The corona crisis that is sweeping the planet has been going on for almost four months; Belgium has been in ‘lockdown’ for around a month. What are some (small) things I have learned and observed by now? A few notes and a dose of optimism…
People can work together as a society
Despite some not following the guidelines (I’m looking at you, elderly people) - possibly a significant minority - the majority does its best to adhere to them. Even those that do only the barest of minimums or those that make mistakes are contributing to the collective effort. Thus the idea that society doesn’t exist, is just a fairytale and that the only real thing is the set of individuals, has been proven false (yet again). Humanity can come together and can achieve things as a collective.
Advertisement is visual pollution
All the public advertisement panels in my city have been replaced by ‘#staysafe’ posters. They are pleasingly uniform instead of a patchwork bombardement of attention-grabbing images. Just as the (implied) message itself: “we’re all in this together, we have one goal, we can do this.” It’s still a form of advertisement (for the advert company itself) but born out of necessity and feel-good corporate optimism it forms a stark contrast to the usual panels of models trying to sell you cars, perfume or the newest kitchen appliances at discount rates. It makes clear that these are a form of visual pollution, it saturates our senses, fills our minds with data (I’m loathe to call it ‘information’) that we never asked for. We could really do without.
Work can be organized differently
This is most obvious for white-collar workers: it turns out that working from home isn’t all that difficult. This and other measures have a huge impact on workers wellbeing: less traffic jams, shorter commute times, consequently less polution, less frustration, beter work-life balance. The infrastructure existed already, it was just being wilfully denied to all lower-tier workers. What we’ve also seen is that workers are perfectly capable of running their own workplaces, oftentimes more socially responsible than the managers and owners. Workers decideding to close the factory because it’s non-essential and poses a risk to them, or workers switching production to the fabrication of medical equipment, disinfectant, mouth masks or other much needed goods. These are all small hints that work-place democracy is achievable.
Essential workers are under-payed and underfunded
With lots of workplaces closing and people (temporarily) out of a job, it has become quite clear, not only what jobs are the most essential for our day-to-day lives, but also that these are chronically under appreciated. And it’s not just the health care sector that is groaning under the strain - not enough material, beds or staff - but others as well. Most of these are low wage jobs, with difficult hours, low social standing or a lot of job insecurity: the logistics sector, the cashiers and shelf-stockers from the supermarkets, trashmen, package and meal deliverers, public transport personnel and so many more. It took a lot of time for many of them to get the protection they needed to do their job safely, some of the regulations are being flouted by employers, they have to keep working under more stress and more difficult work conditions with little or no extra payment. More risk, no reward.
“Now is not the time” will be the same argument they’ll use after the crisis
These essential workers have a right to better working conditions and better pay; they always had but now they are in a position to make demands. While striking or other actions are nigh impossible in the health care sector, they are very valid options in other areas right now. A lot of people will exclaim “now is not the time!”, even the good-hearted social-liberals, but they are wrong. Crises are a great time to push through change, something the capitalist class knows very well themselves. What we need now is class-solidarity to gain as much leverage as we possibly can.
There is money, there is an alternative
I’ve lived my whole adult life under an austerity regime. I can scarcely remember a time that public investments have been made instead of cuts. The mantra has always been, sometimes literally, “there is no alternative” (often abbreviated to TINA). But within a few days of the crisis escalating whole swathes of the economy can be shut down and huge sums of money spent on unemployment benefits. This proves that these things have always been a political rather than a merely economical choice. There is an alternative it seems. Of course there’s already talk of who is going to pay for it all and, spoiler alert, it turns out according to the current right-wing government the people will feel the consequences. But this too is a political choice. The people had to delve in their pockets too to save the banks back in 2008 and now it will happen all over again. Labour has to pay for systemic failure, it’s future mortgaged while active wealth gets yet another free pass. The money is there, let it contribute to real recovery instead of more shareholder value.
A strong social security system is our saving grace
As more than half a million people wind up on temporary unemployment benefits in this country, it becomes very clear how important the state and our social security is, even if there are some problems with it. More than half of the Belgian population is in some way being payed by the state right now. Half a million workers will be spared the worst of hardships because of this very robust safety net we’ve had in place. One can only hope that this will also change a lot of people’s view of the unemployed as lazy parasites and make them staunch defenders of our welfare state.
The United States is fucked (up)
The numbers speak for themselves. They have surpassed all other heavy hit countries in number of cases and deaths. The unemployment has spiked and millions of people are consequently losing their (private) health insurance. This, more than anything, reveals the huge flaws of the American health care system. Monitzing human life and scamming people out of their hard-earned money and into debt. This will be a heavy blow to the US global hegemony, but I’m unsure if their current course can be changed in the short term.
It’s the ideal time to re-read Camus' The Plague
There have been countless of others saying the exact same obvious thing: this is an excellent time to (re)read the great classic The Plage by the French absurdist philosopher Albert Camus. It describes the multitudes of different situations and ways to deal with the quarantine: the separated lovers, the shift from individual hopelesness to the collective experience, the lack of a certain future, the loss, the dying, the grief, the pleas and condemnation, those that thrive during pestilence and those that try to defy the plague. It’s a classic and I found so much resonance with our own times.
What should we remember from all of this?
Another world is possible. This crisis could teach us how to deal with huge, invisible dangers as a collective. I’m of course hinting at the issue of climate catastrophy. I think that changes of the same magnitude are te be expected, but not the same kind. That is: the collective effort will be just as difficult and the necessary societal solidarity needs to be just as high. The difference that we won’t need social distancing for that.