We have a lot to learn from the current crisis around Covid-19. Middle-class people, in particular, need to notice that class and other oppressions have a major impact on how people are affected by this virus.
To begin with, which particular groups in society are being affected more than others? Are some groups more likely to have underlying dispositions, because of their oppression, that leave them more vulnerable to the virus? Do people even have a house or home in which they can shelter? How big or small is this space? Does it have land attached to it such as a yard or garden? Do they live in crowded urban areas that make ‘social distancing’ impossible? Do people have access to running water with which to wash their hands? Can they afford to buy sanitisers? How big an impact will the loss of their jobs have on them? Can and will the government provide income protection? Is there a place where women and children can be safe from domestic violence and abuse? What safety precautions are taken to protect workers? Are some groups facing blame or attack because of their national or ethnic identity? Who still has access to good quality healthcare? Can the health system meet the demands currently facing it?
The pandemic has highlighted the huge inequalities that exist in society and the privileges that many of us take for granted. The economic system was designed to support and maintain these inequalities and privileges but has now been shown to be completely inadequate to cope with global life-threatening events. It is reminiscent of the Titanic, a ship that was built without enough lifeboats. It could keep going as long as it didn’t hit an iceberg. Once it did, however, all the underlying problems with its design became apparent. Likewise, with this economic system, it could keep going as long as it didn’t face a global crisis but, once it did, the underlying inequalities and problems became readily apparent. Globalisation, the outsourcing of manufacturing by rich countries to low-paid economies, the replacement of stockpiles with ‘just-in-time’ deliveries have all been shown to be unworkable in the current situation. Now that there is a suddenly increased need for ventilators, tests, reagents, and protective equipment, this system struggles to meet it.
Globally the countries that lend the money (via the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) have been forcing the poorer, debtor countries to cut back on public services such as education and health, at least for several decades. Meanwhile, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, funding for the healthcare system and other public services in the richer countries has been cut. The workers who are essential to making society function have been undervalued and underpaid. All of this to keep the profit flowing to people of privilege. It was possible for the economic system to continue to function with these inequalities as long as people did not protest too much and as long as there were no major crises facing humanity. We now face two such crises – this pandemic and the climate emergency.
Corporations and the wealthy have had a long time to organise to protect their privileges in the face of the climate emergency. Billions have been spent on supporting climate denial. They have worked hard to prevent governments taking the necessary steps to avoid climate catastrophe. A small number have realised that in the longer term the economic system itself is under threat, so they are taking steps to reform the system to make it less vulnerable. The steps they are taking, however, are designed to maintain profits rather than to address the basic unsustainability of the economic system itself.
In the case of the pandemic, the crisis developed so quickly that the system was unable to come up with a way to maintain business as usual. When the Covid-19 crisis first hit, governments tried to keep the economies going. It soon became clear that they would lose public support if they acted as though older people and people with chronic illnesses were disposable. The scale of loss of life would be so large that to ignore it would cause a huge backlash. This was one of the reasons why corporations and the wealthy accepted the necessity for huge restrictions on industry, commerce, and transport.
The pandemic has shown us that it is possible to take quick, drastic steps on a global scale to protect human life. This was something that had been declared impossible and unrealistic in relation to the climate emergency. This is one good thing to come out of this crisis.
There are other good things. Alternative systems have been set up to protect human life, to support vulnerable people, and to minimise the suffering faced by populations, at least in the wealthier nations. These systems have not got rid of the inequalities and there are few resources to help homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers, and people with casual work. All the same, many different kinds of local, community initiatives have emerged to support people. The public is noticing the courage and endurance of medical staff, cashiers in supermarkets, cleaners in hospitals, refuse collectors and many other underpaid direct production workers. They are also seeing how central these workers are in making the system function. And many people have been willing to accept restrictions on their personal freedoms for the sake of the common good. We are getting a picture here of what is possible and what would also be possible in the face of the climate emergency, but we can also see that, as always, it is poor people who suffer most.
We are also seeing the passing of emergency legislation to further curb people’s freedom. In the past, such legislation has often been extended well beyond its original intentions, so it becomes the ‘new normal’. This is something to which we have to be very alert. For example, permission for the police to detain people who are a risk to the population during a pandemic can easily be extended to people they consider a risk for other reasons and when there is no pandemic. We have seen how crises such as this can be used to bring in legislation that protects or increases the privileges of the wealthy elite and decreases human rights – what has been called the ‘shock doctrine’. And we know from the crash of 2008 that, at some point, governments will try to recover the costs of the pandemic by taking money from those who are less well off.
The economic system may not be able to recover from this crisis and go back to what it was before. In a relatively short time, we will face the full impact of our failure to tackle the climate emergency. This is likely to have even more damaging effects. Even if the system recovers from the Covid-19 crisis, it will quickly hit up against the crisis caused by worsening climate breakdown.
For those of us who are middle-class, assume for a moment that we are in the final stages of the collapse of this economic system. Facing this allows us to ask what we will do with the rest of our lives under these circumstances. If we knew that things were never going to be the same again, what would we do? If we didn’t try to hang on to our privileges, to think only of ourselves or our immediate families, to shield ourselves from the worst effects of these crises and forget about others, what would we do? Our lives are not going to be the same from now on. Our children will face a different world to the one we faced. Now is the time to take charge of our future.
We will reach the climate tipping point within the next 10 years, give or take, and if the necessary steps have not been taken by governments, we can expect things to become even more unstable. The current pandemic gives us some picture of what we might expect and there will be more that we haven’t yet experienced. We are also getting to see what kinds of support people will need and how we can become a resource. We have an opportunity now to practise and try lots of things that will be important in the coming period.We have seen some of what it is possible to do in the face of the pandemic. We can learn from this and think about what will be possible with the climate emergency? At the moment people are far more frightened of the virus than of climate breakdown, but that will change. How can we have an impact on how society organises to deal with this? How can we use our advantages to help support and organise alternatives to the current economic system and the way different groups are treated? For those of us who are relatively privileged, can we give up organising our lives around comfort and security and, instead, go after a life organised around creating a more just, more egalitarian, more inclusive, and more sustainable future?