Let’s not go back to normal

The language of the “New Normal” is not comforting in that its main concern seems to be getting the economic system up and running again. This, of course, is necessary, but it does not imply any changes to the system of accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few. It does not imply a permanent redistribution of wealth.It does not challenge the corporate control of the economy and corporate control of public policy. It does not imply an ongoing practice of the admirable cooperation among political parties and inter-jurisdictional collaboration among governments. It does not imply that the government would enact proportional representation to ensure ongoing collaboration. It does not imply a continuing search for the groups who have been and are falling through the cracks. It does not imply a willingness to move forward to set up new systems which would ensure in perpetuity that no Canadian gets left behind.

In one way, COVID-19 is the great equalizer of our time. It produces an abnormality which is affecting people in all parts of the world. However, it is a fact that this global epidemic does not affect all peoples and all sectors equally. 

In our own country, it quickly became clear that millions of Canadians are living on the edge economically. Some are one pay cheque away from poverty or many are chronically without any regular pay cheque. For this large group, the virus involves loss of homes, rental spaces, food, and/or their small businesses. These threats are magnified for Indigenous peoples who already had unequal access to goods and services. As well, the threats are amplified for people of various racial origins who face systemic racism, both before and during the pandemic. It means increased fear for women who have already lived with the danger of gender-based violence in the home. It means untold fear among migrant workers who have little protection in this country.

On the other hand, for the classes of the rich, the pandemic probably is no more than an inconvenience, maybe a cutback in luxury and leisure. In the last major recession, these classes ended up doing very well, while ordinary people lost their homes and all their investments. 

In the area of wellness, not all of us are equally affected by COVID-19. Some of us don’t even know any of the 63,895 people in Canada who have tested positive. We may not know any of the 4,280 people who have died. And thinking globally, not many of us experience the danger of contagion faced by a family of ten living in one room in Dominican Republic. 

We are rightly proud of how quickly our governments have sprung into action to make money quickly available for those most affected by the shut-down across the country. We have learned that governments are capable of recognizing that all people have the right to have basic needs met. We are encouraged by new knowledge for many policy makers that many people live in precarious situations. We admire the united efforts they are making to address the needs of residents.

There is a sign that the pandemic brought to the fore the voices of many people. This is especially so in the upsurge in the call to establish basic income guarantee. For many years non- governmental organizations have been advocating for this long-term way of acting, based on the belief that all people have the right to cover their basic needs with dignity.

Here are some examples of the new voices. A national Non-Governmental Organization, Coalition Canada: BIG/RdB Actions, started a campaign to promote PEI as an ideal starting place to launch a national basic income system. This was initiated in November 2019 by the Kingston Action Group for BIG. The Coalition members have written approximately 200 letters to PEI politicians and to federal MPs and senators. Within the past 10 days other groups are speaking out. Fifty Canadian senators wrote to the Prime Minister and his closest decision-makers promoting basic income as a post-pandemic vision. The Bishops of the Anglican and Lutheran churches of Canada signed and sent a similar petition to the same policy-makers. 

Canadians have changed in positive ways over the past two months. We are more ready than ever to adopt extraordinary practices and novel programs. People are showing themselves as more caring and considerate of each other in the midst of this pandemic. There are so many small, and big, acts of kindness. We have cheerfully learned to self-isolate, keep our distance, and wear a mask to protect others from the virus.We have even learned to wash our hands (and gained new respect for singing Happy Birthday)! We have seen that money could be found to support people most affected by loss of jobs. We have seen that people, who are able, are super eager to get back to work. We have witnessed a new interest in the redistribution of wealth. We have seen a groundswell in favour of Basic Income Guarantee. All these learnings should contribute to our vision for a New Future. For the post-pandemic restructuring era: “We are all in this together”.

Marie Burge represents Cooper Institute on the PEI Working Group for a Livable Income.

Published in The Guardian 15 March 2020

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