One Pandemic – Three Ideas

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.  

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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.)

Seeking the Universal

The village was hot, dusty, dirty, and smelled a lot like the scrawny cow that lay in the empty lot, nonchalant in its holiness. I was in northwest Nepal. Our little group was on the second day of a bone-rattling journey in an ancient Tata bus from Katmandu to the Karnali River. We had stopped for lunch in a place maps forgot. Our restaurant was a collection of ramshackle old picnic tables, six feet off the road, with black, rusty oil drums converted to smoke-belching outdoor ovens. I was swatting flies, and swallowing a mashed rice and vegetable concoction, mixed with a scorching brown sauce. It was all great. Then, a young woman I would never meet made it even better.

She was about twenty-five or thirty years old, wearing a simple dress and flip flops and walking slowly along the road with her daughter, who looked about two. The little girl fell. She wailed. Mom knelt. She rubbed the knee. She kissed it. There was a hug. The crying stopped. And off they went. The universal happened. How many parents, I thought, on that very day, perhaps at that very moment, had done exactly the same thing?

Seeking the Universal

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We pride ourselves on our individuality. We plot our lives and careers and make our way but the universe has a way of smiling when we do. I think of a group of friends I’ve been lucky enough to have and love since university. At the beginning, our conversations were mostly about girls. Then it was about getting married and we attended each other’s weddings. Then we talked mostly about jobs and kids. Now we discuss when we’ll retire and our latest aches and pains. We have lived different lives, in different cities, and been cheered by different celebrations and rocked by different tragedies but fundamentally, we’ve been on the same journey and handled much the same things in much the same ways.

Abraham Maslow understood. He was a psychologist who, rather than studying mentally ill people, examined apparently healthy, well-adjusted, college-educated folks who appeared to be happy and doing well. He determined that we all need the same things. We need the basics of food, shelter, and safety, and then a feeling of being loved and belonging to a group. We all want our lives to have a witness. With all that in place we can make a positive difference to someone else and that, he said, is happiness. Everything else, everything, is by the by.

Maslow took years to come up with his notion of a hierarchy of needs and spent more years explaining it. The young woman in Nepal taught her lesson in thirty seconds. We need to get over ourselves. We need to watch and listen. The universe is trying to teach us about the universal; those truths that transcend.

If allowed to do so, the universal can inform our thoughts about what our government should be doing and not doing. The universal can help us when cringing at a newscast showing people being bombed by terrorists or by planes seeking to stop the terrorists. It can shape our reaction to seeing climate change and corruption starve children in one part of the world and a greedy few allowing the poisoning and starving of more children in another. The universal can affect our opinion of folks approaching from outside our gates, wanting only to step upon the first rungs of Maslow’s ladder.

A year after I left Nepal, its government collapsed. Maoist rebels took control. Corrupt leaders had tried to maintain power with power; they had bought and used more guns. The Maoists had won the support of the people by living among them. Their greatest tactic in winning hearts was to dig wells and build latrines and schools in little villages like the one at which I had stopped. They understood Maslow. They understood the universal. They knew that our happiness is based not on the size of our wallets but the content of our hearts. They understood that the universal is found not in the palaces of the kings or the ones we choose to sometimes gather around ourselves to hide within, but rather, in places where Moms kiss skinned knees and make it all better.

The universal is all around us. I swear, it’s right there. If we pause for just a moment from busily making our apparently unique way in our apparently unique lives, we’ll see it. And if we really see it, we’ll be humbled, and changed.

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