Humanity Needs a Reset

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Finally.

For more than a year, global society has battled a planetary pandemic. Even for those of us who have been spared infection by COVID-19, the virus’s social symptoms have been a persistent challenge. My home of Hawai’i has been besieged by an economic downturn that yielded the U.S.’s highest unemployment rate and is threatening to leave thousands of families houseless when the state’s eviction moratorium expires.

Crisis calls to Imua Alliance, the nonprofit sex trafficking victim service provider for which I serve as executive director, spiked by 330 percent last year, as survivors of sexual servitude were forced to shelter in place with their abusers. An analysis published in Journal of Radiology last August, moreover, found that the proportion of women who endured physical abuse was 80 percent higher during the pandemic than in the three earlier years put together. Researchers also concluded that the injuries inflicted upon victims were significantly more severe than in prior years. The sun-streaked beaches of paradise have a dark side.

From communal health to economic insecurity to gender violence, the coronavirus has revealed our collective inability to grapple with the most pressing issues pestering our present moment. Even our efforts to end the pandemic are sullied by structural inequality. Vaccination access varies widely in the international community, with low- and middle-income countries struggling to finance vaccine purchases, while wealthier governments dither over donating extra doses. World leaders recently announced a plan to share one billion vaccine doses to impoverished areas, but we have to ask: why did it take this long?

COVID-19 may be the most dramatic “teachable moment” in recent memory, from which we can learn that business as usual is the business of destruction. Unfortunately, many governments are doubling down on the status quo. In Hawai’i, for example, state leaders have rushed to reopen the visitor industry, repeatedly undermining the safety blueprint they designed to guide the islands’ recovery strategy. Over 629,000 visitors arrived in Hawai’i in May, giving a boost to the state’s tax collections. Yet, policymakers failed to advance measures to diversify the local economy during this year’s legislative session, despite residents’ resounding discontentment with being financially dependent on an industry that ravages the climate and is prone to collapse during times of crisis.

While coronavirus may have been a once-in-a-hundred years event, the inept response to the pandemic undertaken in many “wealthy” nations is a direct result of institutional neglect. Instead of taxing corporate profits to pay for universal healthcare, the United States has allowed income inequality to grow to historic levels, with billionaires banking over $1.2 trillion dollars since March of last year. Rather than include gender analysis in the policies that it promotes in response to infectious disease outbreaks, the World Health Organization has advanced healthcare frameworks and monetary models that prioritize pharmaceutical companies’ bottom lines over the well-being of the developing world.

One of the most salient examples of pandemic-related inertia is the global reaction to COVID-19’s impact on the climate crisis. Government lockdown policies reduced carbon emissions by as much as 7 percent during 2020, according to the Global Carbon Project. The clear skies were temporary, however, as the industrial world quickly returned to its polluting ways once the lockdowns ended and economic engines began roaring once more, with fossil fuels flowing through their gas tanks. Piers Forster, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, recently penned an article for the BBC suggesting that the coronavirus’s mass experiment in decarbonization produced environmental impacts that were not only impermanent, but negligible. Forster wrote, “Looking further ahead to 2030, simple climate models have estimated that global temperatures will only be around 0.01C lower as a result of COVID-19 than if countries followed the emissions pledges they already had in place at the height of the pandemic.”

If left unchecked, climate change could generate economic calamities and casualty counts that vastly exceed the devastation of COVID-19. We proved during the pandemic that we can adopt a more sustainable way of being, though, if we’re forced to do so. We shouldn’t need shelter-in-place orders to induce environmental consciousness. We should be able to summon the sanity necessary to advance comprehensive plans to protect the planet. As with the inaccessibility of public health systems in indigent and remote areas, inadequacy of broadband networks to support the rush to teleworking, and impotent fiscal safety net afforded to dormant workforces, the fissures cleaved in the social contracts that govern our lives point toward one end: neoliberalism is a plague that threatens our survival.

Capital markets are subsuming our existence under their control. If politics is the repartitioning of what is deemed sensible, intelligible, and legitimate within a social order, however, then the biggest danger we face in the era of constant calamity may be the accelerating depoliticization of the public sphere. Private profiteers are adept at turning democratic struggles into commodifiable conflicts, selling us an illusion of social cohesion for the cost of our political power. For the sake of our future, it is time to take our power back.

Where We Go From Here

“Keep hope alive” isn’t a cliché. It’s a call to action.

We can’t perpetuate hope simply by searching for feelings of optimism within ourselves. We have to work, each day, to actively uplift our most vulnerable neighbors, to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, to create space for marginalized voices that were once rendered unintelligible to be heard, acknowledged, and validated.

As we process the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and its implications for our nation, we must remember one of the great lessons of her life: that compassion is not just a moral virtue, but a penultimate political ideal. Donald Trump just appointed Amy Coney Barrett to Ginsburg’s seat, an Antonin Scalia disciple who will undoubtedly oppose reproductive choice, entrench executive power, overturn LGBTQ+ rights, and undermine racial equality.

We have a fight on our hands.

In reality, it’s the same fight in which we’ve been engaged for years, from before the time of Trump. It’s the fight against inequality and discrimination for which Ginsburg, herself, spent much of her life as a figurehead, never more so than during her final years. In the midst of a national emergency, we’re now dealing with a national tragedy. It is all unfolding against the backdrop of a countrywide reckoning with the roots of historical injustice that still structure the governing institutions of the United States. Justice Ginsburg strove, with every last breath, to prevent our nation from becoming a caste system.

We can’t let her down.

It’s okay to be fearful about our future. Trump has repeatedly sown discord about the upcoming presidential election. Given his repeated comments about staying in power–not to mention his authoritarian executive actions and professed affinity for dictators–we have to take seriously the possibility that he won’t leave office willingly if voters support Democratic nominee Joe Biden. If Trump does try to rush a Supreme Court pick through the vetting process before November, one of the primary questions Barrett will face will be: what should the Supreme Court do if Trump tries to overturn the electoral will of the people?

It’s also okay to be deeply concerned that Trump’s nominee will jeopardize human dignity. Trump’s pick, like Scalia before her, is beholden to constitutional originalism, a judicial philosophy steeped in what the late Harvard professor Svetlana Boym called “restorative nostalgia,” which “puts emphasis on nostos (returning home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.” Trump wants the courts to help him recreate the “lost home” of the xenophobic and monopolistic American past–a time in which abortion was criminalized, healthcare was unaffordable, wealthy businessmen reaped unchecked profits at the expense of working families, corporations commodified the environment with impunity, LGBTQ+ citizens couldn’t marry, and people of color were systematically disenfranchised, dispossessed, and disembodied.

In the spirit of Ginsburg’s famous dissents, though, we should maintain a fierce belief that together we can win the struggle for our nation’s future. Republicans need 50 votes to push Trump’s nominee through the U.S. Senate. They hold 53 seats in the chamber, but have already lost two votes–Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins, the latter of whom is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Sara Gideon. Other Republicans are facing similar challenges or represent left-of-center states, like Cory Gardner of Colorado, and may be pressured to buck Trump’s attempt to tear apart our fragile national fabric. We have become the dissenters. It’s an odd label to give to a majority of the country, but it’s one that we, the people, must embrace by connecting the battle for Ginsburg’s seat to our ability to deliver hope to those who need it most in a time of crisis and confusion. Yesterday, we mourned. Today, we organize.

As Ginsburg famously proclaimed, may our dissents determine the law. It will be hard, but RBG has shown us the way.

Leadership After COVID: Now, It’s the Women’s Turn

Women-led nations are doing better than male-led nations in handling COVID-19.

To all the men out there who recoil at that statement, get over it. It’s true. And new research backs it up. According to a study of 194 countries by two economists based in England, Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati, women-led nations like New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan, and Finland have recorded fewer deaths than those led by men, like the United States, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Even at the local level, we can see the impact of structural patriarchy on pandemic-related policymaking. In Honolulu, for example, Mayor Kirk Caldwell recently issued an executive order opening beaches, hiking trails and parks for solo, by-yourself activities. If you’re a single mother struggling to manage a crumbling economy and your children’s virtual learning environment, forget about taking your kids to the beach for a 15-minute break.

Just drop 5-year-old Johnny off by the forest and tell him to take a hike. Baby’s first solo adventure. What could go wrong?

It’s easy to dismiss Caldwell’s decision as a lapse in judgement intended to make enforcement of social distancing requirements easier for law enforcement. Yet, one has to ask: if more women who understand the difficulties of motherhood were involved in municipal decision-making, would the executive order have looked different?

I submit that it would have and that it’s just one example of the problems that patriarchy causes in dealing with the crisis. Take two case studies in leadership, the United States and New Zealand. In the U.S., President Donald Trump is currently making headlines for reportedly downplaying the impact of the coronavirus for political effect. This comes as the U.S.’s COVID-19 death toll nears 200,000 and case count surpasses 6.5 million, while the economy sputters and teachers die in prematurely reopened classrooms. This is what Trump calls “winning.”

In contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern–who gave birth while running her country–immediately responded to the COVID threat by implementing measures to contain community spread. New Zealand’s borders were locked down to travelers. Her government implemented science-based actions that pivoted from managing to eliminating the disease because of testing limitations at the onset of the virus, which led to the nation being COVID-free for 100 consecutive days. To uplift the economy, New Zealand is investing NZ$175 million into arts and cultural programming and calling for the creation of thousands of green jobs.

President Trump and U.S. leaders don’t have a viable economic recovery plan. The U.S. House of Representatives–led by a woman, Rep. Nancy Pelosi–has been pushing for a major relief bill to help state governments meet their social obligations, provide a second robust stimulus payment to all residents, and deliver significant financial assistance to essential employees. But the Senate–led by a man, Sen. Mitch McConnell–is only interested in targeted relief that boosts the bottom lines of private businesses.

We can all think of women who failed at the task of leadership, like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is using the COVID crisis to defund public schools and push for the institution of voucher programs. (Side question: can schools use vouchers to purchase guns to fight off potential grizzly bear attacks, as DeVos warned about during her confirmation hearing?) For further reference, see former British Prime Minister Theresa May, who adheres to the paternalistic ideology of “one-nation conservative” and is best known for her Brexit buffoonery.

Women-led nations have grappled with their legacies of patriarchy and gender discrimination thoroughly enough to entrust a female to be their national leader. That’s axiomatic, but it also suggests that those countries are open to embracing democratizing norms and policies, like economic recoveries meant to advance the common good. They’re less likely than male-dominant polities to be steeped in pandemic denialism and have their top political leaders propound COVID conspiracies, as Trump does on a daily basis.

Numerous studies have shown that women are more empathetic than men. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when female leaders implement policies that put compassion before competition. While many nations engaged in fear-mongering over immigration throughout this decade, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ensured that nearly a million refugees entering Germany were guaranteed their basic human rights. As the U.S. allows unemployment insurance to expire for tens of millions of people who have lost their jobs, Prime Minister Ardern is guiding New Zealand in implementing comprehensive wage subsidies and deferring mortgages until March 31, 2021.

Jacindamania is a direct challenge to male domination. Though the media fawns over the “resolute ordinariness of her existence,” her impact on the international political community is anything but quotidian. Her exceptional skill in flattening New Zealand’s COVID curve has positioned her as a central figure in flattening patriarchal social hierarchies. Her female counterparts in the club of national leaders are doing the same. They’re not interested in token gestures of progress. Rather, they’re crafting new models of gendered leadership that are proving–not that they need to prove anything to anyone–to be more effective in addressing the most pressing issues to today, from the coronavirus to climate change to economic inequality.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the global response to the pandemic. Our economic, political, and public health systems will be changed forever. If we want those changes to be a sign and signal of our commitment to human dignity, then we need to empower women to sit at the heads of the tables they’ve been forced to set for centuries.

They should have been sitting there all along.