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Covid-19: Crisis or Opportunity?

Updated: May 6, 2020

Exposing as it has the deep faults in the way we conduct our lives, the corona virus crisis should be a wakeup call: a wakeup to the need to totally transform our civilization. It is now clearer than ever that neoliberal corporate globalization has reached its end point: an economic system premised on exponential growth with no regard for the sustainability of the environment or for world peace; a financial system unconnected to any real world economy that has produced enormous wealth and grinding poverty; a system in which the profit motive has become an end rather than a means; and a global supply chain that has destroyed communities and exploited workers. In its encroachment on wild places it has unleashed a global pandemic; in its pursuit of profits over people it has left millions of Americans and people in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Mideast without adequate health protection; in its pursuit of exponential growth it is heating our atmosphere, poisoning our air, land and water and destroying biodiversity. This virus is both an economic and environmental catastrophe. Both are two sides of a complex system that without drastic change will only feed on itself.

Even if we could eradicate the virus with a vaccine we would be faced with the same systemic dynamics. We simply cannot go back to “business as usual.” We can accept our fate or we can use the time the virus has given us as an opportunity to think outside the box and to organize our communities around life-giving alternatives. So many aspects need to be involved: how to move to a renewable energy economy; how to restructure our banking and financial systems; how to provide liveable wage work for everyone who needs a job; how to provide care for the vulnerable; how to reorganize our food system; how to rebuild our devastated communities; how to conserve and regenerate our lands and waters.

One sign of hope is that the pandemic has shown us how dependent we are on those who are usually undervalued and underpaid: farm and food workers, grocery store clerks, truck drivers, school lunch workers, teachers, nurses, hospital orderlies, delivery men and women, post office workers—all those obscure ones whom Pablo Neruda celebrated in his magnificent poem, El Pueblo--and, of course, those not poorly paid but courageous doctors who are risking their own lives to try to save those of others. It has also exposed the terrible weakness in our profit-driven health care system and the need to move toward universal health care delivery. And finally it has exposed the deep flaws in our vaunted so-called democratic system.

While the present moment is unique, there are some historical precedents that we could take inspiration from. Until the late nineteenth century Sweden suffered extreme disparities of wealth and power. But, by the 1960s Sweden had created a prosperous welfare state that provided jobs and job security, child and elder care, free higher education, centralized collective bargaining between unions and employers, low inflation, and wage equalization through a “solidarity in wages” policy. During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration provided an array of programs that provided work for the unemployed; reduced inequality; brought an entire region—the Tennessee Valley—from Third World conditions into the 20th century; regenerated a depleted natural environment and restored wildlife; created a system of county and state parks and refurbished our national parks; built much of the infrastructure that is still in use today, including schools, hospitals, post offices, bridges and tunnels, roads and dams; beautified our cities with murals and sculptures; recovered and preserved cultural artifacts and our diverse history; and brought art and music to areas of the country and to populations that had never before had access.

Many people across the world are involved in thinking about how our cultures and economies need to change if we are to have a viable future. The following are just a few of the voices we need to be listening to.

The economic meltdown of 2017-2018 should have been a wakeup call to begin what some have called the “Great Transition,” but tragically we reverted to business as usual: the wealthy and corporations, abetted by government policy, used the shock doctrine to amass ever more wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. Will the corona virus crisis produce the same result? That depends on us.

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