At the same time as the climate crisis movement was gaining momentum in the wake of youth voices such as Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier, Mari Copeny, Alexandria Villaseñor, Vanessa Nakate, and notably in Canada the protests by Wet’suet’en people, we were launched into another crisis.
The COVID-19 virus pandemic that began in late 2019 has spurned emergency actions across the globe. The global, national, and regional responses have been varied and changing as the situation escalates in some regions and settles down in others. Just as the success of the climate youth movement has been attributed to the clarity and consistency of messaging, we need this same strategy with COVID-19. We also need that clarity as we move beyond the current pandemic and address ongoing societal challenges, using it as a transformative force to move forward as a global community.
The message we need now and for the future is one of collective values—values that place people, their needs, and their health over the economy as disconnected from those human needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving crisis. The messaging and actions need to be consistent and clear as to the short, medium- and long-term goals of protecting the public. We must be reminded over and again that we have rights as individuals and we also have collective responsibilities as human beings to do our best through collective action and advocacy. This social lens is crucial to the success of the COVID-19 response and it is a critical premise for the kinds of interventions societies are considering as we continue to deal with access to health care, gender equality, violence against women, inequalities because of racialization, economic circumstances, indigeneity, migrant and refugee movements, and the disproportionate burden of environmental harm and climate change on vulnerable populations across the globe.
At the root of this premise is that we need to foreground a social lens—one of collectivity.
Humans live in interconnected webs
Human beings live in a nested set of relationships. Health is intricately intertwined with factors in the social world. Using a social lens helps to identify the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. As well, a social lens explains how some of these circumstances have arisen and brings out arguments of the need for collective values moving forward.
Epidemiologists have circulated descriptions, graphs, videos, explainers of how the COVID-19 virus has and could spread. While the scenarios differ depending on the amount of physical distancing that populations adopt, what is made clear is the extent to which human beings live in interconnected webs. We do not yet know the degree to which these actions will be effective in places like the UK, Canada and the US where the case counts continue to rise, but we can draw from this that the social conditions matter very much. While we may have individual rights to freedom of movement and choice of actions, there are consequences to these actions for those in our social networks and beyond. We are all connected.
One of the challenges we have faced in dealing with the global spread of COVID-19, and in particular at the current moment in the UK, Canada and the US is the failure of each one of us to respond to the messages of physical distancing.
The message of adopting individual behaviours to combat the rapid spread of COVID-19 has come in the form of recommendations from governments, public health officials, and politicians. While there has been some adoption of recommended practices like working and staying at home, staying away from playgrounds, and not hosting friends for dinner parties, there are many individuals who ignore the recommendations and continue as normal. The lack of compliance with the recommended behavioural changes illustrates that not everyone adopts a collective mindset. Also, it suggests that some people do not make the connection between their actions and the conditions that comprise the nested set of relationships we all live in. The concern about the number of cases creating a health care system overrun is a consequence of a lack of collective social vision.
Neoliberalism individualizes responsibility
There is a seeming tension here between the role of individual responsibility for actions and of the collective responsibility we have for one another. The tendency to individualize responsibility for actions and decisions is a key aspect of neoliberalism. Political and societal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and indeed many other circumstances that rely on individual changes to address problems, highlights the values that are operating in our societies. The individual is the site of focus, while the interactions of individuals in a broader systemic context are seemingly ignored.
Under neoliberalism, an ideology that seems to value the individual and their rights, inequalities and the harms that come out of unequal conditions are a product of the system. Neoliberal capitalism systematically eroded regulations, policies and systems of support for the majority, while constructing policies that reinforced capital gain for elites and was done at the expense the many. Inequalities are inherent under neoliberal capitalism due to the lack of social supports and protections. Using a social lens allows us to see that the assumptions we make about solutions to problems are premised on the individual, and fail to account for the structural conditions we live, work and play in. These same conditions are the ones we must uncover, understand and plan around in exceptional circumstances such as the COVID-19 pandemic and life generally.
As we peel back the layers of what is needed and what has been implemented to address the pandemic, we are recognizing the need for more solidarity and kindness. We are realizing that people’s jobs are all important and that where we might not have seen it before, it is more clear to some now that we rely on each other and that many different occupations—including doctors, nurses, teachers, food and others service industries, manufacturing workers—are all integral and important to our wellbeing and survival. The confusion, anxiety and uncertainty of the “new normal” we are facing, when seen through a social lens helps us to understand how our existence and the way we live our lives together is contracting with physical isolation. The translation of what is happening in our communities across the globe is the need for collective values and a shared vision for humanity.
Collective values address systemic inequalities
A collective set of values can be instructive for individual actions that need to be taken in situations as the COVID-19 pandemic, where the spread of the virus hinges on whether people interact—or socialize—with one another. It is also instructive for changes at the level of the system, where individual behaviours are presented as choices, but may not really be within an individual’s control. Environmental illnesses where involuntary exposures are involved is an example. Another example is a child living in poverty not having access to healthy food. A collective set of values could overcome some of this by way of the construction of policies that protect those who are vulnerable to harmful conditions beyond their control.
Collective values, which see the wholeness of our relationships with one another, applied to systemic level policies, can reduce and even prevent future illness and disease, inequalities, injustices and even climate change.
The social lens, rooted in collectivity, would value service, social justice, dignity and worth of the individual as well as the importance of human relationships. With these values, we would be able to more equitably and humanely tackle seemingly exceptional moments such as terrorist bombings, climate-driven migration or a global pandemic.
A social lens might also make it evident that events of this kind emerge and evolve out of social conditions that fail to apply a set of values that takes account of the collective nature of our existence. Identifying the root social catalysts of such events gives us the wherewithal to prevent similar future outcomes by more broadly applying collective values—where wellbeing is valued more than the economy.
Solidarity in communities
The argument for collective values as a transformative force for people’s health and wellbeing can apply to all nations. Our need for solidarity is evidenced by the actions people have taken to combat the physical distancing and isolation necessary with COVID-19. Accounts of people singing to their neighbours in Italy, of street dance parties in Canada, of people in Japan going out en masse to celebrate cherry blossom season, of an opera singer in Tel Aviv serenading her father in quarantine, people in the United States checking on and shopping for their neighbours are all examples of our capacity to see beyond the individual to the community. A social lens not only helps us understand these behaviours, but it also contributes to the argument for more collective values and solidarity.
It is the social evidence—just as much as scientific—that COVID-19 begs us to respond to if we are to address not only the effects of the coronavirus pandemic now, but also other problems that arise out of conditions we have created to live, work and play in.
Jane McArthur is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology at the University of Windsor.
Filipe Duarte is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Windsor.