Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

You know what? A pandemic is a perfect time for serious social change

COVID-19 has caused harm, but it also has opened the door to rethink a great many things, writes Ainsley Hawthorn, who says we should take advantage of an opportunity to restructure our society for the better.

Yes, there have been great disruptions. But doors have been opened to rethink things

Writer Ainsley Hawthorn stands at the St. John's pedestrian mall on Water Street, which the city opened as a way to help boutiques, restaurants and other businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Ainsley Hawthorn)

This column is an opinion by St. John's writer Ainsley Hawthorn. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for action on an array of social issues have garnered widespread public support. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the disruption the pandemic has wrought in our lives may actually make it the ideal time to break with our recent past and undertake serious social reforms.

While it's had a tragic human cost and health impacts that we'll likely be unraveling for years to come, this pandemic hasn't destabilized our society in the way another catastrophe — like a natural disaster, war or famine — might have.

The disease has forced all of us to change our behaviours, it's made some of us more socially isolated, and it's put others in financial straits.

Yet, at the same time, it's had a minimal effect on our government, our food supply and our infrastructure.

Rarely is a population suddenly subjected to so much personal stress in circumstances where there is overall social stability. More rarely still do we have time on our hands to mull over a harrowing situation while we're in the midst of experiencing it, as many of us have had during this pandemic while we've been off work or working from home, without any social commitments to divert us.

The pressure-cooker of a pandemic

It's perhaps for these reasons that the past few months have seen such a dramatic rise in grassroots advocacy. In the pressure-cooker of the pandemic, and in direct response to recent events like police killings, essential-worker designations for retail staff, and widespread job insecurity, there's been a surge in calls for social change.

Suddenly, large swaths of people are throwing their support behind initiatives to reduce funding to police agencies, to dismantle monuments with racist histories, to raise the minimum wage, or to institute a universal basic income.

People gathered on the steps of the Confederation Building on June 6 to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. (Marie Isabelle Rochon/Radio-Canada)

None of these ideas are new — dedicated activists have been promoting them for years. The pandemic, though, has brought existing fault lines in our society to the fore, making the general public more acutely aware of long-standing inequalities. It's also shown us how closely our fates are linked to those of our fellows, the people who live side by side with us in our community, our province, and our country.

When only essential workers were permitted to report for duty, and those essential workers included the employees of grocery, pet, and hardware stores, it underscored how crucial front-line retail staff are to the functioning of our society and how inadequately the minimum wage compensates them for their efforts.

When outbreaks began among the migrant labourers who harvest Canadian crops, it highlighted the inhumane conditions most of these critical workers live in and how little protection they receive under our laws.

When the federal government announced that the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit would supply $2,000 a month to each Canadian who'd been laid off due to the pandemic, it raised the question of why income support and disability benefits provide less than this basic amount to the individuals who rely on them when we aren't in the grip of a pandemic.

Socially distant, but still deeply connected

We haven't just witnessed these inequities at a distance. Many — perhaps the majority — of Canadians have been personally or proximally affected by situations like financial instability, risky work and even excessive use of force by law enforcement, if they've attended protests where there was a heavy-handed police response. This personal exposure has caused a new sector of the public to throw their support behind calls for change.

Our particular historical moment, with its unprecedented levels of technological connectivity, has allowed us to share information and band together to organize protests, letter-writing campaigns, petitions and other actions despite being unable to interact in person. Although this ease of communication may be new, pandemics have long been catalysts for social reform.

The Black Death in the 14th century triggered Western Europe's first labour movements, leading to higher wages and better working conditions for the peasantry, which eventually resulted in the collapse of the feudal system. This boost in the value of labour wasn't unique to the Black Death: a study recently published by the San Francisco Federal Reserve showed that real wages tend to rise for decades after pandemics.

Hawthorn says some good things can come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Ainsley Hawthorn)

Disease outbreaks in London in the 17th and 19th centuries, meanwhile, prompted improvements in sanitation and water supply infrastructure that demonstrably improved public health, while the influenza pandemic of 1918 spurred governments to establish socialized medical care.

Under normal circumstances, social change tends to happens incrementally over time; abrupt change requires disruption. Pandemics create the perfect circumstances for instituting broad social reforms precisely because society is already in flux.

If the status quo is no longer tenable anyway — and in Canada, our public health officials acknowledge it will likely be years before everyday life returns to what we think of as normal — why shouldn't we take advantage of the opportunity to restructure our society for the better?

The pandemic is a crucible that's brought to light the cracks in the foundation of our society.

Like a crucible, can the pandemic also be the vehicle that allows us to reshape our society into something new?

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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