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Social justice in crisis management.

Compassion & intersectionality in times of Covid19 and climate breakdown.

Melanie Herrmann
Apr 1 · 11 min read

You’re isolating as best as you can, while your housemate uses every chance to drag the dog out for yet another walk. Some countries put strict curfews into place and penalise breaches with hefty fines. Other governments don’t.

What is the correct behaviour? What is fair on the societal level? Covid19 is the tragedy of the commons. We have to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. We need as many as possible to comply with quarantine measures for the global community to come out okay on the other side.

I am a psychologist consulting for a tech company that has designed a lot of famous Geographic Information System platforms for social and environmental causes, such as Global Forest Watch. I see common themes across the various crises we are facing as a society.

Put simply, these themes are the very common sense ethics we teach our children: compassion and fairness. Starting off from the Covid19 crisis, let’s reflect on humane principles that ought to inform global crisis management.

Compassion and social justice in Covid19.

Not caring about Covid19 because you are young and healthy is like not caring about climate change because you are old. Compassion for our neighbours nudges us into responding to disaster in the right ways.

Unfortunately, we have seen insensitivity in the current pandemic. The media have repeatedly been non-inclusive in their reporting, reassuring the ‘young & healthy’ that Covid19 poses a low risk for them. But how does a vulnerable person feel reading such a statement?

There has also been callous finger pointing at China. Ironically, by Western people who are only just learning to sneeze into their elbow crease. Many seem to forget that it is Asia and Africa we should be looking to for expertise on epidemic management.

My teammate Camellia Williams wrote a piece the other week, pointing out that when we respond to a crisis, we need to remember compassion, data, and optimism. Optimism seems appropriate, if we look at the data, and practice compassion.

When we speak about data and compassion, we also need to acknowledge that any crisis exacerbates existing inequalities. It may seem as if an acute epidemic takes precedence over any other social injustice issue. Quite the opposite is the case though. We need to consider existing vulnerabilities as part of our crisis response.

For example, we know from past epidemics that women suffer disproportionately. That goes for immediate health impacts, but worse than that, there are ensuing economical and social ripple effects. Females will be impacted more severely by financial losses as the global economy slows down. While most of us are lucky enough to get comfy at home with a good book, others will suffer tremendously as domestic violence rates rise during lockdown periods.

Instead of getting paralysed by the complexity of the problem, we can view this as the chance to rethink systemic issues.

Crises are an opportunity to rethink our ways.

“Crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, that they force us to think.”

The above quote is ascribed to Jawaharlal Nehru, independence activist, and subsequently, the first Prime Minister of India. Whether personal, national, or global, moments of crises uproot our daily life. The most adaptive response to a disturbance is to analyse how we can transform the system for the better.

Bill Adams regards the Covid19 crisis as a wake up call, as an opportunity to reconsider other crises we are going through, such as the conservation crisis.

Bill writes that Covid19 “has temporarily come to dominate many other concerns, especially for those (like me) who were previously largely insulated from the life-threatening challenges of war, hunger, poverty and disease (…) Certainly it is making me reconsider many things, and entertain many uncomfortable and troubling thoughts. But there is a value in being forced to think.”

If you are born, raised, and resident in a WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic] country like me, let’s entertain these uncomfortable thoughts, and examine our perspective on justice, and crisis response.

A compassionate approach to managing crises and social injustice.

This is a proposal of six principles for a compassionate approach to tackling socio-political crises. I will try to give a few examples for each, in the context of Covid19, but also in light of other social and environmental challenges. As I hope you will agree, many of them are interrelated anyways.

  1. We are stronger together.
  2. Focus on commonalities, not differences.
  3. Connect with your emotions.
  4. Examine power relationships to redesign the system for the better.
  5. Examine your point of view and understand the lived experience of others.
  6. Practice compassion and kindness, daily.

1. We are stronger together.

Pandemics spread, by definition, across large regions, continents, or worldwide, as is the case with Covid19. We face one mutual threat as a global community. As human animals, we instinctively identify as members of groups. Hence, hashtags like #hometogether create a sense of community. They encourage us to comply with official advice to self-quarantine, and to do our best for the common good.

Regrettably, when it comes to other socio-political issues, we sometimes fragment into separate movements. One is fighting for the homeless, one for women’s equality, and another for indigenous rights.

The problem with fragmented social movements is that they can’t generate enough momentum. Our society is still shaped by imperialist history and an absurd emphasis on economic growth. It takes vigour to disrupt the capitalist system. Only together are we influential enough to achieve system change.

For example, ‘Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto’ illustrates that feminism is not a question of gender only. Feminism is not about getting white educated females into leadership positions in industrialised countries in the Global North. That’s just pushing a few more women up into the 1% category of the overly privileged, which currently happens to be dominated by males.

Feminism is not a white woman voting a xenophobe, conservative politician into office. Feminism is not skilled working professionals in their 30s renting a shared ramshackle house, paying a female with a migration background to clean it.

You get the idea. Compassionate, intersectional feminism seeks an egalitarian society for all. It challenges power wherever it is furthering the harm inflicted on the powerless. Together, as a united movement, socio-political causes have the power to bring about system change.

2. Focus on commonalities, not differences.

We’re all in the same boat with Covid19. It is rare that a socio-political issue receives worldwide attention like this. Often, we observe a tragic emotional disconnect between those who are living a relatively comfy life, and those who are suffering.

In January, I travelled to Berlin for a Symposium with the title Mapping for Change: Cartographies of the Urban, Intersectionality, and Climate Change Adaptation.’ On the way to Germany, I began to read the compendium of submissions. Reading about colonialism, religion, and race, I clearly sensed my own being white and WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic].

In a cafe in Berlin Friedrichshain, I continued reading about post-revolutionary Cairo, where women encounter male domination and everyday gender violence. Cairo felt far away, sitting in a hipster coffee shop surrounded by an international crowd. The girl’s laptop opposite mine flaunted a ‘Fridays for Future’ sticker, a ‘No Planet B’ sticker, and a German language sticker about the power of the agricultural industry.

It was then that I overheard a woman at the table behind ours telling her friend about a girl who was raped and no one believed her. Cairo wasn’t so far after all. Separated by geolocation and culture, women across the world share fears for their safety.

Just because we don’t experience a social issue ourselves, we can find aspects that we can understand and identify with, or relate to in some way.

3. Connect with your emotions.

It varies from person to person how sensitive we are to our own feelings. In his opening lecture at Mapping for Change, Philippe Rekacewicz spoke about the relevance of our subjective experiences. Philippe made an important point saying that by connecting to our emotions, we can learn to question the norm. An objective reality around us being ‘normal’, does not mean it is good.

A simple example in the urban context: many cities are noisy and polluted. Designing a city’s infrastructure around traffic does not serve human wellbeing. It’s a function of our otherwise unsatisfied need for mobility. It’s become the norm, but there are better solutions. Think free public transport and green urban spaces.

Reason and emotion are not mutually exclusive. Noticing our stress in response to traffic, versus the calm we feel in nature, directs healthy choices in urban planning. Countless studies provide evidence for nature’s healing effects, physically and mentally. We should take these studies into account, considering that the majority of people live in cities.

Purely from a rational perspective, the ramifications of air contamination are scandalous. The statistics of respiratory conditions in capital cities have been a cause for concern for a long time. The people whose health is affected by air pollution are now part of the group who are most vulnerable to the Covid19 risk.

Logic and reason are important, but sometimes overrated. Often it is our emotions really that drive decision making, and rightly so. We may be conflicted between wanting to see loved ones, and wanting to keep them safe. The long-term goal of seeing them outweighs the short-term loss of missing them.

Maybe our admiration and gratitude towards healthcare workers and supermarket staff could inspire us to rethink their remuneration. How about we considered ideas like universal income with an open heart and mind, trusting that solidarity and social cohesion would vanquish neoliberal capitalism?

4. Examine power relationships to redesign the system for the better.

My teammate Camellia has written another blog reminding us to critically question information we review. Any intelligence, data, or visualisations send the message the author wants them to. If we see neo-colonial imperialism reflected in the media, we need to challenge it. Only then can we drill down to the root of problems.

Who is speaking? Who has collected the data? How are they reporting them? Who has commissioned the work? Who is it for? Whose values and interests are represented?

In Mapping for Change’s panel discussion, Imeh Ituen, an activist from Berlin, pointed out that nowhere else are young people going to be as heavily impacted by climate change as on the African continent. Imeh asked why it is so hard to find visualisations that communicate the injustice that the Global South is suffering. Where are the heat maps to visualise the marginal emissions in Africa compared to the industrialised world per capita? Or emission maps that factor in the consumption of Chinese goods in Europe and the US?

Scapegoating China for Covid19 is a fainthearted attempt to distract from the real cause of the pandemic, which, in fact, is interconnected to a bigger ecological crisis. Covid19 is the synchronous failure of globalisation, consumerism, and mass production. It’s the exploitation of our environment and its ecosystem that have enabled the evolution and transmission of dangerous viruses across non-human species to human animals. It was predicted years ago, and it won’t be the only or last pandemic we’re facing if we don’t change our ways.

5. Examine our point of view and understand the lived experience of others.

There are 7.8 billion of us. It is so very problematic if the only perspective we’re constantly experiencing is our own. The ones of us who are part of social majorities need to remind ourselves that the world is not fairly represented. We need to strive harder to change that.

We tend to judge ourselves based on our thoughts, values, and good intentions. These are internal processes that are invisible to us in others. Sometimes we lean on unfair narratives to explain what we can’t see.

If we are running late, we attribute to externalities: all traffic lights were red, we couldn’t find a free stand to park our bike, and the queue at the coffee shop was uncharacteristically long today. Someone else is arriving late, and we tend to attribute it to their character: that person is the sloppy wackadoodle who didn’t bother to leave on time.

Maybe their traffic lights were red, too. Maybe they had a rough morning. Maybe they had a disturbing experience on their way in and needed time to compose themselves before starting work.

Opening ourselves up to the lived experience of others would make the world a better place. Humans are innately capable of empathy. Even if they won’t truly understand each other’s individual trauma, being open about them can deepen compassion and makes us more tolerant and inclusive.

We are genuinely inclusive only when the population is represented fairly in positions of research, leadership, power, decision making, and public communication. The WEIRDs retain their unmerited privilege if they are the ones engineering and reporting on reality.

6. Practice compassion and kindness, daily.

Staying focused on positive change is hard because the modern world is designed to knock our brains off balance. We are constantly overstimulated, too much engagement with social media for example leads to dissociation. As a consequence of modern lifestyles, there’s an overall trend in society for narcissism to trump empathy. Let that sink in for a moment. It’s terribly disturbing.

As individuals, we can be mindful, compassionate, and seek discourse. We can do our best to open our eyes to systemic injustice. If your physical mobility is restricted, your city’s default tube map is worthless without extra information on which stations are accessible. Many drop curbs aren’t quite levelled enough to deserve the label ‘barrier free’.

“It feels natural, for most people, to reach for their partner’s hand or give them a quick peck on the lips in public” but for LGBT, a goodbye kiss is not a walk in the park. Even minor displays of affection are accompanied for many by fear. While the majority doesn’t even think about gestures that come naturally when we are in love, the minority worries about glares and stares, or worse, physical abuse. The same goes for racial abuse and the pain that comes with it, which is beyond the imagination of those who don’t experience it.

Health, gender, skin colour, and other inequalities are axes intersecting with each other. The more categories one individual belongs to, the more they suffer interaction effects. Caucasian WEIRDos can’t imagine these everyday struggles. Personal trauma is difficult to communicate, and near impossible to truly understand by those who haven’t experienced it. What we can do day in day out, is to be kind, to others and to ourselves.

In a nutshell: Compassion for system change.

To quote actor and activist Joaquin Phoenix from his Oscar acceptance speech:

“When we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop, and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.”

We stay home together as a global community to halt Covid19. We’ve proved we can change our behaviour in response to a crisis. Now we need to prove we can do the same for the other crises our society and planet are facing.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and…

Melanie Herrmann

Written by

Psychologist, Environmentalist, Human-Computer Interaction Researcher. Based in Cambridge, UK.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and software development. We create tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

Melanie Herrmann

Written by

Psychologist, Environmentalist, Human-Computer Interaction Researcher. Based in Cambridge, UK.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and software development. We create tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

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