A reflection by our Secretary-General Josianne Gauthier. Photo caption: interfaith prayer at COP25.
This is Holy Week, the end of the Lenten period of fasting and introspection and Catholics around the world are preparing to celebrate light and life of Easter, but for millions of people this does not feel like a time of life and celebration. In disruptive times such as these, that which was already unsustainable is weakened to the point of breaking. We are witnessing minor collapses all over, exposing the frailty and inequalities of the systems we had in place. This crisis – as remarked by Pope Francis in his exceptional Urbi et Orbi blessing and prayer for the Pandemic – exposes “our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules”. As we face the systemic shocks that provoke great uncertainty and fear, we are now forced to recognize our interdependence. Indeed, caring for each other is the only true way to move beyond these interconnected crises and there is so much to learn about ourselves.
This contagion comes not from viral mutation, but human invasion into wild habitats. At the origin of this crisis are our own unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyles of air pollution, poor nutrition, and overwork. At the origin are the social systems that did not provide enough medical resources, and failed to value care work or ensure social security to send people home, to isolate the contagion and heal the sick. We are not equal in the face of this crisis.
Our often-ignored dependence on vulnerable laborers doing essential work across the globe has been painfully exposed in bright daylight. Global manufacturing chains – millions of people producing our goods in life-threatening factories for meager pay – are interrupted without unemployment or health benefits or put under stress for vital equipment. The equally complex, unfair, and unsustainable globalized food system – from farmers to supermarket attendants – has been interrupted as migratory field hands are refused passage. How often have we overlooked the caregivers – nurses in clinics and at home, cleaning crews, child caretakers, as well as the teachers and educators – almost always women, who are now racing to fill the gaps? Meanwhile, we also know that the isolation and uncertainty of the confinement has also put many more women at higher risk of domestic violence.
The work of these people keeps us alive, but their lives are continuously and currently threatened by their work. These laborers are pressured to work double-time, and with inadequate protection or health care coverage. While a virus does not biologically discriminate, our social systems are clearly favoring the contagion and survival of some over others, and those with lower income, less benefits, and fewer rights are fighting on the front lines against an invisible enemy that can touch us all: COVID-19. Their vulnerability is our vulnerability. We are all interdependent. We are all connected.
Those living in a constant state of crisis cannot be forgotten. We can be sure that those communities whom the members of CIDSE already support, living in situations of scarce or polluted resources, unsafe migration, violent conflict, oppression and occupation will only see their suffering exacerbated by the pandemic. Aid to them must not only be continued, but reinforced, as they struggle to stay alive on an average day under these conditions. They were already hanging on by a thread.
The deep frailties of our system have been revealed, and true solutions cannot emerge from the same mentality that created them.
As societies and as humanity, we could choose a radical response, a true healing of the wounds that lead us to this crisis. In his Letter to all People of the world, Encyclical Laudato Si, as well as in the special Synod on the Amazon, Pope Francis has called us to a true ecological conversion, a transformation of our outlook and ways. We have an opportunity to question the models that hurt life on this planet and propose something new.
CIDSE has been reflecting on a systemic change approach for some time, which seeks real alternative models of consumption, economy, and our relationship to nature. Can we hear the cry of the poor and the earth this time? Can we recognize the neglect and abuse of people and the planet by which we were brought to this breaking point? Can we return to our values, and revalue the great sources of life, care, and labor that ensure the survival of us all? Can we let ourselves be humbled, take this time to reflect, and choose a response that is a true healing?
European countries have proved that we can put a sudden halt to unnecessary economic activity in order to confront a life-threatening crisis. This is unprecedented, and reminds us that all we are missing to confront the existential threat of climate change is political will and a true sense of urgency. The efforts of some governments to rapidly implement previously unthinkable social-economic policies such as pausing the payment of debts and immediate income redistribution shows that people can be put before profit, and can be economically supported through a just transition when we face a natural disaster. While COP26 has been postponed, the atmosphere continues to absorb carbon, and action must not be delayed.
On the long term, the shutdown measures – essential for public health and thus human wellbeing – have thrown us into at least a recession, if not a severe economic depression. Unsustainable economic sectors are already in line for bail outs, and without principles on who, why and how actors should receive support, we risk repeating the mistakes of the 2008 economic crisis which only produced greater inequality.
While economic growth will become nearly impossible in the Global North, this is a great opportunity for global justice. The decrease of our own consumption would put less pressure on the extractive flow of natural resources from the global south, freeing up resources for the development of crucial infrastructure, especially in these times of a pressing need for more health clinics and energy access. We can model our economic priorities around well-being and a healthy environment, rather than around growth.
Even in these dark hours, there’s the dim glimmer of hope in the distance. We are seeing spontaneous gestures of love, life, celebration, music, art and friendship among neighbors. We have witnessed the boundless courage of care workers. We are seeing that our communities are banding together as people seek some purpose in this chaos, and want to help in whatever way they can. Surely, this is what we should be focusing on. The interconnectedness of people and of the multiple crises we are facing can no longer be denied and so should the solutions we seek.
As we prepare for the post-COVID phase of our lives, can we see beyond this moment of confusion and fear and allow ourselves to be transformed and to listen to another truth than the one that has brought us here. Let us have the courage and strength to be true to what we value and love: people, nature, and life. Let us come together and lead from a place of truth about the world we want to rebuild together, by listening to the gentle whispers we hear when the noise of our destructive lifestyle is silenced.