Humanity is measured in the crises we experience. Time itself is often referred to in its proximity to the events that define us: pre- and post-war, before 9-11 and after. And these events, besides being a marker of the passage of time, shape society in massive, far-reaching ways.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been, unquestionably, the biggest crisis since, and as such has the potential to cause massive social and political shifts in the months and years to come. SaltWire Network spoke with three Atlantic Canadian academics about what that change might look like.
Professor of anthropology at Dalhousie University
“Disasters of any kind always shape policy for years to come after they happen,” Radice said. “If you look at the Halifax harbour explosion of 1917, for instance, that paved the way for the development of social work as people cared for families who had lost everything. If you look at something like 9-11, the kinds of policies that we had afterwards focused on counter-terrorism and security.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has one major difference: it’s happening at a much slower pace, and has much more far-reaching effects than the majority of other disasters and crises.
One thing Radice said has already become clear is how indispensable not only health-care workers are, but other front-line staff: cleaners, janitors, grocery store and delivery workers, truckers and so on.
“This pandemic is showing how much we depend on each other,” she said.
“The people who are doing some of the most essential work at the moment are not being recognized for it or compensated for it as they should be. I think that conversations about a living wage, not just a minimum wage, but a living wage, really need to happen after this. Nobody should be paid so little that they can't afford to live properly.”
Radice said the pandemic is also highlighting how important the arts are for providing comfort in times of crisis, underscoring the need for more funding for the arts as well as support for arts workers.
“There is also definitely a danger that when we come out of this, we just go back to the way things were,” she said. “It could well be an opportunity to imagine what we want to come out of this. What lessons does the pandemic crisis hold for how we want to live afterwards?”
Professor of sociology and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada at Dalhousie University
One of the things Foster said she’s been focusing on in her research lately is how important local supply chains are, something that has become more apparent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What this pandemic has shown is just how dependent we are on really long convoluted supply chains for the stuff that we need when, ironically, much of it is possible to produce at home,” she said.
There’s a prevailing economic idea of comparative advantage, that each area must specialize in certain kinds of products that the world needs and then trade them back and forth on a global market. But the problem with that, as Foster said economist Michael Shuman has recently pointed out, is if there’s a breakdown in the global market, then we’re stuck with a surplus of items we can’t use and can’t get the things we do need.
“I have been interviewing people across Atlantic Canada for a few years now and what I hear from people who are paying attention to economic development in rural communities is you shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket,” Foster said. “They know this, but there’s a wider culture that is so focused on grow, grow, grow, export, export, export, it's really hard not to fall into that specialization trap.”
Foster said this crisis is showing the benefits of shortening the supply chain and prioritizing the development of businesses that serve society's basic needs closer to home.
“That's something that governments have largely left up to consumers to decide. They make localism this kind of boutique choice, when really we should be thinking about how to structure it into our trade deals and into procurement contracts,” she said.
On a separate note, Foster said the uptake on work-from-home policies and use of teleconferencing for everything from commerce to health care all in the name of physical distancing is showing it isn’t that hard, which could benefit rural communities after society goes back to normal.
“From a rural perspective, in a lot of these cases, people have been told ‘we can't do that, it's too hard to roll out that programming, we can’t trust people to work from home’ … and now we're doing it,” she said. “I think that opens up a lot of possibilities for people who live outside of urban centres to work remotely and to access the services they need remotely without having to commute a lot. If people can live where they want and still do jobs in the city, then we might end up changing the fate of some rural communities.”
Professor of sociology at Memorial University
“Moments of crisis are so hard to predict and every time sociologists try to be predictive we usually get it wrong,” Stoddart said. “I think the best we can do is look at recent moments of crisis and see that they are really unpredictable.”
Looking to the 2008 financial crisis, Stoddart said, there were two major opposing and distinct societal responses.
“It led to a big resurgence in tea party populism in the U.S., and at the same time it led to Occupy Wall Street,” he said.
“A big criticism after the fact was that a lot of the government attention went to banks and large corporations and largely assumed that it would filter out to regular people who were suddenly in precarious positions. I think we've already seen maybe the lessons from that, and the aid that is being put forward this time around seems to be going much more directly to citizens immediately rather than first boosting banks or industry and assuming that it will trickle out.”
Of course, the major difference between the 2008 crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic is that a pandemic is much more far-reaching and includes the possibility of dire public-health consequences.
“I think it's bringing to mind the importance of communal life, as it's been withdrawn from us, and it's bringing to light the importance of universal health care, which we’re fortunate enough to have in Canada, but many countries that are grappling with this are not,” he said.
The U.S., for example, has many people who are uninsured and can’t afford to seek medical treatment, and don’t have adequate social programs to rely on, thus putting the larger population at risk.
Because of this, Stoddart said, the current crisis is highlighting the importance of things like a good social safety net for vulnerable people, a living wage and universal health care.
“This is really showing the downsides of a populist strain of conservatism that's about dismantling the social safety net, that's about limiting the capacities of government to help out in moments of crisis,” Stoddart said.
Whatever the new normal looks like, Stoddart said, it will be interesting to see which direction society decides to take.
“Will we use it as a chance to firmly entrench some of these social programs government's rolling out, do we cultivate a healthier relationship with our cities, with our work lives and so on, or do we lose that possibility and do we come out of the crisis with societies that are even more inequitable?”