For better or worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world.
As I’m writing this, the COVID-19 Dashboard reports that over 3 million people have been infected, with over 230,000 cases resulting in death. The U.S. has by far the most infections, with over a million infected and over 60,000 dead.
The effects of the pandemic extend far beyond those infections and deaths. Four billion people have been placed under various shelter-in-place and lockdown orders. This has created dramatic social, economic, and political disruptions, effectively shutting down “business as usual” in much of the world.
Just how long this pandemic will last, and how devastating its toll will be, remains to be seen. However, some U.S. states are now lifting their lockdown orders prematurely, without following World Health Organization guidelines for doing so. This reckless approach to pandemic recovery will likely lead to additional spikes in infections and deaths in the US. That places those of us living in the U.S. in the bizarre and unjust position of having to grapple with major questions about how to recover from this pandemic while we’re still in lockdown, still wanting to stay in lockdown, and still not through the worst of the pandemic yet.
Whether we’re ready or not, though, it’s time for all of us who live in the U.S. to start talking about what pandemic recovery here should look like. People in positions of economic and political power are already talking about it and making plans within plans about it. If any of us want to have input into that recovery process, the time to act is now.
As the saying goes, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
In the U.S., one of the alleged first steps toward recovery consisted of the CARES Act, an over $2 trillion dollar pandemic relief bill passed by Congress. For many Americans, the prospect of receiving $1,200 per person (but only $500 per child!) may have sounded good at first, or at least better than nothing. It was the first sign that the government was going to do something other than abandoning the tens of millions of newly unemployed Americans and other populations in crisis to fend for themselves.
But the CARES Act has so many problems.
Many people who live in the U.S. don’t qualify for the stimulus check, like many students, some elderly and disabled people, the majority of the homeless, undocumented immigrants, and even mixed-status families where one spouse is a U.S. citizen and the other is not. The stimulus check is also not nearly enough to cover the costs of the extensive disruptions that the pandemic and lockdown have already caused in many people’s lives, much less the costs that still remain during a prolonged and uncertain period of successive outbreaks and lockdowns.
The CARES Act was also a shameless bailout for big corporations and wealthy taxpayers. CARES funnels a whopping $500 billion dollars directly into the pockets of big corporations with no meaningful oversight. Big corporations also gobbled up hundreds of millions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program loans built into CARES that were meant to help small businesses and their employees. On top of all of that, CARES does nothing to address the many pre-existing injustices that are exacerbating the pandemic such as poor access to healthcare, lack of paid sick leave, lack of living wages that would empower workers with better choices about when and where to work, and the devastating generational effects of air pollution that make frontline communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, more susceptible to COVID-19.
In addition to the CARES Act, state and federal governments are taking many actions that threaten to make the pandemic even worse by decreasing air quality and slipping through other environmental protection rollbacks. The Climate & COVID-19 Policy Tracker has diligently documented dozens of instances of such rollbacks. The fossil fuel industry also lobbied in favor of recent changes to the Federal Reserve’s Main Street Lending Program that will make it easier for fracking companies to refinance pre-existing debt without any requirements about using this funding to assist workers or their communities. These rollbacks are a threat both to frontline communities in the short term and all of us in the long term as the climate crisis continues to accelerate in the midst of the pandemic.
Clearly, the government’s first steps toward recovering from the pandemic are not conducive to a just recovery. In many cases, these actions are actively making the pandemic and pre-existing environmental justice concerns even worse. If this continues, our post-pandemic society will leave millions of the most underserved and actively oppressed people in a far worse place than they were before the pandemic, if they survive at all. This means that people who care about healthcare access, better working conditions, environmental justice, and climate justice will have to take action right now to ensure that our society’s recovery from this pandemic is a just one.
What would a just recovery look like? And how do we make it happen?
Thankfully, many strong grassroots voices and organizations are already speaking out loud and clear in favor of taking action now to emerge from this crisis using just recovery approaches that address these very issues.
Essential workers at Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, FedEx, and beyond are organizing an unprecedented strike and boycott to demand better working conditions, pandemic protections, and benefits. The pandemic has brought attention to the fact that these workers are very much essential to the day-to-day functioning of our society. This strike and other organizing efforts will hopefully translate that awareness into material gains for all essential workers. These gains will be an important part of a just recovery.
Beyond the fight for improved working conditions, protections, and benefits for essential workers, there is also a broader effort to ensure a just recovery. Over five hundred groups worldwide are demanding a just and visionary recovery from COVID-19. Their collective efforts focus on five common principles of a just recovery:
- Put people’s health first, no exceptions.
- Provide economic relief directly to the people.
- Help our workers and communities, not corporate executives.
- Create resilience for future crises [such as the climate crisis].
- Build solidarity and community across borders—do not empower authoritarians.
Applying these principles of just recovery to all recovery efforts would ensure that such efforts actually help workers and communities rather than helping “the economy” by giving away vast sums of public money to big corporations and allowing environmental rollbacks that benefit these big corporations at the expense of everyone else.
How can people who support a just recovery take action to show their support?
If you work in one of the industries deemed essential during this pandemic, talking to your fellow workers about a just recovery is an import part of making it happen. Also keep an eye on what’s happening with essential workers in other industries. Even if your employer isn’t listed among those targeted by the current strike, you and your fellow workers can take action to support their strike, and to fight for improvements for yourselves, your communities, and your contributions to environmental and climate justice solutions that benefit everyone.
There are also many ways that people who don’t work in the aforementioned industries can support a just recovery. #PeoplesBailout, Green Recovery, Green Stimulus, Global Green New Deal, and #BuildBackBetter all offer opportunities for supporting a just recovery. You can also take many of the usual political actions to support a just recovery. Marches and mass demonstrations would violate physical distancing guidelines, but other actions such as strikes, boycotts, petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and online strikes are still available.
Finally, one of the most important things we can do right now (and always) is to find, create, and support local and regional projects that work to meet people’s needs through organized systems of mutual aid. Many mutual aid groups and projects are springing up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These groups and projects work together to meet immediate needs in the short-term. They can also serve as foundations for new systems of working together to meet each other’s needs in the long-term, both during and after the recovery. Because once people in your community and region have started helping each other out in many ways, why stop when the pandemic’s over? Let those new connections and emerging systems of mutual aid bring us forward into a just recovery and just life beyond the recovery.
This moment in history is full of uncertainty, conflict, and confusion. But it’s also filled with tremendous potential for change. Business as usual has shut down, leaving an enormous vacuum in its place. It’s going to take considerable effort, and many complex decisions by many people, to put the pieces of our society back together during the remainder of the pandemic and the long recovery that will follow. Let’s do everything we can, individually and collectively, to mobilize that tremendous potential for change in the service of environmental justice and climate justice. If we organize a just recovery, and ensure that our systems of mutual aid and principles of environmental and climate justice last beyond the recovery, then life after the pandemic will be far better than it was before it.