Solidarity in the Time of Corona

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Guwahati, Assam, India. March 27, 2020. Labourers pull groceries on a cart to a retail shop during a 21-day nationwide lockdown in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Guwahati. (Photo: David Talukdar, Shutterstock.com)

Do you feel excluded yet? Has your life been disrupted to an unprecedented degree? Is the world outside your door no longer a friendly place, but terrain you traverse with trepidation? Are you shocked by the sight or even thought of crowds gathering? Breath it in: the exclusion. Let all men go apart and mourn together, as James Stephens put it. But know that while your experience will hopefully be short-lived, that it’s been an ever-lived reality for much of the rest of the world. To be an outsider means to constantly navigate and negotiate in spaces and situations where you are on the back foot, where you’re expected to accommodate those more normal than you, to live in a world built for someone else, where you’re an after-thought.

Ernst Becker noted that the essence of normality is the denial of reality. And now those myths that made up normal life seem to be crumbling around us. We have been sundered from the daily rituals and rites of passage that told us who we were. The symbols we used to interact with to generate meaning are moving out of focus; the roles we were trained to play can no longer be fulfilled — what does it mean for a lover not to be able to share affection, for families not to be able to share the same home.

There have certainly been sinister undertones to the COVID-19 crisis: The racism and scapegoating of vulnerable populations; the price-gouging of essential items; but much more than the invitation to aggression or accumulation, there has been a response rooted in consideration and care. There has been a rediscovery of empathy.

The renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead, when asked for the first true sign of civilization, pointed not to some crafted artefact, but to the healing of a femur: which indicated a society that cared for the vulnerable. We’re learning again that a healthy, sustainable society is built on foundations of solidarity, not profit.

David Kessler has named the pain and disruption we feel as grief. Yet even out of grief, even against our will, can sometimes crawl wisdom. Exclusion is also teaching us to know the value of solidarity… that’s why our heart moves by songs sung from balconies in foreign lands, by communities ingeniously adapting to ensure their offerings of celebration or grief can be expressed.

Bertrand Russell’s “In praise of idleness”. Truly a piece written for our time, if before its time, argues that it is only when we have time to contemplate and reflect, that the truly wondrous and ingenious ideas arise.

So let’s get to thinking. How can we use this enforced moment of reflection, this shared moment of exclusion, to reimagine ways of being which don’t foster exclusion? Perhaps social protection systems where the dignity and esteem of people are enhanced rather than reduced; perhaps justice systems where those issues that affect everyone — land, and love and family — don’t have to wait for the gripes of the wealthy and self-aggrandizing to be resolved; how to make communities whose contours aren’t defined by gates and walls. How to make workplaces where people can be healthy and earn enough to live a decent life. How to ensure police forces place community interest over corporate interest, who do not dominate but serve.

The absolute inadequacy of relying on market mechanisms to solve societal problems has been exposed. Something else has been revealed too; that the State with the support of its citizens had the power all along to deliver essential social and public goods. Those who ruled in our name had chosen to neglect their duty of care to instead concentrate on enabling the smooth functioning of private markets and the pursuit of speculative profits. If states can function so adequately in an emergency, why should we tolerate a designed and willful incompetence and disregard in times of normality.

If the virus came out of China, earlier wisdom came out of there too. Adherents of Mozi, the first to articulate values emphasizing equality and universality, were committed to allying themselves with the weakest side in any struggle in order to achieve balance; in the process, they became the greatest generals and strategists of their day, so used were they to overcoming impossible odds.

Now that we’re starting to rediscover the value of solidarity once more, we need to kindle it and encourage it to burn brighter. And to do that it’s time to start learning from the wisdom of those who are routinely excluded. When the lens of normality is not producing answers, we should go to those who see from another angle, and particularly those who see from the margins or below. Let’s put those who are used to being excluded in charge for a change. They’re the ones among us best positioned to overcome the odds we face now.

And let’s remember the advice of celebrated self-isolationist Henry David Thoreau — Democracy is not determined by periodic elections, but by how each of us greets the day when we leave our house. Whenever we’re allowed to finally leave, let’s make sure it’s a democracy we walk back into.

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Michael Higgins
Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies

Program Lead for the Pathfinders Grand Challenge on Inequality and Exclusion at the New York University’s Center on International Cooperation