Social Justice in the Time of COVID-19
by Leslie Kemp
At the beginning of 2020, social justice advocates were mobilizing in support of the Wet’suwet’en and their fight against the Coast Gaslink pipeline. Unitarians were among them. Both CUSJ and the CUC sent out a statement of solidarity. In addition to Indigenous rights, many Canadians were sounding the alarm bell about the need for transformative change to tackle climate change. And there were signs of an impending recession, if not depression.
In a few short weeks, the threat of a global pandemic swept aside these concerns, at least from the forefront of consciousness. Most of us were preoccupied about how to stay safe amidst the growing pandemic, how to physically-distance, how to be safe at work, how to work at home, how to gather in our familiar spaces (including church) in new ways, with many making the transition to Zoom and other online platforms.
We are now two months into this new period, and it is appropriate to reflect on this from a Unitarian social justice perspective. It is clear that we are facing a multi-pronged crisis. Certainly, the health crisis provoked by COVID-19 is still with us and is likely to be for some time to come. However, we still face a climate catastrophe. While The International Energy Agency has forecast that CO2 emissions could fall by 8% this year, it noted that global emissions would need to fall by about 7.6% every year this decade in order to limit warming to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures.
We are now smack in the middle of an economic downturn not seen since the 1930s depression in Canada. In March, one million Canadians lost their jobs and in April, a record two million lost jobs bringing the total job lost to at least three million. We now have an official 13% unemployment rate, but the real rate is likely much higher given that many Canadians work in precarious, part-time jobs. Small businesses are failing, and millions are at risk of being unable to pay their rents, in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. This is despite the unprecedented spending by governments at all levels, but in particular, the federal government.
Globally, the prospects for the world’s poor are dire. Oxfam released a report in April, Dignity not Destitution, calling for urgent action to prevent up to a half billion people falling into poverty as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Public Good or Private Wealth?, Oxfam’s January 2019 report had some startling figures about growing wealth inequality worldwide. In just one year, the wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by $900bn, or $2.5bn a day. Meanwhile the wealth of the poorest half of humanity, 3.8 billion people, fell by 11%. Further, wealth is becoming more concentrated with 26 people owning the same as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. The report also compared the wealth of the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, to the whole health budget for Ethiopia, a country of 105 million people. “Just 1% of his fortune is the equivalent to the whole health budget.”
Canada is not immune to this growing inequality. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported in 2017 that Canada’s highest paid CEOs compensation in 2015 was an average of $9.5 million, 193 times more than someone earning an average wage.
As social justice advocates, these figures should pose deep questions about the sustainability of our society, particularly the economic system, which many have reluctantly accepted as inevitable and perhaps, unchangeable. Many of us have focused on pressing for reforms under capitalism but in reality, we have seen the richer get richer and the poor get poorer. There is now greater inequality in our society than at any time in history.
Neoliberalism’s contribution to the crisis
We also need to confront the reality that capitalism and its most virulent form, neoliberalism, has contributed to this crisis in a significant way, both directly and indirectly. Scientists and doctors have warned of a pandemic for years and our governments, like almost every government in the world, chose to ignore the warning. We have been woefully unprepared, despite the recommendations of the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health in 2003. After China, Canada was the country worst hit by SARS; 44 people died. Its 224-page report, Learning from SARS: Renewal of Public Health in Canada, outlined hundreds of recommendations to help prevent the spread of future epidemics. It is clear that Canada has learned little from SARS. Supplies of protective equipment for health workers have been dangerously low and Canada is still trying to source more supplies, months into this latest crisis.
Neoliberalism’s ideology of getting government out of the way of making big profits for business has been the dominant ideology for 40 years. This trend saw corporations taking over areas of responsibility that were previously in the public or not-for-profit domain. One example is seniors’ care, which has been woefully neglected, with the most pronounced examples being for-profit care homes. Long-term care facilities (nursing homes) account for 81% of all deaths in Canada from the Coronavirus. This is a much higher rate than in the U.S. and in most other countries. Government-commissioned reports, seniors’ advocates and others have been calling for changes to seniors’ care for years, specifically calling attention to inadequate care in for-profit homes. Why are profits allowed to be made on the backs of vulnerable people like seniors? This is part of the neoliberal ideology, which tries to find as many ways as possible for corporations to make a profit.
The first serious challenge to neoliberalism came with the Occupy Movement, which in turn grew out of the recession of 2008-09 which saw banks being bailed out and thousands of people, particularly in the US, losing their homes. This bailout of financial institutions at the expense of ordinary people happened throughout much of the world.
Globalization was a key mantra of the neoliberal world with companies shifting production to parts of the world where labour was cheap and liberalized trade rules favoured corporate profits over environmental and workers’ protection. While the COVID-19 crisis show signs that neoliberalism is being further challenged with governments having to step up to provide services that are not profitable for business, the brutal reality is that some corporations, like Amazon, are profiting heavily due to COVID-19. While there have been outbreaks at 74 Amazon facilities across the US, a warehouse manager in California died of COVID-19, and Amazon fired two warehouse employees after criticizing lack of safety measures, it is reported that Amazon and its billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos will profit heavily. While 36 million Americans filed for unemployment over the past two months, US billionaires saw an increase in wealth of $282 billion. While profits are going into the pockets of billionaires such as Bezos, Amazon has told warehouse employees that they will see their hourly wage drop by $2 an hour.
Who is paying for the Crisis? Who is benefiting?
We need to confront the hard reality of who is paying for governments’ failing to protect the health of Canadians? Who is paying for this depression? Who is paying for the climate crisis? The flipside to these questions is equally important. Who is benefiting from this 3-headed crisis?
The answer to the first set of questions (who is paying) is most of us. Some would call us the 99% but whatever percentage is chosen, the reality is that most people in Canada are at some risk and specific groups face higher risks. If you are poor, homeless, a minimum wage worker, an immigrant, a temporary foreign worker, a health care worker, a senior in a long-term care home, someone classified as an essential worker (working in the food processing sector, food retail sector, construction sector, manufacturing sector, etc.), you are vulnerable. That includes a good percentage of Canadians.
The answer to the flipside of these questions: those at the top of our economic pyramid, the CEOs, highly paid Executives and bankers have benefited for years from a system that has enriched them at the expense of many of us. Their wealth is at the expense of workers who have struggled with perpetually stagnant wages, increased personal debt (Canadians have among the highest personal debt in the world) and out of reach housing prices. Their wealth is at the expense of our natural environment (including endangered species), which although very resilient, is suffering from land and water pollution, increased CO2 levels, plastics in the environment and more. And they have benefited at the expense of the most vulnerable: those at risk of violence caused by economic imperialism, colonialism and political persecution.
We must face the truth. The virus of capitalism has wreaked more havoc upon people and the planet than COVID-19 is ever likely to do. This explains why some workers, even those at grave risk, are calling for the opening up of the economy even when it is not safe to do so (risking increased spread of the virus). Many already live in a world that exposes them to risks many of us are fortunate enough not to face: economic devastation, food insecurity, job loss, lack of clean drinking water, no money to pay for child care, homelessness, violence in their homes, and more.
As Unitarians, we need to focus attention on the fundamental issues giving rise to such death and devastation. We need to dig deeper to uncover the truth that COVID-19 has so brutally exposed. We are all connected. Recognizing this, we can “birth a new world out of the ashes of the old.” Let us live out our final (and perhaps most important) principle: “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”