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Will 2021 be the Year of Empathy and Reconciliation?

December 13, 2020

As much as incredible acts of kindness have been shown since the Covid-19 pandemic struck late last winter, there’s been a dark-side undercurrent that has only grown since the fall. Depending on nation and sub-national jurisdiction, citizens have been for the most part compliant with the restrictions introduced by their governments. In Canada, for example, the vast majority of Canadians have stepped up to the plate, heeding the restriction measures (and at times conflicting advice) from the federal, provincial and territorial governments. (One big disadvantage of Canada’s federation is that provinces are responsible for healthcare, yet receive billions a year from the federal government in transfer payments.)

Unfortunately, the opposing force to human goodness, empathy and understanding has been the dark side. To pick on Canada again, the small minority has not just defied government restriction measures, and made a disproportionate amount of noise, but contributed to a number of “super-spreader” events. These actions have been tantamount to unconscionable acts of selfishness and moronic stupidity, furthering the geographic spread of Covid-19 and escalating the now infamous exponential growth curve of cases.

Witness the United States and the extreme growing division between those who want to reduce the spread of Covid through mask-wearing, social distancing and maintaining tight social circles, against the rabid segment of the population that at times resorts to violent behaviour because of their mistaken belief that they have a Constitutional right not to wear a mask or to practice social distancing. And while these irresponsible behaviours occur among anti-maskers, over 3,000 Americans have been dying from Covid-19 each day!

Closely linked to the Covid anti-cooperation movement is outgoing President Donald Trump’s increasingly erratic behaviour and his refusal to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory on November 3rd. This has lead, for example, to around 80 percent of Trump supporters believing that Joe Biden was elected illegally. Over $200 million has poured in from donors since November 3rd to support Trump’s fight to overturn the election. However, most of that money is being used to reduce his campaign debt. Since losing the election, Trump has virtually ignored speaking about Covid-19, except to egg on his supporters to defy their state and municipal governments’ restrictions and the advice from the medical community.

Some may wish—even pray—for a year of empathy, where Americans would finally come together as one to begin to build for the future. That’s a very tall order for incoming President-Elect Joe Biden, considering the now vast political gap in the country. It would be naive to think that just because a series of vaccines have arrived, amazingly in a short period of time (kudos to the pharmaceutical companies), that Americans will coalesce.

Indeed, President Elect Biden’s number one priority should be initiating a reconciliation process to bring the United States together. Failure to unite the country won’t just allow the Republican-Democrat political gap to deepen, it will enable the continuing rise of white supremacists and militias, to the detriment of black Americans and other minorities who continue to suffer from racism. Reconciliation also needs to address growing income inequality, linked to substandard health care, and interwoven with the repression of blacks in particular.

For other countries, such as Canada with much less political division, as well as less income inequality, there are still serious fissures to address: the plight of indigenous peoples (boil water advisories exist shockingly on some reserves), the disgraceful state of long-term care across the country (a provincial jurisdiction), and the unquantified number of Canadians whose non-Covid health issues were parked on the back burner for a year (eg, cancer, cataracts, joint replacement). The same applies to Canada when it comes to reconciling with its indigenous peoples. 

Getting everyone inoculated by late fall 2021 is not the solution to Canada’s many intertwined problems. It just happens to be the front burner, short-term priority.

Empathy, for which some some have expressed their desire to see embraced, is a tall order. Witness the initial outpouring of support and affection for frontline medical staff (nurses, doctors, hospital technicians, support staff) last spring and summer. That lasted for a few months. Then Canadians not only got bored and impatient, but numerous instances arose where medical people were actually being shunned by some of the general population. If you were a nurse, you were suddenly perceived as a walking, talking Covid-19 carrier. Sure, if you contracted Covid and ended up in the ER on an oxygen mask, or worse a ventilator, you’d definitely want that nurse and doctor present. Otherwise, the behaviour devolved to: stay away from me and my family.

Disgraceful.

The global effort to combat Covid-19 (properly SARS-CoV-2) has been likened to a war on a nasty, highly virulent virus. To extend that thinking, reflect back some 70 years to World War Two, when Americans, Brits, Canadians and many others in the Allied countries came together to defeat a common enemy: Hitler and the Third Reich, imperial Japan, and Mussolini’s Italy. The sense of unity and sacrifices made by those who served overseas and by those who contributed to their countries’ war efforts at home were remarkable, and has been well documented in countless history books.

In his masterful book “The Fear and the Freedom,” Keith Lowe provides numerous examples from many countries on how individuals reacted to World War II. He tells the story of Waruhiu Itote, a Kikuyu tribesman in Kenya, who enlisted in the King’s Rifles in January 1942. During his service in Burma and India, he met British soldiers who questioned why Itote was fighting for the British Empire which had subjugated Kenya’s people, and that the British would soon forget his personal sacrifice. Black American soldiers he encountered told him that they longed for civil rights in their country.

To avoid being shot by Japanese snipers, white soldiers smeared black boot polish on their faces, a means to blend in with darker skinned soldiers. However, Itote explains that during the course of war a camaraderie emerged where no one felt superior, where tea and toilets were shared, and where racial insults were absent. As he states: “The white heat of battle had blistered all that away and left only our common humanity and out common fate, either death or survival.” 

After the war, with a sense of shared common purpose gone, former resentments re-emerged, leading to years of strife in Africa, and eventually independence for 30 countries on that continent by the 1960s. And the same can be said for other countries, whether India, Great Britain or the United States, as governments attempted to adjust to a post-war society and economy.

What’s  particularly odd—indeed perplexing—is the lack of national unity among almost all countries when it comes to controlling and defeating Covid-19. Exceptions include such countries as Taiwan, Singapore and New Zealand. Yet the disease has killed over 1.6 million people worldwide in less than a year, devastated economies, and ruined the finances of companies and individuals. The IMF estimates that the global economy will have lost over $28 trillion in output by the time the pandemic is over.

Pining for more empathy among people in 2021 is a laudable goal. However, we live in a  narcissistic society that could give a crap about climate warming and the many serious impacts it is exerting on our planet. We live for now, not next year or in ten years or in 50 years. As for the pandemic, as it dissipates over the next year and into 2022 society will move on, picking up the pieces. Opportunists will make their millions, while many (if not most) other people will try to get their lives back in order, both financially and emotionally.

Empathy and reconciliation for 2021? 

There’s always hope. JT

We make the future sustainable when we invest in the poor, not when we insist on their suffering.

(Bill Gates)

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