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.