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After the Pandemic: Systemic Change or Politics as Usual?

The coronavirus pandemic is going to end. It may not feel like it on a cold February night as new cases still hover near a thousand a day and a curfew is still in effect, but that statement is true.  There is cause for optimism; vaccines are being rolled out, with few hiccups. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and Canadians are beginning to think about what their lives will look like in a post-COVID world. 

When this is all over, will we go back to how things were before, or will we use this as an opportunity to change things for the better? That is the pressing question so many have been asking themselves. From a policy perspective, there are many opposing opinions espoused by our elected officials. One way or another, it is difficult to imagine that society will go back to the status quo ante COVID; some of the changes brought on by COVID-19, for better or worse, may be permanent. 

Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was heavily criticized for a statement he made at a United Nations conference in September. He said that the COVID-19 pandemic offers “an opportunity for a reset” and that it can “accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts, re-imagine economic systems that actually address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality and climate change” (Wherry). The backlash against this rhetoric was widespread, from members of the Official Opposition to people on my Instagram feed I went to high school with. The comments were perceived as an attempt at a power grab by global elites, and as evidence of a plot by world leaders to take advantage of the pandemic to re-engineer national economies by implementing radical socialism at every level.

Of course, that interpretation is simply sinister and not about what is really at play. The idea that a world leader, in this case our prime minister, would use the chaos and turmoil caused by the pandemic to undemocratically pass radical socialist policies makes for sensationalist headlines, but is unlikely to be grounded in reality. However, making the link between crisis and opportunity to pass policy of a certain ideology is not unheard of. It has been done before, and it has been done often. 

Naomie Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, describes how national disasters (like hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and military coups) have been used to pass free-market policies in countries like Chile, Argentina, Russia, China, and, yes, the United States. Taking advantage of a disaster, both natural and orchestrated, to implement changes on an ideological basis at home and abroad was a strategy used by the United States government to reshape foreign governments and economies for decades. In this case, the ideology often took the shape of unfettered free-market capitalism. The theory of disaster capitalism, a term coined by Klein, was used to implement modern neo-liberal market policies while citizens were too distracted, both physically and psychologically, to put up any form of resistance to unpopular policies the local populations didn’t necessarily vote for or support. 

Some people now fear a similar strategy is being used to implement policy in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, one that is at the opposite end of the ideological horseshoe; a kind of “disaster socialism.” Instead of governments coordinating with “private industries [to] spring up to directly profit from large-scale crises” (Solis), the concern here is that governments would experiment with radical “social experiments” that would ultimately only benefit a handful of the “global financial elites” (Wherry). In theory, the economic disaster and confusion caused by the pandemic offers the right conditions for this kind of operation to take place. 

It is perfectly logical that financial elites would denounce the implementation of a reform agenda in principle. After all, they would stand to lose their tax breaks in all their forms: capital gains exemptions, low corporate taxes, favourable inheritance taxes, to name a few. The problem is that branding reform as part of a “radical socialist agenda” leads to it being denounced by those who would stand to benefit from those policies, like labourers, farmers, the under-employed and unemployed, and rural inhabitants. 

Regardless of where one aligns on the political spectrum, is it difficult to deny that the pandemic exposed many of our society’s underlying inequalities and brought them to the forefront of the national conversation. Indeed, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland recently noted: 

“The pandemic has exposed critical gaps in our social safety net and the virus has hit certain sectors, certain groups of people, harder than others — seniors, women, low wage workers, young people, people of colour, Indigenous people” (Scoffield). 

Nobody would claim that to be wary of Trudeau’s comments at the UN would mean not sympathizing with those groups of people. But we need to have an open conversation on how to address the societal obstacles faced by our most marginalized and vulnerable fellow-citizens, not just now when they need it most, but also after the pandemic ends. To allow things to go back to how they were, without addressing systemic issues would be a public policy failure on a wide scale; a wasted opportunity. Discussions about addressing systemic racism, income inequality and climate change can and should take place in the context of how we will build back from the vast economic damage caused by COVID-19. 

Trudeau’s comments may be a starting point for all that. The new budget proposal that Freeland introduced promises “generous government programs to keep people safe and then get them back to work” (Scoffield). In this way, the government is hoping to benefit all Canadians, but there is a focus on the “especially vulnerable groups hurt by the pandemic” (Scoffield). Importantly, Freeland stressed “We are not simply aiming to get back to where we were before COVID-19” (Scoffield). This is in line with the larger narrative Trudeau adopted: “we have to fix urgent problems, but we also have to fix the system, so that it works for everyone” (Global).

Words matter. The word “socialism” has negative and polarizing connotations, and plays well into the hands of critics of social and economic change, as well as for people for whom the pre-pandemic status quo was working very well.  Indeed, “many now seem equally resolute in their desire to restore the pre-COVID equilibrium—firm in the conviction that the normal operation of capitalism is simply too sacred to be interrupted for long” (Savage). Attaching the word “socialism” to policies that seek reform in order to finally help people living in the margins is an easy way of convincing voters that those policies will stifle the free market and shut down small businesses. Nebulous terms like “radical experiments” strike fear into the hearts of both the working class and the financial elite; the specter of economic upheaval looms large. 

However, accusations that any change in our economic systems both domestic and international would be disastrous are specious. Very soon, we may find ourselves forced to change because of another impending catastrophe; the climate crisis. The extraordinary measures that governments around the world were forced to take because of COVID-19, the astonishing amounts of money that had to be mobilized to respond to the pandemic, will pale in comparison to the efforts needed to combat climate change before it becomes irreversible and catastrophic. Our government needs to pass laws that really address the climate emergency with the same promptness that it passed COVID-19 legislation. Of course, free and open debate is essential, and that is what so many who are concerned with Trudeau’s statement believe he is trying to sidestep. One wonders whether governments around the world will take action now in order to avoid having to take more drastic action later. One would have to believe that world leaders will have come away from the COVID-19 debacle with important lessons learned. 

The irony in all this is that at least in Canada, the Opposition agrees on some level that there needs to be change on a big scale: “We must change,” Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole said, even though “powerful forces continue to defend the status quo” (Wherry). It appears, then, that the disagreement between our government and the opposition is merely over the rhetoric being used to bring about that change. Canadians would benefit greatly if our elected officials stopped playing word politics and actually began taking the right actions, especially now. 

COVID-19 has challenged almost everything we came to expect from politics as usual, and “opened new horizons to be exploited, for better or for worse” (Savage). I believe that if the right moves are made, the right policies are put in place, it can be for the better.

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