The COVID-19 crisis sent a shock through our entire society, revealing deep inequalities and deficiencies in our democratic processes. Our collective responses to COVID-19 showed us that rapid and transformative change is possible but that our governments are still regularly motivated by corporate interests. While decision-makers focussed on the pandemic, the climate crisis raged on throughout 2020.
One year ago, many of us reflected on the 2010s and we rolled into a new decade. I didn’t think I’d be doing another decade’s worth of reflection again so soon, but because 2020 seemed about 10 years long, I’ve put together a three-part series on the climate crisis in 2020. This first piece touches on lessons the climate justice movement learned in 2020, and what we can do to build our movements in 2021.
Just Recovery: social justice movements’ response to COVID-19
As the pandemic set in, it brought the stark inequality in society into full focus. In the span of twelve months, we saw Indigenous land defenders criminalized yet again. We saw the Black Lives Matter movement respond to numerous people of colour killed by police. We saw thousands of residents of long-term care homes die of COVID-19. We saw essential and frontline workers underpaid, overworked, and without the PPE needed to do their critical jobs safely. We saw the impacts of the pandemic play out on gender, class, age and racial lines.
In response, people from across social movements came together to think about how we can get through COVID-19 without leaving anyone behind. We came out with six principles for a just recovery. At the core of the just recovery principles is the understanding that we’re not facing just one crisis, but several linked crises: the pandemic, the climate crisis and growing inequality.
These principles continue to guide us in our responses to the health, climate, and inequality crises because they lay out a hopeful and compassionate vision for the short- and long-term.
The vision for a just recovery flowed somewhat naturally from a just transition – the idea that we can and must transition away from a fossil fueled, corporate focused economy and society, and towards a way of living that cares for all people and the planet.
There is a huge amount of public support for the type of transformative change described by the just recovery principles. In a EKOS poll in May 2020, 73 per cent of people in Canada expected broad transformation of society following the pandemic, and 70 per cent of those people believed that change would be towards health and wellbeing – much like the change described by the just recovery principles.
Our movements created this vision and earned quite a lot of support for it. In 2021, it's up to us to continue organizing ourselves so we can turn that the huge amount of public support for transformation into real, tangible change.
COVID-19 response was transformative
In 2020 we saw governments and other institutions make incredible change at lightning speeds: temporary free transit in multiple cities; a pause on federal student debt repayment; income support through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB); multiple industries shuttering overnight; businesses moved online in a matter of weeks; schools moved online, changed classroom structure and size; rent control provisions were expanded and evictions were temporarily banned; and more. In the same year the pandemic was declared, several vaccines were developed, approved for use and are now being used around the world. The scale and speed of these changes are incredible, and were previously unthinkable.
These major changes show us that social movements are capable of a lot, that rapid and deep transformation is possible, and that people and industries are adaptable. The cost of learning this lesson was high and we owe it to those who suffered and were lost through this pandemic to learn it well. We need a deep and lasting transformation of society to protect the health and safety of our communities and the planet we live on. We have all witnessed that rapid transformation is possible.
In 2021, our movements must work to maintain the positive transformations that have made life throughout COVID-19 more manageable for many, though not all, and to keep the drive for transformation alive in our movements.
Corporate capture remains deeply rooted in our public institutions
While we saw many important and progressive responses to COVID-19 this year, we also saw our governments hand hundreds of millions of dollars to corporations of all kinds, including some of history’s highest polluting fossil fuel companies. We saw billions of dollars go oil and gas companies through loans and grants. These financial supports amount to subsidies to fossil fuel industry paid for by taxpayers.
We also saw the result of a long history of governments prioritizing the profit of long-term care homes over the health and wellbeing of the people who live and work in them. With crowded living spaces, inadequate staffing and staff supports, a lack of PPE, and low hours care for individual residents, we saw COVID-19 sweep through care homes, killing hundreds of seniors and staff.
Corporate subsidies continue to be on the menu for government spending in 2021. The majority of “green infrastructure” funding promises are tied to the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which only grants money to Public Private Partnerships, or P3s. These P3s are wildly understood to be more expensive to build and operate than publicly owned infrastructure, tend to deliver lower-quality services to the public, and are subject to less scrutiny and accountability than a publicly managed project. For example, P3 water utilities or roads tend to increase user costs and often deliver lower-quality services.
In 2021, our movements must be on the lookout for private subsidies and P3 agreements dressed up and presented as public investment.
Check out part two of this blog series (coming soon) for more on climate policy, the fossil fuel industry, and land defense in 2020. Part three will focus on where we go from here.