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Series of crises an opportunity to push for fundamental changes

A rampant virus. Economic strife. Social unrest. Such are the “interesting” times in which we live today.

And while none is welcome in and of itself, each serves to shine a light on widespread injustices and inequities in our society.

The COVID-19 crisis has been devastating, but was not unexpected, even if we failed to prepare well for a pandemic. Our reaction shows both the worst of our traits – short-term thinking, denialism – and some of the better aspects of our humanity, including our regard for others.

The economic fallout of our reaction to the novel coronavirus reflects the underlying weaknesses of our economic system, as well as the failures of capitalism, writ large.

The protests that erupted when the dam burst with George Floyd’s death served to expose yet again the systemic racism that exists. The public outpouring has been heartening, but it remains to be seen if permanent changes will come of it, as those in power always prefer the status quo.

The desire of those with their hands on the levers to exclude others from every having a say link all three of today’s top issues. The same is true of a potentially more dire crisis, climate change.

It’s no coincidence that those hit hardest by COVID-19 and the faltering economy are the most vulnerable, particularly the poor, minorities and the marginalized. Those very same people are the ones most oppressed by systemic racism, the ones out on the streets not just in the U.S. but around the world, joined by likeminded citizens that recognize inequities exist and would like to change it.

Some of those same enlightened citizens have been involved in the climate-change battle, and environmental issues more widely. In the absence of the same immediacy of today’s crises, however, climate change hasn’t had the same traction. That said, climate change is like COVID-19 in that it does not care whether or not you believe in it: things will happen regardless, though we can take steps to mitigate the extent of the damage.

The spread of the coronavirus is an example of Mother Nature’s indifference to our wants, beliefs and ideologies. We are at the mercy of the natural world, especially when we work against it. Ignoring the bad developments doesn’t make the problems go away, no matter how much wishful thinking we generate (or how many self-serving politicians and corporate types attempt to downplay the threats).

We’ve seen this happen time and time again, in battles over chemical pollutants (DDT, lead), acid rain, the ozone layer, and health concerns such as smoking: those with vested interests in the status quo lied, faked the data and organized fraudulent front groups to sow dissent, all in the name of maintaining profits, health and the public interest be damned. The same is true in the debate over climate change. Well, not debate, as there is near-universal consent among experts and those knowledgeable in the field – there is no other side to the story save for those bought and paid for to be there.

We’re seeing those tendencies reflected in resistance to measures aimed at slowing COVID-19. And those who’ve fought more racial and economic justice, particularly south of us, have known for decades of the resistance to change.

Historically, such delaying and obfuscating efforts have been successful, as changes have come slowly when they’ve come at all. That’s true even when popular opinion is on side, and there’s little in the way of cost to the public, as with banning certain harmful pesticides or the propellants blamed for depleting the ozone layer.

But it’s a different story with climate change, for instance, which seems like a larger problem, and one that comes with a hit to our wallets, directly or otherwise. We avoid the subject, as it might lead to lifestyle changes, or even extra costs. Of course, we can mitigate greenhouse gases today, or we can pay out much more tomorrow for the devastating impacts of climate change, costs that will make the current billions spent on post-disaster cleanups seem paltry.

The public is increasingly aware of this, yet governments continue to do little more than give lip service to the issue – witness the string of conferences and summits that generate naught by hot air. In the end, it’s the money and the power it buys that dictates what actually happens.

Still, the current climate gives us pause to consider, calling attention to inequities and to challenge the rest of us to think about a political and economic system that in essence encourages us to be selfish and not to take into consideration what we can do for each other as a community – to forego our humanity.

The protestors give lie to the notion that our system of government – our democracy – is based on the consent of the governed. Government policies that run contrary to the public interest – an increasing proportion of its actions – surely are the opposite of what we’d consent to. They benefit the one per cent at the expense of the 99, as the memorable slogan reminds us.

Who is responsible for that? Certainly those who’ve benefited have fostered an unending propaganda campaign that’s been every bit as effective in sweeping aside citizenship as the corporate marketing has been in turning us into consumers. We’ve happily abdicated power and responsibility for the comforts of our lives. Excuses about being busy are just that. Still, we’ve opted for the distractions, and can’t even be bothered to show up at the voting booth for five minutes every four years. As a result, we’ve got the government we deserve, one that acts against our interests and against the common good.

We’ve tuned out, bought into consumerism and the ideal of rugged individualism while enjoying the fruits of what years of community-minded spirit and policies brought us.

Those with harmful agendas are ever-eager to put a crisis to use. It’s up to us to parlay a string of unprecedented happenings into fundamental change for the public’s benefit.

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