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CoronaCulture: ‘Fragile Moment’ Brings Outbreaks of Decency, Ethical Shift

The current long moment of enforced solitude is an opportunity to recognize how pre-pandemic life was really quite appalling for far too many people, and to vow to work together to ensure that we do not simply revert to the unkind, unjust status quo post-pandemic, writes Berlin-based Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.

As a source of inspiration, she suggests, moral philosopher Susan Neiman, author of Evil in Modern Thought and Learning from the Germans. In a recent interview, Neiman told Renzetti that she keeps a file folder labelled “Good Corona News,” in which she collects proof of the decency of her fellow Berliners. 

“We’re in a situation…where it actually makes sense to assume the best of people,” she said. “The more that you assume people will act decently and generously toward each other, the more that will happen.” But the opposite can be true as well, she added: “If you start thinking it will be a war of all against all for the sake of toilet paper, well then maybe that’s what we’ll see.” 

Neiman’s lessons show us that the coronavirus crisis is “a pivotal moment” to reflect on “what we were willing to consider acceptable in the past,” says Renzetti. 

“You look at your calendar from six weeks ago and it makes your heart ache to think about normal life—except what was normal was pretty awful for large portions of the population,” Neiman said. “I think people are acknowledging that this is a chance to do something about it. Whether we do is up to all of us together.”

That togetherness, acting as one, is the crucial element, Renzetti stresses. Any given individual act of generosity, however well meant, “is not going to mean much in the long run if there isn’t concerted, systemic, and permanent change”—something that will require “cementing this fragile moment in our memories and actions.”

But while many are waking up to the understanding that “the Mount Everest of boxes arriving at their doors are packaged and delivered by people who don’t want to work under gross conditions,” in other areas of society and the world, the pandemic is creating opportunities for bad actors to squeeze their grip even more. Governments in Hungary and Poland, for example, are using the crisis “to tighten authoritarian holds,” while the Trump administration is working to “quietly gut pollution controls” while the world looks the other way. 

Canadians “are beginning to understand that we need to pay care workers a better wage and offer them proper job security and healthy working conditions,” with policy-makers like Quebec’s Premier François Legault publicly accepting responsibility for slow action in raising their salaries, she adds. But making permanent good on such understanding “will require concerted attention and action”.

While no outcome is guaranteed, Neiman told Renzetti, “there is a chance to change. Whether humankind is going to take it is another question.”