By Nela Porobić Isaković
There is a lot going on these days, on the side-lines of official governmental dealings with the COVID-19. Acts celebrating the collective have sprung up all around the world: from people singing from their balconies in Italy, volunteers delivering groceries to high-risk groups in Canada. Massive numbers of people have offered their help to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, and local grassroots networks are organising awareness-raising campaigns in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All around the world people are taking care of each other. And all around the world these acts are being celebrated as great demonstrations of solidarity that still exist among people, despite the hardships.
Don’t be kind! Show solidarity!
Solidarity is more than kindness. When we exercise solidarity, we are making a political statement. It is an act born out of an understanding that we live in a system of oppression and inequality. It is an act born out of an understanding that we, as individuals or as part of a collective, can help bring down that system. As such, solidarity is subversive, and, unlike kindness, is dangerous for the establishment.
An act of kindness is an emotional reponse, and is fundamental to who we are as human beings. But in order to transform that into more than an act of compassion, it needs to have an aim. Acts of kindness need to become political. When we turn our emotion into political action, aiming to remove the structures that create the injustices to which we are responding, that is when our acts become a politically powerful tool—a tool of solidarity. As political theorist Hannah Arendt explained in her book On Revolution, when we act in solidarity, we don’t do it out of pity, we do it because we understand we are all equal. It is in this assertion of equality where the subversive power of solidarity lies.
So, how do we translate applause for medical professionals into concrete measures that change how we understand the role and importance of our healthcare system in our society, and thus, how we investe in it, and improve it? How can we make sure that the solidarity we exercise today does not turn into short-term acts of kindness, but instead results in concrete changes in our lived reality?
Solidarity under COVID-19
Acts of solidarity have always been part of our societies but have not always been visible in mainstream narratives about how we as individuals and we as a collective interact within and across different communities. COVID-19 has put solidarity back in the focus of mainstream narratives. But if we don’t pay attention, we run the risk of solidarity becoming co-opted and militarised by being dragged into the governments’ ‘war’ on the pandemic. And we risk our acts becoming nothing more than isolated events temporarily filling the gaps left by our governments, before life returns to ‘normal’.
When governments order lock downs, or restrict our movements, the most vulnerable are left without access to food. Other people, who are more able, organise to help them. But there should be an institutional response and an official infrastructure dealing with that, not volunteers. When volunteers feed the homeless on the streets, it is our governments that have failed. When we read messages on social media from individuals saying that people can turn to them for help, including for money or food, that is a great demonstration of kindness—but also of a massive failure on the part of the governments.
Solidarity as a political choice
Our desire to show kindness should not obscure what is really happening here: the systems are not in place! What should have been a matter of collective responsibility has been turned into an individual sense of decency. But individual acts will remain just that—individual acts. We need to turn those acts into systems that translate acts of kindness during difficult periods into policies, mechanisms, and functional institutions so that solidarity becomes a matter of our political choice. A matter of how we want our communities to be organised, always, not just in time of crisis.
No doubt COVID-19 has laid bare most of the things that are wrong with our societies today. Vast material inequalities, gender inequalities, poverty. Massive presence of gender-based violence, lack of social infrastructure, the problems of over-populated urban centres. The asymmetric power relations between those holding the means of production (capitalists) and the wage labourers. Militarism, deficiencies in our democracies, autocratic tendencies of some powerholders. The deadliness of racism and xenophobia, the enduring effects of colonialism. Societal hierarchies, and other weaknesses of the capitalist economic system. The list is as long as it is incomplete.
But it has also laid bare how dependent we are of each other. How willing we are to help each other when in need. How important social infrastructure is, and how human well-being and preventive healthcare make a difference. How environment, clean air, and access to nature help us stay healthy. How important some sectors are (health, education, child/elderly care) and how others are not (overpaid professional sports events (?), for example). How access to music, dance, theatre, and other culture makes a difference in our well-being. And how we can slow down, how we can fly less, how we can take better care of each other and the environment.
So, what do we do with all this evidence of the vast problems and vast possibilities? How do we use this evidence to fill our acts with political purpose and aim?
We start imagining!
Careful documentation, analysis, and sharing of our lived experiences across our feminist networks will help us imagine contextualised local, regional, and global pathways that don’t only reshape existing structures, but actively imagine new ones.
So, what if…
What if we redefined our abusive relationship with nature and the environment and broke the myth of perpetual growth? What if we diverted substantial portions of the recovery-packages from bailing out heavy industry to boosting local production and circular economy, based on restoration and regeneration, putting sustainability of the ecosystem at the centre? What would that look like locally, regionally, and globally? What are the policies that we need to be pushing for to make this happen? Perhaps it is a strong commitment to no-bail out programmes for heavy polluters; incentives for those who shift towards greener production; reversing privatisation of natural resources and putting them under public control and public interest, guided by a symbiosis with the nature; demanding long-term (de)investment planning that is guided by gender and human rights impact assessments; introducing heavy regulations on gas and oil corporations, and nationalising them if needed; devising demilitarisation programmes and redirecting funds made available from it into creation of green jobs? The possibilities are endless.
What if we used the momentum created by COVID-19 to undo structures and norms that lead to women doing a disproportionate amount of the care, both paid but mostly unpaid, in our societies? What if we used that to set in motion policies and public investment priorities that will take the unpaid and undervalued social reproductive work out of the realm of the private and make it part of a collective effort? What would we need to do to reduce and redistribute the hours women spend on unpaid care work, in their homes and in their communities? And what needs to happen so that paid care work is valued according to its importance in society? What if we systematically rethought what type of labour is valued and how we value it? What if we systematically introduced gender-responsive budgeting into our planning? What if we designed, funded, delivered, and managed public service around our gender equality dreams?
What if we decided to abandon the capitalist way of thinking that ‘what is worth investing in is what generates profits’? What if we decided that the way we evaluate our economy should not be done based on indicators such as gross domestic product, but on the ability of governments to provide for people’s well-being? Or on the choices governments make for their investments, i.e. comparing their investments in militarism against their investments in healthcare, education, and ending poverty? What if we measured the health of the economy based on people’s physical and mental health? To do that, we would need to re-evaluate how our public sector, such as care, healthcare, education, transport, water and sanitation, social protection, and energy is designed, funded, and governed.
What if we banned by law private profiteering from those sectors and made sure that the money in the system was always reinvested, constantly improving conditions and accessibility of those public services? What if we introduced public housing guarantees? Imagine what all this would mean next time we faced a pandemic or natural disaster? Perhaps our schools and day-care centres would have physical infrastructure and financial means to safely accommodate children whose parents cannot work from home; perhaps we would not have homeless people unable to ‘stay at home’; perhaps hospitals would be prepared to take on massive numbers of sick people so that medical staff would not have to choose between the younger people and those of age. Perhaps. It is worth imagining.
What if our applause for medical workers are turned into political demands not just to pump money into the public healthcare system to boost the response to COVID-19, but to put in motion a substantive, long-term investment plan for our public healthcare systems? What if we centred those investments around our dream of universal healthcare coverage and investments into preventive healthcare, with mandatory sexual and reproductive services. What if we centred those investments around non-profit-driven medical research, medical staff, and general healthcare infrastructure? What would this mean next time we are faced with a pandemic or something similar? Perhaps this essential segment of our society will then be as prepared as it can possibly be. And we will not need to applaud their sacrifices but simply recognise their professionalism and service.
What if realising just how essential workers are in education, child and elderly care, food production and delivery services, street cleaners, cashiers, postal workers, public transport, and so forth are, could mean real transformative politics? What if we demanded policies that ensure proper and gendered budget allocations to these sectors, including strong labour protection laws that will empower workers to negotiate a safe working environment and tip the imbalance between CEO’s profits and workers’ well-being to the workers’ favour? What if we demanded a raise in minimum wages? What if we demanded paid vacation days, reasonable working hours, paid sick leave? What if we demanded that workers have real influence on their working environment?
What if we used our realisation that a lot of the essential, underpaid, and precarious work is done by migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees, to restore our sense of solidarity and openness, and put in place mechanisms that radically transform our way of thinking about how we view our fellow human beings (currently described in much mainstream discourse as “illegal,” “undocumented,” and as a “drain on resources”). What if we used the momentum to redefine the relationship between the global North and global South (and everything in-between), ensuring that the hundreds of years of exploitation and waging wars for profit is redressed and repaid?
What if our recognition that our unemployment benefits and other social welfare provisioning are poorly equipped to deal with a situation where massive amount of people lose jobs simultaneously, was used to rethink the whole social provisioning system? To rethink how we see the relationship between social provisioning and those that are in the productive economy, and those outside? What if we used this opportunity to carefully look into how social provisioning can help support the delivery of social, economic, and cultural rights, so that our systems reflect our societal commitment to everybody’s right to a decent life, free from want?
And before we pose the question about where the money will come from, what if we demanded full demilitarisation of our societies? What if we started with full de-investment from the military industry and used those funds to really start investing in full realisation of human rights, with solidarity and equality as a red thread in our policies? What if we used this opportunity to turn our back on decades of austerity measures, and instead of saving money on public services, and public interest and rights, we looked for ways to expand the investments? What if we shifted our thinking around taxation, as this is by far the most important revenue our governments have? What if we rethought how we collect taxes, from whom we collect taxes, and where and how we spend the money collected?
Let us not go back to ‘normal’
In its 2020 Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum came up with its list of top 10 risks we will face over the next 10 years, listing climate action failure, weapons of mass destruction, biodiversity loss, extreme weather, water crisis, human-made environmental disasters, and natural disasters among them. Clearly this pandemic is not the end of our hardships—almost all of these risks are either created or made worse by our own doing.
The deep cracks in our society, made even more visible by COVID-19, cannot be hastily patched over, and our acts of solidarity cannot stay a fond memory told in the distant future (if there even is one). This is the moment when we have to decide that we, as a collective, do not want to go back to normal, because the ‘normal’ is not working for 99 per cent of the world population. The normal is not working for our ecosystem. The normal is deeply unequal, unjust, and destructive. So, let us redefine normality. Let us imagine a new normal, on local, regional, and global levels.