by Stefan Christoff
Exploring ways for activists to engage on the ground during a global pandemic is extremely challenging.
Clearly there isn’t a quick and fast outline of how activists must respond to this unprecedented situation of social and economic upheaval caused by the most significant global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish influenza.
Ameal Peña, considered to the the last living Spanish survivor of the Spanish flu of 1918, recently was interviewed in El Mundo, saying, “be careful (…) I don’t want to see the same thing repeated. It claimed so many lives.”
Highlighting the term careful is important here: we can view the response of the state to this pandemic with care, we can be careful to see the gaps and address the ways that the state response is lacking. Careful in this context also means taking care and directly engaging with the crisis on a community based level in a safe way.
In Montreal, there have been a series of efforts to coordinate mutual aid networks around the city—organizing that has largely happened neighbourhood by neighbourhood, but also with coordination across the city landscape.
One focus has been building support for a #RentStrike on April 1st, coming up in just a couple days. As wallets are hit by the virus and related shut downs, an essential and direct action response is clearly mass collective action to refuse paying rent this upcoming month, allowing those resources to instead support survival and necessities. cancelrent.ca has been set up to build momentum and coordinate this.
Online, people have come together to address many urgent needs, including coordinating safe grocery deliveries for vulnerable populations in isolation, childcare offers, the general sharing of resources—all moves to explore ways to build solidarity within the context of incomes burnt by the pandemic.
Often, in a crisis, major media narratives are quick to switch to dominant social discourse in many areas, prioritizing the role and centrality of the state response. Clearly, without question, the state response is critical at this time, particularly the role of public institutions, including transit, but also clearly the public health care system is central.
In this moment, I feel it is important to support and celebrate public institutions, first for the brave public sector workers, doctors, nurses, cleaners, cooks and administrators that keep the hospitals going, but also to remember clearly that the public healthcare system emerged from social movement struggle.
Public healthcare in Canada didn’t miraculously occur due to a series of good will gestures by the Canadian government, it was born out of decades of largely working class struggle, including mass protests, first launched in Saskatchewan and then implemented nationally after a sustained social movement for a system of socialized medicine.
This example outlines exactly why critiques of state policy and also independent community organizing responses to a crisis are key. Firstly, due to the fact that the state simply doesn’t have the full capacity to address the extent of the pandemic in my city, Montreal, or others right now, which is why mutual aid networks are coming together in response to the situation. Secondly, because the landscape of possibility shifts in such moments, this is not a cynical argument for exploiting a crisis to push radical ideas, as we see in the framework of disaster capitalism, this point is simply to recognize that a moment like this underscores the deep failures of the contemporary global colonial capitalist model that has played an central role to get us to this point of under-prepared disaster.
Key to this model is, simply put, an economic vision that views the planet as a body for exploitation and the natural world as simply a system that needs to be compartmentalized and defined within free market terms that seek to place economic value on the Earth.
In this ideological framework, propelled by the Wall Street stock market vision, the earth isn’t a living being to be respected, but a fantasy land to be exploited for profit. The health of the earth, ecosystems and by extension human beings can’t fit into this vision.
The logic of the market is in a clash with the framework of science, which today tells us in stark scientific facts two critical things, first that climate change is real and that a significant change to our systems of energy use and economic is urgent and necessary, but second that the response to this pandemic needs time and that a true recovery can only happen when the work of true social distancing has happened, which in turn equals basically shutting down the global hyper speed economy.
In regards to science and listening to science, I share the words of astrophysicist Carlo Rovelli, who wrote in the concluding chapter of Reality Is Not What It Seems, “science is born from this act of humility: not trusting blindly in our past knowledge and our intuition. Not believing in what everyone says. Not having absolute faith in the accumulated knowledge of our fathers and grandfathers.”
Part of embracing this ever important role of autonomy and thinking critically about the institutional discourses of power, is embodied right now in the work of social movement activists, struggling to address direct needs, but also to point out the ways that neighbourhood organizing in this pandemic speaks to larger social movement critiques on the colonial economic system that have brought us to the brink.
Stefan Christoff is a musician, community activist and media maker living in Montreal, you can find Stefan @spirodon