COVID 2020: recovering from a triple-whammy

[Editorial note: Longstanding Montréal activist Sam Boskey reflects on the impact of COVID-19 in Québec and Canada, and on some of the more global implications for structural change and greater social justice.]

 

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, how we saw to our basic needs of food and shelter, 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, working online, working with physical distancing. A spectre of economic collapse haunted the propertied classes. The stock-market lurched and convulsed, and oil was nearly given away. Western governments stepped in (to various degrees) with emergency injections of revenue to calm what would otherwise have been inevitable social unrest.

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 a plague had no favourites and 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.

Montréal was the epicentre of the virus in Québec. Some of the first local cases of the virus were traced to world-travellers and attendees of fancy parties, but community spread was soon concentrated in traditionally vulnerable communities: the poor, immigrants, racialized groups, lower-educated, low-skilled workers, gig 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, after being completely gobsmacked by the pandemic.

Community motivation to provide services was diligent and comprehensive. But why so many of their neighbours were vulnerable and helpless was a question rarely raised by volunteers, beyond the usual superficial tropes about problems with “government corruption” or “private-sector greed.” (This calls to mind 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.”) And once steps were taken to address the most basic needs, concerns about people’s ongoing living conditions (including the mental-health impacts of their confinement) did not seem to have the same staying power.

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—the transfer of non-symptomatic hospital patients into long-term care homes, the movement of staff between different long-term care homes, the government call for medical specialists to work as orderlies, the requirement of medical professionals to go into quarantine, the barring of family members from visiting their loved ones, the lack of masks, and finally the summoning of the military to bridge staff shortages—all contributed to a feeling that this system was very much out of control.

Consequently, in Québec, most of the government’s visible efforts were focussed on massaging public opinion and trying to ensure a modicum of trust in its spokespersons. Efforts to sound caring and avuncular took priority over informing the public about the sometimes unpleasant measures that were proving effective in other jurisdictions, even when such measures were proposed by local epidemiologists. Not surprisingly, many wondered if these spokespersons knew what they were talking about, and some began to embrace conspiracy theories.

It is telling (though unfortunately so) that the expression “social distancing” has been used to describe the required behaviours during the pandemic, clearly indicating a strategy that requires our keeping apart from others. Some have suggested instead that we promote “physical distancing and social solidarity.”

But most of us were indeed socially distant throughout the lockdown. During this time, our quotidian concerns turned to what we could see and touch. Our preoccupations bubbled through short, ever-changing attention spans, fuelled by the news cycle of the media and devoid of much social context.

Some of our concerns were health-related: Are our experts (WHO, Drs. Arruda, Tam, Fauci, etc.) credible? Do masks help? What should be reopened and how fast? Should we denounce an absence of distancing to the police hotline? Some tied government policy to opinion polls, based on leaders’ popularity. Some focussed on the consequences of certain government adjustments: Are changes to parking and bicycle paths a violation of (drivers’) fundamental rights? Others were more specious: Is the pandemic real or a plot (maybe by Bill Gates)? Was the virus Chinese in origin? Some of these cyclical topics added to the climate of conspiracy theory, xenophobia and racism.

Different levels of government did implement some positive initiatives here in Québec and in Canada, certainly. But overall, the execution of government policies during the confinement 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. Additionally, the irony of requiring that face masks be worn in order to be able to obtain government services, by the same government that had only recently enacted a law barring persons whose faces were not uncovered from receiving services, has been widely noted.

Along these lines of racism, 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 and that the xenophobic diatribes of far-right leaders like Trump had made their impact felt even in Montréal. After all, no similar boycott of businesses in Little Italy was apparent when Lombardy became the world’s next major hot zone.

In many countries around the world, pent-up frustration—catalyzed in part by feelings of powerlessness during the confinement—has contributed to robust protests on long-simmering social issues. This is particularly true in the United States, which in the span of these tumultuous months has been rocked by demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd (including the Seattle occupation), and widespread denunciations of racist statues and names of sports teams. In Québec, anonymous or identified denunciations of sexual aggressors have also continued, and women’s shelters have been raising the alarm about heightened domestic violence under COVID confinement.

But the connections between racism, sexism, authoritarianism and the ever-present pandemic were not at the forefront of political demands.

 

The economic impact

When compared to other parts of the world, 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, and the global stock markets (including oil prices) have already recovered considerably since the jagged dip in mid-March.

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 sudden transfer of much work to the home has affected the use of downtown urban space and buildings and all the related services in those neighbourhoods. 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. In the many countries around the world in which tourism is a major driver of the economy, the short-term future indeed looks grim.

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. To take one example, there has been little discussion of the fact that city buses in Montréal were free for several months, when generations of calls for even reduced fares had fallen on deaf governmental ears.

Yet the justification for a consistent revenue stream for workers, students, landlords and employers was not based on any previous critique of globalization or neo-liberalism. It was instead presented as a “necessary and reasonable” quid pro quo for the government-ordered shutdown of much of the economy. Even conservative business spokespersons, who usually howl at any intervention in the “free market,” were glad that workers and their employers continued to have a cash flow throughout the lockdown. This meant that customers could continue to spend (buy) throughout the pandemic, even while their consumption patterns were altered. Overall, the clear net result was to prop up a capitalist economy, not to threaten it. Without such intervention, there would have been widespread contestation of the state.

The pandemic will result in some second thoughts, at least in the short term, as to the wisdom of depending on global markets. The need for more local self-sufficiency/economic sovereignty has been clearly demonstrated by the scarcity of some foods, medicine, masks and ventilators. “Supply chain” is a term that has entered into the vocabulary of everyday life. Indeed, the most selfish procurement strategies (such as the U.S. federal government’s seizing of state-bought masks) destroyed any illusion of inter-territorial solidarity during the crisis. And a global consensus on the distribution of an eventual vaccine is hard to imagine.

This unplanned and practically unprecedented level of spending by Canada’s federal government does not appear to be scaring the business class. On the contrary, handouts to the unemployed generate demand for everyday products, and sales and income are both taxable. The federal treasury has financed this through the sale of bonds, which have been snapped up by the investment community even though they carry lower interest rates than prior to COVID. The federal government, then, is seen as a safe investment in troubled times. And, as a consequence of long-term borrowing at low rates, the government’s repayment contribution may be barely visible in a single annual budget.

The outlook for provincial governments’ finances is nowhere near as rosy. That said, in Canada, our governments have demonstrated that when there is adequate impetus, they can deliver income to (nearly) all, place negligent private services under trusteeship, mobilize the army and close borders, all without putting into question the predominantly capitalist model of service delivery.

 

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. In the case of Canadian provincial politics, 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. The attitudes demonstrated by the politicians were often condescending and demonstrated an absence of accountability, while local death tolls climbed. There was virtually no involvement of community groups in the design of local implementation strategies.

While some governments have shown that they can act with speed to save consumer spending, there is no indication they 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.

Political commentators across the world who have filled their blogs with explanations and analyses are far from being able to actually influence government policies. 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. However, it has been difficult to discern any political education or helpful analysis from more mainstream sources.

During the confinement, 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, while the media focused on the governments’ daily press briefings. If these parties contributed behind the scenes to improving programs and policy, most of the electorate remained unaware.

And yet there was much to worry about. 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.

In my home city, Projet Montréal, which forms Montréal’s municipal administration, has acted within its limited jurisdiction to facilitate pedestrian and bicycle circulation during the pandemic, in the aim of making the city more livable. Yet because its leaders have not engaged in explaining why such changes are important in facilitating a change in patterns of urban transport, such initiatives have come under attack by those who want car and parking habits to return to the old normal. When the city holds “consultations” on local micro-adjustments to traffic, rather than on overall visions of new forms of mobility, residents take the questions to mean “are you in favour of personal inconvenience?” That was the case even before the pandemic. In such cases, our collective assumption of social responsibility moves no further ahead.

This brings us to the more general question of government leadership in tackling the immediate future. In Québec, an important example is the government’s economic recovery plan put forward in Bill 61, which has recently been put on hold. The business-friendly Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s “recovery strategy” was heavy on infrastructure, proposing a veritable shopping list of “concrete” projects. The government argued that the urgency of relaunching the economy “required” bypassing the usual environmental evaluations. There was no focus in the recovery plan on core issues such as climate change (ignoring last year’s massive demonstrations), the social safety net, the financing of social housing and more stringent remedies for private-sector tenants, stricter employment standards, or stemming police racism.

Our school boards have as yet shown no signs of mobilizing their adult education divisions in the massive task of re-orienting and retraining the significant proportion of workers whose jobs have been impacted by COVID.

Meanwhile, as citizen and media attention has been focused on the virus, our federal government in Ottawa has been continuing to jack up problematic foreign policies. It has extended support for the overthrow of elected governments in Bolivia and Venezuela and for the impending annexation of the West Bank, and has been part of the increasing tensions with China. Here in Canada, there is the continued promotion of pipelines, as well as announcements of billions of dollars to be spent on new military aircraft and drones.

Most of the public’s focus is still on the short-term: keeping up with ever-changing proposed protocols for the return of students to schools or for public gatherings. Some perspicacious souls are questioning what will happen when the “generous” government handouts stop. 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!

 

Conclusion

The pandemic lockdown has demonstrated that in the immediate aftershock of such social upheaval, 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. In this, we are able to harness the initial spirit of “we’re all in this together.”

But entrepreneurial interests will soon regain ascendancy, and our caring about “each and every one” will wane, with the private sector once again overriding the public good.

None of the “public” institutions that support the vulnerable—the healthcare system, the rental boards, the welfare offices, the educational institutions—are in any meaningful sense democratic. And the governments that mandate the often well-intentioned bureaucrats who run such institutions have demonstrated no interest in altering the fundamental structures or values that promote the conditions for vulnerability.

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.