A crisis is a cruel teacher. It offers the test first and then its lessons. Among COVID’s lessons is the potency of three ideas too often misconstrued, dismissed, or ignored.
Marx was right. It’s all about class. Nineteenth century German political philosopher Karl Marx argued that we either own the means through which stuff and services are produced or work for those who do. Our relationship to our society and each other, he wrote, is based on where we are within the layers of wealth and work.
Nearly 160,000 small businesses are at risk of going bust as soul-crushing unemployment continues to drain savings and hope. Meanwhile, since the pandemic began, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has seen his net worth rise by $24 billion. Identifying Ontario’s COVID hotspot as Toronto is a sad lie. Rosedale is fine. Jane Finch is suffering.
COVID’s infection rate among people earning more than $150,000 a year is 42 per 100,000. Among those making under $30,000 it is 223. These numbers will persist as many leave small, multi-generational apartments and ride a crowded bus to a minimum wage job while others order yoga pants online to enjoy a stretch while taking a break from their ergonomically designed chair in their nicely appointed home office. Women and racial minorities have suffered inordinate hardships but Marx would point to many middle- and upper-class women and people of colour doing just fine thank you.
Maslow was right. Abram Maslow was a 20th century American psychologist who argued that we all strive to ascend a hierarchy of needs. We begin by seeking adequate food, drink, and shelter. We are then able to pursue safety, and then love and belonging, followed by self-esteem, and, finally, a feeling of self-fulfillment that he called self-actualization. COVID showed us that no matter where we are on the hierarchy, we can quickly slide back down. I live in what city-centric people call cottage country. In the pandemic’s early days, I heard neighbours insist that our one and only grocery store should deny admittance to non-residents – the cottagers – who were stocking up on our food and leaving us short.
Over 50% of Canadians report that COVID is battering their sense of self-worth and has appreciably worsened their mental health. Alcohol and drug use is increasing along with family violence, fear, and anxiety. Separation from friends and family is eroding feelings of love and belonging. Televised scenes of rioting in American streets, narcissistic madness in the White House, and COVID’s ruthless second wave is straining our sense of safety. Employers used to think that employees would be less efficient but happier working from home but it ends up that the opposite is true. It’s tough to seek self-actualization while home schooling the kids, enduring yet another damned Zoom meeting, missing friends, and hoping that maybe the family can get together next Christmas.
Macdonald was right. The race-based policies of our first prime minister and primary founder Sir John A. Macdonald were inexcusable. But let’s shelve that fact for now to recall that his leadership placed Canada’s dominant power with the federal government. Only the federal government, he said and so the constitution now deems, has the fiscal capacity and political legitimacy to respond nationally to a national crisis. Its Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) helped nearly 9 million of us to stay home and safe. It is now transitioning to a more flexible Employment Insurance program. The federal government shut the borders and signed contracts with those who will provide vaccines. Premiers worked hard within their jurisdictions while effusively praising the federal government’s invaluable support and initiatives. We need only look to our southern neighbour with their dominant power in the states, and no equivalent of Elections Canada, to see how right Macdonald was to put power where it belonged.
We will get through this. Rebuilding will involve consideration of national long-term care facility standards, national emergency preparedness, a national day care program, and a universal basic income. And each debate will echo the voices of Marx, Maslow, and Macdonald.
(This article appeared in the Toronto Star on November 30. If you enjoyed it, please pass it along to someone.)