Introduction

Carnet : COVID 2020: recovering from a triple-whammy 

The pandemic lockdown has demonstrated that it is possible for both government and civil society to identify some of society’s most vulnerable members and fashion some short-term palliative measures. More needs to be done.

Carnet : COVID 2020: recovering from a triple-whammy 

Un carnet rédigé par Sam Boskey, membre de la Ligue des droits et libertés. Il a oeuvré comme organisateur communautaire, chercheur en droit du travail, conseiller municipal à Montréal et conseiller en éducation aux adultes pour le gouvernement du Québec.  Il fait part de ses réflexions sur la pandémie.

This is a substantially abridged version of an article in MontrealSerai

In Montréal, looking back on the last few months, we see how the repercussions of the pandemic hit us in waves, like a triple-whammy. The first blow was social and cultural. The government-ordered lockdown and confinement immediately changed the way we spent our days and how we related (or not) to our fellow human beings.

The second blow was economic. Whatever activities were not suspended transformed themselves rapidly—working from home, online, with physical distancing. A spectre of economic collapse haunted the propertied classes.

Social and economic activities are now resuming, in various permutations. Yet the impact of the pandemic’s third blow—at the political level—is still little understood. Many questions—what damage the pandemic has caused to our democratic functioning, how we understand its highly uneven impact on the vulnerable, what is to be changed and how we go about it—remain unanswered.

The social impact

While in March it might have made some sense to believe that we were “all in this together,” it soon became apparent that our various forms of social stratification would determine the contours of the pandemic’s penetration.

In Montréal, first local cases of the virus were traced to world-travellers, but community spread was soon concentrated in traditionally vulnerable communities: the poor, immigrants, racialized groups, low-skilled workers, and single-parent families—those for whom physical distancing at home or at work was not feasible, and those whose economic survival required putting their physical survival at risk.

Civil society’s quick response in providing aid to neighbours—via food collections, Facebook pages full of resources, shopping and cooking collectives—demonstrated a widespread acknowledgement that existing public and para-public services were unable to improvise with appropriate haste.  But why so many of their neighbours were vulnerable was a question rarely raised by volunteers. (Remember a quote by Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Pessoa Câmara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor, they call me a communist.”)

The conditions and dire statistics of seniors’ long-term care homes (CHSLDs – centres d’hébergement et de soins de longue durée) became a particular focus. Ever-changing and erratic strategies for these seniors’ homes contributed to a feeling that this system was very much out of control. Consequently, many of the government’s visible efforts were focussed on massaging public opinion and trying to ensure a modicum of trust in its spokespersons.

Different levels of government did implement some positive initiatives here in Québec and in Canada, certainly. But the execution of these policies tended, in many cases, to exacerbate the difficulties of the most vulnerable: prison inmates’ health and safety was off the government’s COVID radar for weeks, and homeless people, Black youth and members of Indigenous and other racialized communities were hit with $1,500 fines by police for physical distancing violations. While rental board-ordered evictions were temporarily suspended, no rent suspension or reduction was encouraged or tolerated by the government.

The pandemic brought to light some of our more troubling social reflexes. In the weeks before the mid-March confinement, restaurants in Montréal’s Chinatown were already nearly deserted, suggesting that anti-Asian racism was alive and well; after all, no similar boycott of businesses in Little Italy was apparent when Lombardy became the world’s next major hot zone….

The economic impact

The economic underpinnings of G20 countries like Canada may not, in the end, be substantially threatened by the pandemic. Unlike in a conventional war, COVID has not damaged any local factories, roads, trains, airports or mines; the workforce is as educated as before.

What has been badly hit, with little promise of quick or viable recovery, are economic activities that are socially consumed: cultural and musical performance, educational classes, restaurants, bars and tourist activities. The jobs of those who provide services for consumers are traditionally amongst the most precarious in our society, and workers in these fields have already felt the pressure to find other areas of gainful employment.

Has the pandemic forced the state to steer itself to a place where satisfaction of public economic and social needs becomes a permanent prioritized function? Unfortunately, it has not. Many nation-states, including Canada, have managed to bring in sweeping short-term measures that might have appeared unthinkable a year ago.

But these measures are not based on a critique of globalization or neo-liberalism. They were instead presented as a “necessary and reasonable” quid pro quo for the government-ordered shutdown of much of the economy.  Overall, the clear intention was to prop up a capitalist economy, not to threaten it.

The political response and impact

One might imagine that a pandemic which has illuminated so many of the contradictions of contemporary capitalist society would elicit a heightened cry to bring the system to its knees.

Democracy was virtually absent throughout most governments’ approach to the fight against COVID. With legislatures suspended, over 30 Québec government orders-in-council at the cabinet level and over 50 ministerial orders were issued without any prior notice or public examination. These orders empowered authorities (including police) to exercise wide powers.

There was virtually no involvement of community groups in the design of local implementation strategies.

Local Québec organizations have been promoting anti-racism, immigrants’ rights, civil liberties and anti-domestic violence campaigns during the confinement. Groups such as the Ligue des droits et libertés, Solidarity Across Borders and the housing rights organization, FRAPRU, have raised public alarms and occasionally won some concessions. In Québec, all the unions systematically criticized the government for its decrees suspending public-sector collective agreements, its lack of protection for workers, its forced deployment of teachers and certain health professionals, its refusal to pay hazard bonuses or to negotiate proper wages for patient attendants and other frontline non-nursing personnel.

Opposition political parties in Canada refrained from any general critique of the federal and provincial leaders, as if their policies and behaviours were above reproach. The visible leadership of the federal New Democratic Party and the provincial Québec Solidaire were absent during the early weeks. If these parties contributed behind-the-scenes to improving programs and policy, most of the electorate remained unaware.

And it has been difficult to discern any political education or helpful analysis from more mainstream sources.

Most of the public’s focus is still on the short-term; but there has been precious little discussion of issues involving the bigger picture, such as preventing greenhouse gas emissions from returning to pre-lockdown levels, or providing the long-term solidarity that will be required with countries whose economies have been decimated by the virus. As if these key issues were not part of our concerns or responsibilities!

There is no indication that governments will voluntarily assume a mandate to eradicate the class-related conditions that made the spread of the pandemic so dangerous—dense housing, inadequate health and safety protection for workers, or increasing precarity of employment.

Conclusion

The pandemic lockdown has demonstrated that it is possible for both government and civil society to identify some of society’s most vulnerable members and fashion some short-term palliative measures.

But entrepreneurial interests will soon regain ascendancy, with the private sector once again overriding the public good.

The contradictions of social and economic inequity have been clearly demonstrated during the pandemic. The point, however, is to change them. This will require coherent political education, leadership and action, which we have not yet begun to see.


Cette tribune permet d’aborder des sujets d’actualité qui sont en lien avec les droits civils, politiques, économiques, sociaux et culturels au Québec, au Canada ou ailleurs dans le monde. Les carnets sont rédigés par des militant-e-s des droits humains et n’engagent que leurs auteurs et autrices.