A year ago today, the first case of the virus that causes COVID-19 was confirmed in Canada. I remember at the time that most of the messaging about the illness in Canada seemed designed to calm fears, not sound alarm bells. Within my own household, I took the same approach, advising my son that we need not worry about widespread transmission here — to prevent his curiosity about the spreading virus from developing into anxiety.
And now here we are. There have been almost 20,000 deaths from the virus in Canada, 753,000 cases to date. We are living in a “state of emergency,” hanging out alone watching Netflix every evening.
Thinking back over this tumultuous year, it is quite astounding to recognize all of the things that have changed or “become evident.” The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests around the deaths of George Floyd and others drew attention to the brutality of anti-Black racism in a more profound and incensing way than white folks have collectively experienced before. Rather than feeling sorry for those experiencing discrimination, all the sudden privilege was front and centre. Accountability and determination to make change rippled throughout society — at both individual and institutional levels.
Similarly, the poverty and inequalities that have long been present in our communities came into focus both as injustices (as opposed to the previously more common frame of “personal failure”) and also as things that could be fixed — if we just had the will to do it. The right to housing was mainstreamed. Folks who I would have expected to have a “just say no” attitude towards drug use were openly supporting harm reduction, supervised consumption sites and safe supply initiatives.
And so much more.
A year into the Toronto experience of the pandemic, I feel an overwhelming urge to build on this momentum while at the same time I fear that pandemic fatigue and the urge to return to “normal” will enable collective amnesia to what we have seen, what we have learnt: that we can mobilize and distribute resources quickly if we collectively believe that there is an emergency; that we can work together to help each other out, quickly setting up initiatives to respond to needs; that art is important and transformative; that individuals and communities know what they need to thrive; and that communities that are caring, cohesive, and actively engaged in the project of creating justice and equality are better for humans and the planet.
Let’s make 2021 a year of caring, repairing, revisioning and recreating. Let’s collectively create the new normal that we want, redistributing power and contesting privilege. To paraphrase Naomi Klein, an emergency can either result in great loss or it can lead to progressive victories that seemed impossible just a short time ago. This is our opportunity.