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Optimistic or pessimistic, we all have to hold officials accountable

In the midst of a stretch of summery weather, it’s easy to maintain a sunny disposition, even a feeling of optimism despite the vicissitudes of the COVID-19 crisis. While the virus appears in retreat in these parts, and indeed around the province, the face masks and limited opportunities out in the world are a reminder that things are not as they should be.

Typical summer activities such as hitting the patio, lounging on the beach and soaking up the sounds of music festivals have either been cancelled outright or curtailed in some fashion. We can and do make the best of it, but our routines are routed, and many of the businesses that rely on the summer months to fill their coffers are out of luck. We may be reopening, but the financial crisis is far from passing.

Many of us may be stuck at home, but the warmth of the sun, the smell of fresh-cut grass and an ice-cold, refreshing beverage are simple pleasures sure to uplift the spirit.

Best not to think of financial crises, government debt, back-to-school perils or having to adapt indefinitely to a coronavirus world. And definitely don’t think about fall … and the worse season that follows.

Oh, beyond COVID-19, there are the issues of inequality – from racism to predatory capitalism – that have dominated public attention this summer in the streets and the media. And the growing threats to democracy, here and around the globe.

OK, so maybe it’s not easy to be optimistic.

The issues at the forefront of our attention so far this year have served to undermine our trust in governments and corporations alike. That’s a good thing, as both groups have largely failed to serve the citizenry as a whole. And both are looking to consolidate power, governments for control purposes, corporations for profits. That we realize this might hurt the rollout of, say, a vaccine for COVID-19 – we don’t trust big pharmaceutical companies to do what’s right versus what’s profitable, nor governments to adequately safeguard us – but it speaks to a growing awareness.

A new survey, COVID-19 Mindset: The Collision of Issues, finds Canadians expect more from governments and companies than do people in other countries when it comes to the likes of racism, wage inequality and environmental issues.

The report analyzes the inflection points taking place around the world as consumers’ thoughts and approaches to their health and finances shift. Consumer expectations for how their governments, communities, and the companies they deal with regularly interact with change are also examined.  The report found that Canadians, more so than respondents in other countries surveyed, generally expect the companies they interact with to make value-led decisions on important issues like racism, the environment and wage gaps.

For instance, 69 per cent  of Canadians believe that companies should take a stand on equality and racism, as opposed to 59 per cent of respondents in other countries; 55 per cent of Canadians want companies to take a serious stand on data privacy and security, five points more than the global average of 50 per cent; and 45 per cent of us think companies should take a stand on income and wage gaps, while 39 per cent of global respondents feel the same way.

Canadians are generally at lower risk of authoritarian governance, despite some overreach by governments – a comment that doesn’t pertain to such moves as mandatory mask-wearing, no matter what some people claim are violations of their rights. But we are increasingly enmeshed in a surveillance state – contact-tracing apps, no matter how well-intentioned the claims, fall into that category.

Much of the rest of the world has been less lucky when it comes to growing authoritarianism, a trend that predates the coronavirus, but one that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The 2020 Democracy Report notes that for the first time in almost two decades, more of the world’s countries are autocracies than democracies – some  92 nations, representing 54 per cent of the planet’s population, fall into the autocratic category. And 35 per cent of the population live in countries that are becoming less democratic, a list that includes the United States.

The trend threatens efforts for a more democratic global environment that is response to the people, with accountability for those in power, notes Jordi Vaquer is the director for global foresight and analysis at the Open Society Foundations.

 “The list of abuses and overextension of power is long and scary: surveillance, police brutality, scapegoating, extraordinary executive powers, all happened on virtually every continent. Many of these abuses may end up being the new normal, in particular if publics conclude that authoritarian management has been more effective, and if autocrats and elected authoritarians manage to deflect the blame for their abuses and failures. After a slow, two-decade slide towards authoritarianism, the current turbulence may accelerate the trend and bring pluralistic governance to its knees. Additionally, what Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’ is in full operation and may result in rapid and permanent gains from global corporate giants to the detriment of the common good,” he wrote in a June evaluation of current trends.

“In the last decade, defenders of open society have been, time and again, taken by surprise. It is not only the big election shocks (Trump 2016, Bolsonaro 2018), but also the way in which authoritarian leaders and abusive corporations have stunned us with bold movements and moved the needle in previously unthinkable ways.  It is too soon to tell how transformative the pandemic will be, and too early to draw conclusions. However, it is not too early to stretch our imagination and force ourselves to be optimistic and pessimistic, realistic and utopian, bold and timid, and to imagine a future of order and one of disorder, confirmation and surprise, opportunity and threat.

“Are you a Covid19 optimist or a pessimist? It does not really matter. The only responsible thing to do is to stretch your imagination and make sure that, this time, you will not be blindsided by the future.”

When it comes to the current coronavirus situation, we have no choice but to act – there’s room for neither magical-thinking optimism nor what’s-the-use negativity given what’s at stake. Decisions we make for ourselves cannot be applied to others: our actions can put others at risk, so government action (testing, vaccine research) and individual choices (wearing a mask, physical distancing) are needed to protect others in the short-term and help to eradicate the virus eventually.

The big-picture numbers would certainly indicate pessimism is the logical view. Reversing the authoritarianism now emerging is a huge task, one that starts with holding governments accountable for each and every decision, not just the often poor response to COVID-19.

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