oil and Vancouver magazines.

Alberta’s oil and gas industry was already on shaky ground before the coronavirus arrived, and while that industry will survive the impact of the virus, the ambitions it used to have for the future almost certainly won’t. As supply chains contract and people start avoiding air travel where they can, the fight over who gets to meet the world's peaking (and eventually falling) demand for oil will become more intense. That will mean more supply, lower prices and fewer high-paying jobs in Alberta.

It’s not all bad news, though. As the fossil-fuel economy begins its inevitable retreat, it will open space for new opportunities in Alberta. The province is rich in wind, solar and geothermal energy. It could turn its bitumen reserves into higher-value products like carbon fibre, and use the water already coming out of its conventional oil wells to produce lithium. Its natural gas deposits, meanwhile, can be used to create hydrogen — a fuel that could play an important role in a de-carbonizing world. Taken together, these opportunities can help Alberta rebuild its economic future in a more sustainable and diversified way.

JOURNALISTS WILL HAVE A PROVEN MODEL: SERVING THE PUBLIC

Jesse Brown is publisher of the audience-funded news site and podcast network Canadaland, which outlets like the Toronto Star have called “smug, loud-mouthed... easy to dislike.”

As the coronavirus crisis escalates, I'm seeing news sites dropping their paywalls, collaborating with their competitors, and carefully vetting information and opinions to avoid spreading misinformation and divisive material. I'm seeing news sites putting everything they have into serving the public without much thought towards traffic or towards banging any sort of partisan drum. I'm seeing them do what they should have been doing all along, and it's beautiful.

There are exceptions, as always. And there is the pre-existing existential threat to our industry, which this crisis will expedite. Some of these news organizations won't survive this. But even those who won't make it are showing the world what they're worth.

INTEREST IN EDIBLE GARDENING WILL SURGE

Ziya Tong is an award-winning science journalist and former host of Discovery Channel’s program Daily Planet. She is the recent author of The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths and the Dangerous Illusions That Shape Our World.

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Ziya Tong: ‘In a time of destruction there is nothing more healing than an act of creation.’

Empty supermarket shelves and the fragility of our supply chain have brought food security into sharp focus for the average shopper. And while black thumbs won’t turn green overnight, we will see a surge of interest in edible gardening. Online, people have been scrambling for advice on how to grow their own fruits and vegetables in the wake of coronavirus. But as ethnobotanists remind us, for the cash-strapped or inexperienced, panic gardening is not the best way to stock the kitchen.

We can learn from history however. While individual victory gardens during the Second World War produced a small surplus (at peak 57,000 tonnes of vegetables in Canada), it was planned community gardens, like Depression-era relief gardens that produced the greatest bounties. For those interested, garden sharing and companies that specialize in “vegetable landscaping” could be a good first step. That said, in a time of destruction there is nothing more healing than an act of creation — especially when it’s done together, and not in isolation.

THE FRAUD OF ‘AUSTERITY’ EXPOSED AND ABANDONED

Martin Lukacs is a journalist and former environmental writer for the Guardian. He is the author of The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent.

The coronavirus pandemic is the most significant teachable moment we’ve ever had to explain why neoliberalism — the governing ideology in Canada for the last forty years — is a dangerous fraud. Around the world, we are witnessing policies that we were long told were unaffordable or impractical: housing the homeless, freezing rent, nationalizing vital services. Even here, federal and provincial governments are retooling industries to provide medical supplies, offering free emergency childcare, and shoring up an underfunded social safety net. So much for faith in the free market or the merits of downsizing the state.

If these neoliberal rules can be broken during a pandemic, why couldn’t they have been broken before — or, for that matter, after? The mantra “there is no alternative” was always just a pre-emptive ideological strike against the promise of a more rational, egalitarian and ecological society. Preaching its impossibility was not a necessity but a choice.

A NEW RELATIONSHIP TO MONEY AND TIME

Harriet Alida Lye is the Toronto-based author of the novel 'The Honey Farm.' Her work has appeared in outlets like the Globe and Mail, the New Statesman and Vice and her forthcoming memoir Natural Killer will be published later this year.

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Harriet Alida Lye: ‘COVID-19 has left hundreds of thousands of people unemployed, feeling idle and impotent.’

I don’t think that the novel coronavirus will change fiction, nor should it. But I am hopeful that this incredibly surreal period (which feels like a limbo, or a lapse in regular time) will give people a different understanding of the relationship between time and money. Time does not equal money. As a writer, this is something I’ve been thinking about for years; I still struggle with letting it go. Capitalist structures make it easy to give value to time — for some, one hour is worth $15; for others, it’s worth $450 — but the creative process doesn’t work like this. You could work for years on a novel that goes nowhere. You could run something off in a few weeks and it might sell for millions.

COVID-19 has left hundreds of thousands of people unemployed, feeling idle and impotent and scared. Many of us have a sudden abundance of time. I think we are realizing that the things we love most about our hometowns and would hate to lose, are probably not compensated as much as we value them. Related to time, I wonder if people who are off work at the moment and think “maybe this will be the time I finally write that book!” will realize that perhaps it wasn’t time that was preventing them from writing, after all.

A SHARPENED AWARENESS OF ERODING RIGHTS

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer in Vancouver. Earlier this year she became the new executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. She is the author of Undoing Border Imperialism .

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights two key concerns. First, that all government measures should protect the human rights of the most vulnerable. We have to ensure that precarious workers, migrants, prisoners, homeless people, seniors, people with disabilities and Indigenous communities are not left behind or left to bear the brunt of the crisis. The federal government has announced they will turn away refugees from our border. This is a shocking decision and in complete violation of our international obligations.

Further, as governments contemplate emergency orders that grant exceptional powers, we should be not be willing to suspend our fundamental rights and civil liberties more than is reasonably necessary. Given the reality of over-policing of poor and racialized communities, the blunt power of any enforcement measures would likely further criminalize these communities and we should be cautious not to call for the full weight of state enforcement.

FIRED UP POLITICS FOR THE WORKING CLASS, POOR AND MARGINALIZED

Andray Domise is a Toronto-based activist and freelance journalist. He is a contributing editor to Maclean’s magazine and a Nathanson Graduate Fellow in history at York University.

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Andray Domise: ‘We find ourselves staring at the faded brick wall at the dead end of electoralism.’

In September of 1954, Le Devoir newspaper ran a fiery column by a Harvard-educated labour activist who called for increased worker involvement in political affairs. The author, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, expressed skepticism at the idea that political involvement would cause workers to forget “the proper ends” of unionism, and suggested that multiple institutions — the church pulpit, the radio, the university and even trade unions themselves — had suspect motives for diverting them away from politics.

And now, here we find ourselves staring at the faded brick wall at the dead end of electoralism. One where the austerity fetish of "centrist" politics has drained our social services to the barest of resources, and a global pandemic has swept away the delicate façade of sunny ways. Many workers are forced to cut hours or even pay to keep their jobs, others are laid off, many are asking neighbours for help buying food, diapers and cleaning supplies. Meanwhile, resource extraction firms receive a multibillion dollar bailout, and low-paid retail workers make up the “front lines” of an economy ground to a halt.

As it turns out, funneling the collective energies of advocacy for the poor, the marginalized, the working class who keep our society intact only delayed the inevitable. Electoralist politics have indeed caught up workers in the class struggle, despite Trudeau's scoffing at the idea. This fight cannot be won solely at the ballot box. It’s time for direct action. Strikes — whether rent strikes, labour strikes, prison strikes, or even the general strike — are as good as any place to start.

A NEW ERA OF UNDERGROUND ARTS EVENTS AND PARTIES

Nathan Drillot is a filmmaker and producer. For five years he was part of a collective that ran the space Index in East Vancouver, which hosted hundreds of shows, events and dance parties. He recently helped open up a space called Dolly.

COVID-19 has been utterly debilitating for Vancouver’s DIY — “Do It Yourself” — arts and culture community. It’s cut off all revenue and has left everyone from door people to promoters out of work. Venues are struggling to try and pay staff something while negotiating the reality of rent being due. I keep hearing from people that there’s a sense that things are never going to go back to normal.

Music and movement has a transformative effect on people and in many ways that can get taken for granted. We’re trying to stay positive and focus on what it’s going to feel like when we reconnect with each other face to face on the dance floor. The next step is going to be how we capture this moment and recreate our communities, not as they were before the pandemic, but closer to how we wish they could be. It’s hard to imagine now, but I would love for us to come out of this more connected to each other, with our time centred less on meaningless labour and more on the creation of opportunities for interaction, understanding and elation.  [Tyee]

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