Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Much to Do After Our Year of Living Dangerously

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, March 15 / 21

Zack Gross

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, and more. 

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 development organization.

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