to Do After Our Year of Living Dangerously
Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, March 15 / 21
We have now “celebrated” a year since the COVID-19 pandemic was
declared. Over that time, people’s lives have
changed. Whether in Canada, the U.S., Europe or around the
world, the past year has been a story of personal loss, measured
in family terms, economically in job loss or business shutdowns,
and in upheaval in spousal abuse, suicide and divorce.
There has been hysteria, denial and conspiracy theory as people,
individually or in groups, try – not always successfully – to
come to grips with such deep and steep change in their
circumstances. And it’s been a year of challenge for
governments, business, science and civil society to properly
support public health and welfare.
It has also been a year of “opportunity over obstacle,” as
people have pivoted their businesses and personal lives to find
new ways to make a living and contribute to society, and where
many have found this past year a time to make positive changes
in their lives, growing a garden for the first time, taking up
new hobbies, and realizing the value of family relations.
What else can we learn from this year, where COVID has sometimes
caused and sometimes crowded out of the news, other huge
challenges that humanity faces? What else is going on that
we need to be aware of and take action on?
The COVID shutdown has shown us the extent to which our
environment has been damaged by our past careless industrial and
economic growth, and how it can be remediated “quickly” in very
noticeable ways. Appearing several months ago on social
media were two photos, side by side, of the Taj Mahal in
India. In one, you can hardly see the famous structure due
to blinding, choking air pollution. In the other, after a
short period of shutdown, the Taj Mahal is sparkling clear as is
the air around it.
World-wide, as people stayed home and most industries slowed
down, our concern about climate change caused by our emissions
seemed to experience the beginnings of a solution. The
challenge now is to, as the public policy people say, “build
back better.” How can we restart our economies while not
falling back on our polluting ways? Critics currently tell
us that our plan in Canada is still not robust enough to avoid
the continued heating of our climate and concomitant destructive
weather events. A major conference is scheduled for
Glasgow, Scotland later this year where important decisions in
this regard will be made.
Another shadow from COVID days and lying in our path for the
future is the “retreat of democracy” that has taken place around
the world. In my university teaching, my lecture on
democratic governance for years had been about the march forward
of open government, how most people had gained the right to vote
and election losers were prepared to yield power to parties
who’d won legitimate victories. Now, over the past year,
whether in China or Myanmar, in numerous African and Latin
American countries, or indeed in our neighbours across the 49th
parallel, arbitrary rule, corruption and violence have been the
story most days, and my lectures are now about the retreat, not
the growth of good government.
Racism and poverty have been with us maybe forever! Those
who don’t learn about our history are condemned, as are their
victims, to repeat it. At least in our current day, these
issues are top of mind in the media, in education and in public
life. I have been shocked by the stories that I’ve heard
from my international students about being given the worst tasks
at work, being underpaid, being insulted on public transport,
not being able to get a good job or rent a house or apartment,
COVID has exacerbated this problem, but will the light being
shone on it change anything once the pandemic is in our
rear-view mirror? Will the experiences of George Floyd,
and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and others bring about
real change or will we still be studying and debating these
issues far down the road?
Our harsh winters and COVID have also shone a light on the issue
of homelessness as well as on those who struggle to feed their
families due to job loss as well as social and health
factors. Just as with climate change, Canada has
under-performed in dealing with the important issue of ensuring,
as our Prime Minister often says, “that no one is left behind”.
One hopes that after our year of living dangerously with COVID,
we will have learned some lessons about how we need to take
action on difficult issues. We ignore COVID, climate
change, racism and poverty at our peril.
Zack Gross is Board Chair of The Marquis Project, a Manitoba-based international