The pandemic has shown that Canadians are really good at taking care of each other.
We do so on the front lines providing health care, keeping our food safe, educating our children or making sure that government cheques are written and delivered in a timely fashion. And we do so as generous “care-mongers” accompanying a child with a disability into the hospital to assist with her medical needs, stepping in to support overworked staff at long-term-care homes where an outbreak has occurred, sewing and distributing masks for those who are homeless, making sure an elderly neighbour gets groceries and is socially connected, and taking care of all matters great and small on the home and neighbourhood front.
This rich mixture of paid care and natural caring is getting us through the pandemic. It proves that social resilience is a balance of naturally supportive relationships and professional supports. Too much intervention undermines natural caring and increases dependency. Too little and individuals, families and communities are left on their own to deal with economic realities and changing life circumstances that are not their fault and beyond their control.
Getting that balance right after the pandemic will help us reweave our social safety net. Its flaws have been exacerbated by the pandemic especially for people with disabilities, seniors, those who experience systemic racism or mental illness and who are poor, homeless or in an abusive relationship.
Promising responses from governments could lead people to conclude that reforms like Basic Income and cleaning up long-term-care facilities are just around the corner.
Saying it is so doesn’t make it so.
How can we make sure this opportunity for real change doesn’t slip through our fingers?
Here are five ways civil society can preserve the best of the social innovations that have emerged during the pandemic and build a supportive apparatus around them.
Unify within and across movements
A unified, transparent and democratic movement of grassroots organizations, non-profits, coalitions, individuals and allies working in harmony enhances the power, authenticity and influence of civil society. Creating this network of networks is easier said than done.
Many non-profits have lost touch with the people they serve. Or they see their role as service provider rather than a core participant in civic discourse. Bridges have been burned. Ego, territoriality and competition for scarce resources create mistrust. Differing views on strategy can lead to misunderstanding, animosity and resentment. And the time devoted to strengthening community cohesion and consensus can tempt some to make haste and go it alone.
In my experience, every hour of strategy, advocacy and policy must be matched by five hours of attention to group dynamics. Since there aren’t any admission criteria to belong to a movement, we will have to work with people we don’t like, don’t know and don’t trust, and who we think aren’t pulling their weight or are part of the problem.
That’s why the connectors, peacemakers and bridge builders in our midst are as important as the strategists and analysts.
Privilege the imagination
The discipline of imagination is key to monumental versus incremental reform. Designing social policy without an imaginative sense of your destination means your best efforts will land you toward the front of the status quo, but not ahead of it. Imagination helps you transcend the limits of what seems naturally possible and morally acceptable.
The imaginative question isn’t “what needs to be changed about our existing social safety net,” but: “what kind of caring society do we want?”
A focus on the imagination helps you assemble possible futures and proven innovations into a cohesive whole. It encourages you to incorporate the diverse ideas of people who were previously treated as helpless clients and ensures that solutions start with those who are most at risk, most marginalized and who face multiple social barriers.
Science, medicine, technology, the arts and other fields leap wildly over the status quo by privileging the power of imagination. Civil society needs a similar combination of design thinking, scenario planning, dedicated funds, voices from the trenches, and social innovation labs to leap over the existing social care system and move the dial on justice, equity, inclusion and accessibility in Canada.
Engage with popular culture
Tommy Douglas, an early champion of universal health care in Canada, understood that popular support precedes political boldness. He observed that the job of a leader is to engage with the public so that when the change arrives, they ask, “what took you so long?”
Such preparation should not be a manipulative attempt to shift people’s views or to push a particular solution or program but a genuine effort to understand the daily challenges people experience, the language they use to describe them and the solutions that will help.
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Team up with the artists in our midst. The inescapable truth of making the world a better place is that we must touch hearts as well as minds.
Artists make feelings, hunches, fears, dreams and desires visible. They use their art to bridge the silos that divide us. They tell stories that matter to us. They bring beauty and joy into the conversation and create phrases, symbols and images that appeal to most people. That’s why troubadours are as important as specialists.
Support community problem-solving. Our ingenuity in the face of adversity defines us as a species. “Ordinary people” are constantly inventing themselves out of their predicaments. The majority of social care advances that we now take for granted originated with these “passionate ordinaries” — people motivated by necessity and inspired by love because someone or something they care about is vulnerable, under siege or in trouble.
Make sense of where politics is going
Hockey fans know the importance of skating to where the puck is going. Similarly, it’s important to pay attention to the changing and evolving path of politics — not the large-P politics of partisan instincts, rather the small-p politics of citizens making concrete their ethical commitment to each other.
That commitment includes the personal measures individuals take to protect the health and safety of fellow citizens and their collective outrage when our social care institutions fail to do so.
Despite their imperfections, social institutions play a critical role in redistributing resources and making society more just and equitable. We now need to address their flaws and rewrite the social contract between civil society and government. This requires a politics that has people engaged, in between trips to the voting booth, that turns away from desperation and cynicism, and that enables people to shape policies that affect their lives. That means taking advantage of fair and inclusive consultation processes such as e-democracy, civic lotteries and citizen reference panels.
Analyze the learning curve
The corona curve may be flattening but the learning curve is spiking. Fresh insights about the way the world could work are emerging.
It would have been unimaginable six months ago for a recently laid-off young mother to fill out an electronic form and receive income replacement (CERB) in her bank account a few days later. A new balance in favour of state intervention versus the role of the market has materialized. The social hierarchy is inverted as our collective vulnerability becomes a fact, not an assertion. We now realize how dependent we are on front-line people and caring citizens to be safe and healthy.
Disaster response specialists advise that we base our recovery recommendations around those we relied upon during COVID. They suggest we make note of newfound leaders, champions and accomplices, including the strange bedfellows who have risen to the occasion; former allies who sat on their hands; managers who resisted change or tried to manage the unmanageable; celebrities and businesses whose interventions were genuine and not self-serving; and the new ways that non-profit organizations are merging and co-operating.
It’s particularly important to chronicle the myriad examples of natural caring that happen every day, everywhere, by just about everyone to ensure they never become invisible again.
Government will continue to exercise its power after the pandemic. Civil society, including its philanthropic supporters, must do so, too. Emergencies remind us that people are caring, generous and selfless.
It’s time to erase the free-market snare that individuals are solely responsible for their successes and failures. The pandemic has revealed that a caring society is a do-it-together, not a do-it yourself, project. And that government and civil society in partnership keeps it so.
Al Etmanski is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and Order of Canada recipient. His new book is called “The Power of Disability.” He led the campaign that produced the world’s first Registered Disability Savings Plan. He recently co-chaired the federal Covid-Disability Advisory Group.