Rejecting the death instinct in a pandemic age

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Image: Amanda Slater/Flickr

The ongoing pandemic epoch has exposed a clear duality marked both by increasingly obvious and blatant inequalities, hypocrisies and systemic failures as well as beautiful, loving and creative responses in the form of mutual aid communities and direct action to save lives.

What happens when -- or if -- this epoch comes to an end is anybody's guess, but there are clearly two paths forward, with a thankfully growing consciousness developed long before COVID-19 that our present path is one leading directly to disaster. Indeed, the 24-hour news cycle dominated by masked faces, hospital images and infection charts has almost obliterated from memory everything from January's apocalyptic Australian brush fire scenes that served as yet one more warning about planetary peril to the grotesque armed invasion of Wet'suwet'en territory by paramilitary RCMP units.

It is encouraging to see a growing collective analysis and empathy reflected in statements that there can be no return to a "normal" rooted in the very structures that have led us to this unprecedented crisis. It's a recognition that for the majority of the world's population, daily life -- the "normal" everyone talks about returning to -- is a daily pandemic of poverty and exploitation, filthy water, malnutrition and a vicious structural violence enforced by the hellfire missiles of drone warfare. 

With reports appearing of a resilient nature and burgeoning animal populations (spurred by the relative absence of humans from their ecosystems) comes from some a naive hope that the cure for climate catastrophe is simply staying home. But in reality, as scientists and climate experts point out, all we have really done is put a slow pause on the rate of deterioration. What's needed will be more radical action and systemic change. 

That is, of course, a tough pill to swallow, because it means we have a lot more work ahead of us that, like the work we have already done, often seems like we are all Sisyphus, rolling that heavy boulder up the mountain only to see it come crashing down time and again. Add to that the challenges posed by a double trauma experienced by many: we rightfully fear being out in the world because of an invisible danger that lurks within ourselves and other human beings, yet we suffer equally from the distancing that prevents us from having physical contact with friends and family.

How do we emerge from this period geared to go for a continuation of the direct actions, community care and social solidarity needed to prevent the mass damage major corporations and their government sponsors are all too willing to encourage even as the physical distancing restrictions remain in effect? Indeed, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and B.C. Premier John Horgan have received a fair amount of sympathetic applause for doing what is in many ways a bare minimum -- responding to the needs of some of the population in a manner the government is actually supposed to do, even by its own rules -- they have done nothing to stop some of the most destructive projects underway in the land called Canada: from Site C dam and the Coastal GasLink pipeline, to Trans Mountain, Muskrat Falls, and Keystone XL. As COVID-19 outbreaks are reported at tarsands man camps, the danger grows not only for those workers (called potential "super spreaders" of the virus) and their families, but also for Indigenous nations that these camps illegally occupy.

Ecological grief

Pre-pandemic, for many of us it was not uncommon to recognize in the growing rates of species extinction and the disproportionate impacts of climate catastrophe on the world's most vulnerable, a phenomenon tagged by Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis as "ecological grief." In defining that grief -- which has no doubt been compounded by the physical isolation so many of us are now undertaking -- they wrote: "Seeing this as a legitimate response to ecological loss is an important first step for humanising climate change and its related impacts, and for expanding our understanding of what it means to be human in the Anthropocene. How to grieve ecological losses well -- particularly when they are ambiguous, cumulative and ongoing -- is a question currently without answer."

By naming this ecological grief, they argued it was not a declaration of defeat or despair, but rather a source of hope because of the "responses ecological grief is likely to invoke."

"Just as grief over the loss of a loved person puts into perspective what matters in our lives, collective experiences of ecological grief may coalesce into a strengthened sense of love and commitment to the places, ecosystems and species that inspire, nurture and sustain us. There is much grief work to be done, and much of it will be hard. However, being open to the pain of ecological loss may be what is needed to prevent such losses from occurring in the first place."

Is it possible that the very notion of transformative change through the lens of ecological grief might provide a pathway forward for those dealing with pandemic grief, and the ever-present fear that, as distancing guidelines are relaxed, we might still be a threat to others as they might be to us? 

That many are currently experiencing pandemic-induced trauma is not surprising. When the very nature of leaving one's home -- for those lucky enough to have a safe place to shelter -- invokes a sense of danger and potential death, it calls to mind not only a post-neutron bomb war scenario in which the buildings survive and something invisible (radiation) presents an omnipotent hazard. It also recalls the nightmare scenario that Rachel Carson wrote about in 1962 when she penned the monumental Silent Spring. Carson's brilliant exposé on the effects of pesticides put forward the nightmarish prospect of no birds singing, a clarion call that sought to ban DDT and other carcinogenic poisons from being liberally sprayed every which way. In 2020, as the cities and towns are largely silent from human self-isolation, the birds who remain are thankfully singing.

A growing trauma

Alongside such grace notes as blue jays and robins and other creatures emerging to create the amplified sounds of spring, we are all of us still asked not to spend too much time outdoors to enjoy this change of season. As the pandemic drags on, so do the mental health challenges that induce the kind of trauma that is both ever-present and likely to reveal itself in the years to come. The question thus arises: can the transformative process of ecological grief serve as a guide to help process and work through the collective experience of the pandemic? Another question is whether we can build up a reserve of kindness and patience to help one another through the pandemic itself as well as that transition that will inevitably call us back to picket lines and blockades, a quality that many of us have sorely lacked in movements to change the world.

Meanwhile, the gaslighting is already beginning, with some claiming we must open up the economy even if it means exposing greater numbers of people to risk (with one Conservative MP, Marc Dalton, suggesting if it's mainly old people who are dying in long-term care homes, there's no reason not to "open up" the economy). Then there will be those who bid for austerity to "pay for all that pandemic stuff," using the provision of government assistance now as an excuse to slash assistance later. There's no doubt that just as politicians like Jason Kenney are already attacking reputable figures like Canada's chief medical officer of health, Theresa Tam, those who have stayed home because the government ordered them to do so will no doubt be the target of attacks from so-called "guardians of the public purse" if they have received payments via the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

In responding to the attacks that are to come, it will be valuable to remember that COVID-19 is an inevitable result of a rapacious lifestyle and economic system that continues to gorge on the ever-decreasing amounts of natural space left in the world. While some of us will get that, the question remains: how will we address the trauma that this time has generated?

A path for transforming

In her landmark work Trauma and Healing: The Aftermath of Violence, Judith Herman connects the dots by writing that "to hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins the victim and witness in a common alliance. For the individual victim, this social context is created by relationships with friends, lovers, and family. For the larger society, the social context is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered."

Writing specifically about male violence against women -- which has seen a dramatic spike with fewer avenues of escape available to women during self-isolation -- Hermann notes, in a manner that can be applied more widely,

"The study of trauma in sexual and domestic life becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the subordination of women and children. Advances in the field occur only when they are supported by a political movement powerful enough to legitimate an alliance between investigators and patients and to counteract the ordinary social processes of silencing and denial. In the absence of strong political movements for human rights, the active process of bearing witness inevitably gives way to the active process of forgetting. Repression, dissociation, and denial are phenomena of social as well as individual consciousness."

Coming out of COVID-19 will require a continuation of much of the good work that was well underway pre-pandemic to eliminate the global inequality, climate catastrophe and violence that undergirds so many daily decisions of corporations and governments. That's a given in such beautiful work as the recent piece by Arundhati Roy, which reminds us that the pandemic is a portal to a new world, if only we will take the opportunity it provides us to enter and build on the vision we would like that future to be. It's a realization that also evokes the spirit of the great French writer Albert Camus (whose book The Plague has no doubt witnessed a sales uptick in recent months). Accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Camus wanted us to look at how we "fashion an art of living in times of catastrophe, to be reborn by fighting openly against the death instinct at work in our society."

It's a beautifully evocative call to action that makes so much sense at a time when this country's largest weapons manufacturers, through their umbrella organization the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI), recently celebrated the right to self-declare themselves essential businesses. "Under the Canadian federal guidance, the private sector is to self-identify as essential to preserving life, health and basic societal functioning," the CADSI press release gushed in a line that would have made George Orwell blush ("War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength!" came the chants from 1984). One week later, the day after endorsing a UN call for a global ceasefire, the Trudeau regime announced it would renew export permits for the killer armoured vehicles manufactured in London, Ontario, that are destined for Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most brutal regimes. Again, CADSI celebrated, noting with no hint of irony that "The industry also looks forward to playing an active role in multilateral discussions to help raise the bar globally on responsible defence exports under the United Nations Arms Treaty."

The popping of champagne corks over at CADSI helped cushion the blow from also having to announce, quite belatedly, that they were cancelling CANSEC 2020, the largest annual weapons show in North America, held each year in Ottawa. CADSI CEO Christyn Cianfarani shed a proverbial teardrop before bucking up with the "all in the same boat sentiment" that has nauseated many who are in the same storm but definitely not the same boat.

"It's more than a trade show; it's a time for us to come together as one and strengthen the community tasked with keeping Canada and the world safe," said the host of the world's leading weapons producers and their dictator consumers.

While CADSI plans to return with CANSEC in 2021, one could drive a truck through the holes in the organization's illogic. Touting their work of mass murder as guarantees for the safety and security of everyone in the world, they fail to address how the trillions spent on machine guns, grenades, warships and bombers have done anything to protect anyone from the pandemic. Indeed, the annual theft of $2 trillion from the public purse (and programs dedicated to public-health initiatives, among other social programs) for the deadly tools that maintain global inequality is a major contributor to the conditions that have allowed the pandemic to spread so quickly. As Canada spends over $31 billion annually preparing for war, contrast the massive storehouses of tanks and ammunition with the government's failure to stockpile respirator masks and other personal protective equipment.

Meanwhile, those who had planned to protest CANSEC 2020 will prepare to meet at the barricades in 2021. But as they and so many others eventually return to different forms of public, in-person resistance, might it help to view these compelling issues through the frame of public-health initiatives, given the deference that (apart from the likes of Jason Kenney and Donald Trump) appears to have been shown to many in the public health field?

Public health means social justice

In the pre-pandemic world, there were a series of initiatives underway in this land called Canada that, arguably, were brilliant expressions of the core principles that underlie public health. They were not listened to by Canadian officials, who chose instead to dismiss them, to condemn them, and, ultimately, to criminalize them. From over a million young people marching in the streets last fall for real action on climate change and changing the way of life that causes such harm, to January and February's beautiful continent-wide and international actions to #ShutCanadaDown, we were practitioners of public-health principles in action.

In a 2012 document, Public Health Ontario prescribed a model for the ethical conduct of public-health initiatives that explored three core principles. These might sound very familiar to those who not too long ago were occupying rail lines, blockading ports and calling for respect for sovereign Indigenous nations whose lands were being invaded and occupied on behalf of oil and gas corporations: "respect for persons, concern for welfare and justice."

At the core of respect for persons is the notion of autonomy or, as the document points out, "guaranteeing individuals the right to make decisions about their own lives." (That sounds perfectly in sync with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its cornerstone principle of free, prior and informed consent.) Concern for welfare "consists of the impact on individuals of factors such as their physical, mental and spiritual health, as well as their physical, economic and social circumstances." Moreover, "harm includes any negative effects on welfare, broadly construed," while justice is defined as "the obligation to treat people fairly and equitably."

Taking these three considerations into account, the document concludes that:

"A public health interpretation recognizes the above obligations, but also emphasizes a positive obligation to intervene where injustice or inequity exists.  This focus on social justice is seen by many as one of the central roles of public health. Reduction of health inequities may at times require ‘focussing on the needs of the most disadvantaged.’ Groups may suffer from health inequities as a result of a wide variety of factors including income and social status, social support networks, education, employment, early childhood health, gender and culture. Consequently, unequal shares of resources may be expended to compensate for existing inequalities."

The report also notes that, in the context of research initiatives involving First Nations, Inuit and Metis, they must recognize concern "for their continuity as peoples with distinctive cultures and identities."

Much of this language could well describe the efforts that were taking place across the land before the pandemic. (Needless to say, these very principles inform a broad range of international covenants and treaties to which Canada is largely a non-complying signatory.)

We know that before COVID-19, the Harper and Trudeau governments scoffed at science (the former silencing scientists and the latter applauding but ignoring them). Indeed, Harper and Trudeau clearly failed to heed warnings going back to Dr. Theresa Tam’s 2006 pandemic preparation report (while former health minister Jane Philpott was too busy fighting against the rights of Indigenous children to respond as she should have to the pandemic recommendations that were clearly outlined). 

Will the authorities listen?

But it has been refreshing to now see what appears to be a significant deference shown to the medical officers of health whose advice is playing a major role in determining specific government plans in response to the pandemic. Still, the question remains: will that deference to medical science and public health play out differently when it comes to climate catastrophe and the destructive projects that contribute to a frightening future? We know from past and present experience that it has been downplayed, if not ignored, whether that is represented in the clearly preventable methylmercury poisoning of the traditional country food web of the Inuit and Innu downstream of the federally supported Muskrat Falls mega dam, the destruction of the Peace River Valley for the equally monstrous Site C dam, or the carbon bombs represented by the Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines, both of which threaten further illegal armed invasions of sovereign Indigenous territories.

While the system may occasionally change its colours, I trust that most of us know that we still have major struggles ahead because that system remains firmly in place. 

Hopefully, we will listen to the voices of those who have always been on the front-lines and who know first-hand about dealing with the trauma that comes from living in such a violent and unequal world. Their wisdom and experience will help guide us through the many public-health crises ahead.

Thankfully, many are not waiting for "the time we are waiting for" to do the work of justice. Indeed, educational work and organizing have taken on new online and social-distance-respecting forms. While advocates have been busy doing behind the scenes work to get refugees released from immigration detention centres, for example, others have organized drive-by protests with the same goal. In Vancouver last weekend, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people without the luxury of having a home to shelter in took over an empty school. Unfortunately, this safe space did not last long, as Mayor Kennedy Stewart's Vancouver police riot squad raided the school at 2 a.m. and criminalized those inside. On Sunday in Denver, meanwhile, nurses wearing scrubs and face masks physically blocked the pathway of Trump supporters protesting social distancing.

It's not just the traditional tools of protest that will help us transition. It's the many creative ways we express ourselves through theatre, song, art and literature, among many other art forms, as well as the thousands of mutual aid groups that have sprung up in every community, helping those in need get groceries to their door, providing sound and practical advice, and creating connections that allay our fears and remind us of what it is to be human. All are representative of what we can and should be. No pandemic can kill that.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. "national security" profiling for many years.

Image: Amanda Slater/Flickr

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