Letters & Opinion

Change Beyond Comfort: Before and Beyond COVID-19

By Rhyesa Joseph

There are numerous lessons which will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the global issue of this moment and will likely be for the rest of the year 2020. However, to place COVID-19 at the center of our analyses, to make it a world in and of itself is to miss many defining lessons. It also demonstrates our habit of seeing the fruits of a problem, aiming desperately at its branches, continually avoiding the necessity of targeting its roots. The COVID-19 pandemic is the world’s cold or perhaps pneumonia, which beckons it to do more than a singular check-up. We are challenged to go beyond our comfort zones, to promote substantive and lasting change, and to dispel the medicine of resorting to business as usual once the pandemic is over.

While the COVID-19 virus is ‘novel’ the conundrums it has compounded are not. Economic inequality, labour injustices, corruption, environmental abuses, greed, racism, classism and all the other “isms” are but dusty ornaments which have been rehashed at governance forums, ignored by the privileged, overlooked by the oppressed and lobbied for by activists crying in the wilderness.  The consensus in combating COVID-19 has for the most part ignored these barriers to dignified human existence and development and has aimed instead at safeguarding self-preservation and the status quo. Countries jolted by coming to terms with their vulnerability and the mortality of their citizens have found the will necessary to weather the wave of this disease, while remaining unprepared to confront other life-threatening social cancers.

Privileged Ideas and Values

The world has not ended. It has merely paused or slowed down its engine of busyness and commerce. The ideas and values which establish and promote it remain intact and continue to pervade in insidious ways. Political, economic, social and cultural systems with all their glaring contradictions, are still clung to. Although much ado has been made about the advancement of our civilization, archaic and discriminatory ideas and values govern it.

Poverty and the plight of those who suffer from it, is sustained by the belief that poverty is a choice. And that those who are poor merit their position because they have not raised themselves from their bootstraps, even though they do not own shoes and remain exploited by others. Compassion and understanding are reserved for multi-billion-dollar industries, businesses and tycoons. We are conditioned to accept that this is fair, because we ourselves have not realized our own privilege, or that we too may find ourselves at the bottom of a hierarchy whose currency is exploitation.

Similarly, the debate of the economy versus humanity persists. The preeminence of protecting the economy at any cost, by any means necessary is the addiction of our time. Even though lives may be lost, mental health compromised, and communities severely crippled, the economy must go on. How can it though, if its creators and consumers are dead? Human beings created economies. They do not exist independent of human action.  And while economies realize cyclical phases of boom and bust, we have yet to see the resurgence of civilizations which have been wiped out.

Additionally, it is important to note those beliefs we have ignored. Today, we pay for cotton candy wisdom. The products are nations which are food insecure, governments with tuna fish budgets after caviar spending and masses of unemployed labourers without severance benefits or union representation in one-legged economies.

Challenging Monopolies: Changing the Status Quo

Moreover, what makes privileged ideas and values dangerous is that they function as monopolies, strangling and silencing opposing ones. Competition we are told is good but remains conspicuously absent in the realm of ideas and values as it pertains to governance and development. Competition, which is healthy and constructive is necessary to check abuses and to ensure a society operates at its optimal.

What we have done, however, is to encourage colonizing minds, monopolizing wealth, limiting the actions of people and options available to them, which are dictated by a few. We say, this is the way, the only way, the only reality and consequence. The truth is, the status quo is a result of choices and is not an immovable fact. The result is that nothing changes, local realities and capabilities are ignored so that we can all walk in the same shoes even though they do not fit.

Global standards and goals do matter, as markers for improving the quality of life of all people, but all countries take different roads shaped by their histories, geographies, challenges and strengths.

In the areas of development, education and justice, never was there a more apt time to engage in a reevaluation of thought and action. Development, traditionally has been measured by western lenses and standards, exemplified by obscene wealth, towering skyscrapers, economic well-being and global rankings. Yet, this view of development has been tested, distinguishing façade democracies from substantive ones. Development emerges as the capacity to ensure human security in times of abundance and scarcity, and a diplomacy of dignity and co-operation, dismantling existent divisions of first and third world countries.

The Caribbean nation of Cuba, for  example, has modelled an alternative development path rooted in solidarity, the prioritization of health and human development, supporting the world’s ‘most powerful states’, despite the continued burdens of a US embargo and media smear campaign. Additionally, for small island developing states whose development is dependent on volatile industries, like tourism, there is a growing need to make the distinction between developing a destination and a nation. In like manner, greater strides must be made to anchor food security, and quality education and healthcare as engines for securing national development.

Education at multiple levels requires assessment, given several developments. Within the formal education system the notion has existed that the integration of information and communication technologies is the panacea for all the maladies of the education system. With the physical closure of schools this belief is highly questionable. The assumption that all have equal access to them, worsens existent challenges in the real classroom, and ignores those which exist in the virtual one. While there are benefits to distance learning, there is a need to reach students beyond content, to establish how they are learning, and what they are feeling and thinking in an uncontrolled environment.  With the digital divide, the type of device available to a student and quality of internet or Wi-Fi, for example, places at a disadvantage many students by virtue of access and not their ability.

Public education too illustrates room for improvement. Often, the public is viewed as a monolithic group who are supposed to think and react to public announcements in uniformed ways, when learning at all levels is relative and a continuous process. Some governments, who themselves are operating in new waters, expect their citizens to be experts in response, despite directives that are infrequent, new, unclear and not inclusive. If governments endeavour to engage meaningfully in public education, then effective communication and partnership must be undertaken. To do this requires knowing one’s society, the languages they speak, the media they listen to and how certain messaging impacts emotions and human behaviour. However, if the aim is not to educate or sensitize, the choice of dictating information will result in greater investments and efforts by governments, as well as conflict, where collaboration should obtain.

Equally, the system of justice needs fine tuning. In the same way asthmatics and diabetics would not be treated with the same medication, in the administration of social justice, the pauper and the millionaire have differentiated needs, much like the differently abled and the able bodied. Importantly, securing justice, is not only the domain of government officials, or guaranteed by laws. It requires a shift in the consciousness of citizens and a constant need to engender civic responsibility, compassion and empathy. Only then can occurrences of panic bulk buying, discrimination against the elderly, and reverse Robin Hood practices of stealing from the poor to give to the rich, be diminished.

Uncovering Change in Crisis

Where do we go from here? How do we improve? Meaningful change must be intentional and consistent. Despite the numerous challenges that have arisen, there are practical and existent solutions. But they cannot be made useful, when we are unwilling to shake the practices of the past and give value to indigenous ideas, options and recognize the collective value of people.

Resilience is an enduring feature of the Caribbean and its people. However, this feature should be leveraged beyond crisis. Problem-solving strategies within communities, can be integrated into formal and national structures and plans. Like the imbalance that exists with the importation of foreign foods, goods and services, within the Caribbean, we import policies and ideologies which are not always the best fit for our societies and ignore local alternatives.

Similarly, the community is left out of formative governance. Centralized government assumes all the responsibility and know-all in tackling all national matters. The impact is a body where essential organs are underutilized and extreme strain is placed on one, resulting in the ultimate collapse of the whole. This too has the twin consequence of promoting a highly dependent public, who rely on government for everything, including the things they can do for self. There are innumerable self-help practices which have helped facilitate care for the vulnerable, savings and co-operative support in activities for community good.

Furthermore, if there is any takeaway that should not be forgotten from this moment is the need for solidarity. Because we are all that we have.  In the face of shutdown, many states who are now cut off from the outside world, have come to this understanding. On an individual level it calls for sharing in others’ burdens and struggles, even when we are not impacted by them directly. Of what value is this? At some point, every individual will face some form of contest which will require the assistance of another. And crucially, social problems like wildfires left unmitigated spread, impacting everyone. One might deny speaking up for someone, or providing material needs out of abundance to find that they are later trampled by like oppression or worst yet, become victimized by those they failed to empower.

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