COVID is casting the choices between health and wealth in the starkest possible terms.

David Mordecai’s #MadCovidDiaries diary – 19.05.2020

I am in Toronto, Canada, and our political leadership would like us to believe that we are far enough along in our response to COVID to end our shutdown. My garden business was allowed to resume operations on May 4th. That’s shifted a lot in my life and is why the big gap since my last Mad Covid Diaries entry. A part of me is glad to be resuming work after five months (we close down for the winter). Part of me is discombobulated by the sudden change and significantly increased responsibility. And a subterranean psychological part of me is grappling with the increased risk of infection.

I have had two bouts of depressive avolition since I started work again and while I am struggling to understand where they originate, I suspect that a latent fear of infection is the source. Everyone now seems hell-bent on reopening. What I have seen of other workers interacting in the two weeks that I’ve been out and about suggests that we will be fortunate to avoid a resurgence of the virus with this increase in activity. I would have been quite happy to stay home in order to avoid infection risk but our business would have been destroyed. And that would have had an impact on the half a dozen people involved in my business and the over fifty clients we serve.

I can’t help but see the ways in which certain classes of workers place our bodies at risk in order to generate profit. And it is eerie and uncomfortable to recognize my own place as a cog in this economic machine.  While I share risk with my staff as we get back to work, I also benefit from their labour. I can push back somewhat – for example, declining a request by a client that would have required my staff to work less than six feet apart – but I still have an awareness of being a part of something that in principle I find uncomfortable, this broad push towards economic activity when in many ways it seems we are not really ready.

It’s true that because we largely work outside and can mostly distance while working, our risk is relatively low. And I love my clients and I know that I am lucky to have work and have not been deeply financially affected by all that is happening. Still, I feel railroaded and not at all at ease with the forces that are pushing for traditional economic activity. It deeply disappoints me that we were not able to truly stay on top of this virus from the very beginning as places like South Korea and New Zealand have.

The details of the approaches taken in South Korea and New Zealand were very different. However, two things both places have in common are a high level of trust in government and social cohesion. In North America, we lack this trust and cohesion. The US is an extreme example but even in Canada, we are distrustful and very reluctant to sacrifice things like privacy for the common goal of containing the virus. And we do not seem particularly concerned about others. Masks are of unclear benefit for the wearer but are widely acknowledged to benefit others. Very few people wear them in Toronto. I am discouraged every time I go out and see this.

In broad strokes what is clear is that there is little more valuable to humanity at this point than eliminating this virus. And the fact that almost all of our economic imperatives work at cross purposes to this goal says a lot about how we assign economic value. I have seen quite a few articles about the possibilities that the pandemic offers for a new, fairer, world economic order. So far I have yet to see any political leaders grasp this idea and talk about it in a compelling way. Where before I felt hope for change as a silver lining to the pandemic, I think now I am starting to feel frustration.

I see connections between the traditional economic imperatives that are undermining our ability to contain the coronavirus and the distrustful and individual, rather than community focus, that we have in North America. I’ve been struck by how our belief systems – economic, neoliberal and otherwise – have created this degraded trust in government and one another. I see how political leaders, particularly in the US, have stoked these beliefs and attitudes for their own gain. And I see how this fractured trust is all part of an economic system of corrosive exploitation in the form of cut-throat wages, precarious employment, insufficient taxation of the wealthy, vast income inequality, and so on. 

The whole thing stinks. And it is all deeply enmeshed with our mental ill-health, down to my own discomfort with the small part I play in the system. People who are exploited in turn cope through actions that can be abusive to self and others. Internalizing these distrustful belief systems becomes necessary for financial survival but it breeds suspicion and paranoia. COVID is casting the choices between health and wealth in the starkest possible terms. And some political leaders are shamelessly pushing for wealth at the expense of health. Where are the leaders who will lead us to new choices?

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