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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Human Nature in the Time of Covid

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

The Covid-19 pandemic has suddenly thrown a wrench into the machinery of our social and economic functioning—within a few short weeks, normalcy has gone off the rails. We have been forced to adapt to new, hopefully temporary, societal norms: social distancing, face masks, hand sanitizing, self-isolation and working from home. Our economy has come to a grinding halt, and unemployment is through the roof. We have become embroiled in a war, glorifying our “front-line” workers, watching the daily casualty figures on the news and scrutinizing our political leaders’ updates and strategies for a path to victory.

The downsides to the situation are obvious: hundreds of thousands of dead around the globe, including many doctors and other health care workers, economic shock, the strain on health care systems and the huge hit to national, provincial and municipal budgets as governments move into a “borrow and spend” mode in order to mitigate the impacts brought on by the shutdown of so many economic sectors.

Could there be an upside as well? I join the many others who are hopeful that this crisis also provides an opportunity to shake up the status quo and initiate some positive changes to our social architecture. Already, there has been a shift in our perception of what is important and what is not. Workers formerly positioned, figuratively, on a lower rung of the socio-economic hierarchy—truck drivers, grocery store clerks, cleaners, home-care workers, etc.—are now being venerated as heroes. Front-line medical staff, in particular, are being celebrated with rituals of noisemaking, bellringing and drive-by parades in appreciation of their courage and dedication under difficult and dangerous conditions. Some governments have, albeit temporarily, increased the salaries and benefits for some of these workers to reward them for staying on the job during this challenging time. And who would have thought that public health officers and sign language interpreters would become national celebrities.

The pandemic has also revealed some critical shortcomings in our health care systems. The horrific situation that unfolded in long-term care homes, especially in Ontario and Quebec, exposed underlying issues of overcrowding, understaffing, and lack of preparedness that could, and should, have been addressed long before Covid-19 ripped through these facilities like a deadly hurricane. The fragility of our supply chains was also laid bare as we scrambled to acquire the protective equipment needed to keep medical and other workers safe, leading to promises that, in future, such critical supplies will be manufactured in Canada to a much greater extent than they are at present.

So, will we take the next step? Now that these weaknesses have been exposed and we have witnessed the tragic consequences, will we actually do anything about it? I suspect the answer to that question is yes, but not much. Take the chronic understaffing and overcrowding in long-term care homes. Fixing this situation will require a big adjustment to provincial budgets. More facilities need to be built to prevent the travesty, in my view, of shared rooms for elderly residents. Care workers will have to receive a sizeable boost in compensation and benefits to ensure that sufficient dedicated and trained staff are there to look after our vulnerable elders, and that they don’t need to hop from job to job to make ends meet. Hours of care per resident must be increased. This will not be cheap. Are we willing to pay?

I suppose this where the element of “human nature” enters the picture. While I don’t totally buy into the concept, because each human is unique, there are certainly some generalities that seem to transect a sizeable swath of our species. The tension between what we want for ourselves and what we want for the community-at-large is an example. Ask people if we should make improvements to our long-term care system and ninety percent will respond with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Ask the same people if they are willing to pay higher taxes and ninety percent will answer with a resounding “No!” And therein lies the conundrum. We want it all, but we don’t want to pay the price. We (and by we, I mean the “middle class” and the wealthy) have been living beyond our means for some time now. We have become addicted to a lifestyle that comes with a heavy social and environmental cost. Like all addicts, we are aware, at some level, of the damage our addiction is causing. And like all addicts, we find ways to avoid acknowledging the damage—denial, rationalization, finger-pointing.

Our expectations are high and keep getting higher. We require a nice house with all the requisite furnishings and appliances, one or two cars plus recreational vehicles – boats, ATVs, campers, and so on. Then there is travel and play—overseas vacations, cruises, ski trips, cultural events, movies and restaurants. We all need internet and cable TV, mobile phones and subscriptions to our various streaming services. And, of course, the hair stylists, massage therapists, personal trainers and other practitioners needed to maintain our beauty and fitness. I could go on.

Much has been written about the evolution of our consumption-driven economy and the corporate and political forces that nurture and perpetuate it. We rage at the “one percent,” the elites that have amassed enormous wealth, perched at the top of the food chain in their globalized capitalist habitat, but we prefer not to examine our role as enablers. Why do we continue to elect leaders and governments that, apart from minor deviations leftward or rightward, maintain the status quo? Are we, perhaps, afraid that real, systemic change might mean giving up some of the luxuries (yes, a 50-inch TV or a winter in Mexico are luxuries, believe it or not) to which we have become accustomed?

Let’s face it. We all know, or should know, that there is a dark side to our consumptive lifestyle, but we prefer to remain in denial rather than confronting the painful, even shameful, reality. We know that farmworkers harvesting our produce are not receiving fair wages or benefits and are often working in unsafe conditions. We know that the packaged chicken and other meat we buy at bargain prices comes from factory farms where the definition of “humane treatment” falls well short of what any compassionate human would expect. We know the clothing we pick up at the shops in the mall is made by women and children slaving in modern-day Asian sweatshops. But we get seduced by the price tag.

The pandemic has shown us the fragility of our economic system. Suddenly, thousands of businesses have been shuttered and millions of workers have lost their jobs. And yet, our basic needs are still being met. Is there a message here? Is it possible we could survive with less than we are used to? I imagine a future where we have kicked our addiction and chosen to embrace a simpler lifestyle. Where there are fewer baristas serving lattes and more well-trained, well-paid care workers attending to the needs of our elders. Where we realize that fulfilment can be found in simpler joys than a Caribbean cruise or a new sailboat, and we take satisfaction from our contribution to a healthy, just and equitable society.

Possible? Certainly. Plausible? Well, this kind of paradigm shift in consciousness won’t happen overnight, I’m afraid, despite whatever cracks the pandemic may have left in our socio-economic belief systems. We’ve grown used to a certain level of comfort and it would be hard to go back to, say, the kind of life I had growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. It was wonderful. We had everything we needed. Until we needed a telephone. And then an electric toaster. And a TV, washer-dryer and vacuum cleaner. Now these things, along with so many more, are considered absolute necessities. I don’t think the toothpaste will be going back in the tube.

So, as usual, I remain hopeful but, realistically, find it hard to see any substantive changes coming in the aftermath of the pandemic. The impact has been severe, but the expectation that things will go back to “normal,” is widespread, and soon governments will once again be looking for the formula that will entice constituents to give them their votes come the next election. And we, the voters, will once again look to our politicians to give us everything.

Probably this pandemic, like the Second World War or the Holocaust, will fade into history and all the earnest resolutions will fizzle out as we move on to the next crisis or burning issue. We voters have short memories, in general, and our politicians know it. There will be promises, and probably some tweaks here and there but, ultimately, we will settle back into business as usual, unless enough of us wake up to the realization that we can’t have it all. I suspect it would take a global disaster several orders of magnitude worse than the current calamity to bring that about. And that next big disaster, by all indications, may not be that far off. Will we find the collective will to bring about the changes that might prevent it? Judging from past performance, probably not.

Like the wise comic strip character Pogo observed some decades ago: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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