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A worker cleans a shower at a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) temporary shower trailer in Manhattan for the homeless and other vulnerable communities on May 7, 2020 in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Jean-Victor Wittenberg is a staff psychiatrist at The Hospital for Sick Children and associate professor at the University of Toronto. Edward Waitzer is a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and the Schulich School of Business.

Sequestered in our homes. Threatened by a virus that can hurt any and all of us. Media advertising and posters encourage collective responsibility and support our morale in these days of social isolation, loneliness and loss of human interactions by suggesting that, “We are in this together.” We are not.

Who gets COVID-19 most? The old, the weak, the poor, the underprivileged and those who have been stressed in their lives. Who dies of COVID-19 most? The very same groups. Those who have fewer resources to get help. Those who cannot afford to stop working or who have to keep working face-to-face to provide food, to clean up garbage, to take care of the old and infirm.

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We who have (and have grown up with) supports and resources are the privileged who feel we are in it together. We have not been unduly stressed.

Stress kills. When a parent is stressed, the unborn baby shows signs. When children are exposed to continual, challenging, toxic levels of stress, they show signs. The signs appear early (within weeks and months of birth) and manifest throughout the lifespan as changes in our chromosomes, shorter lives, increased physical and mental illnesses, substance problems, immune deficiencies and more.

The social gradient measures the difference between the haves and the have-nots in a community or society. When the difference is greater, the health, education and productivity of all suffer. There has never been a time since feudalism that the gradient has been greater in most Western societies. It continues to grow. Our social and economic systems privilege those in power and actively keep those who have less lower on the gradient. Policies of all sorts embed stigma against the poor, marginalized and otherwise disadvantaged.

We have seen how a deeper sense of collectivism and respect for the role of government and for the “commons” has led to better outcomes in addressing the pandemic. Germany is a good example of a country where most appreciate having in place a well-functioning governance system – nothing flashy, but it gets the job done where markets alone have proved incapable of doing so. The result has been strengthened trust in the government, respect for the social-welfare system and recognition of the need for redistribution, even at the expense of individual rights.

Contrast that to the experience in the United States, where the call to protect the rights of the individual (ironically, often led by those who have been marginalized, who feel their voices have not been heard) has become a proxy for protecting the rights of the powerful – with lofty rhetoric attempting to excuse a squalid and unsustainable reality of gaping (and growing) inequalities and deepening distrust of government.

On the one hand the pandemic has turned many into better neighbours – working together to enhance the quality and sustainability of life for all (including future generations). On the other hand, the crisis has laid bare how race, poverty and other forms of stigmatization diminish life chances while many agitate for their inalienable rights to ignore science and live free of government “interference.” The reflex is to address threats (economic, social and now health) by blaming others and grasping for reductionist solutions – the embodiment of stigma and the roots of populism. Such a distorted “we” against “they” means that we are not together.

While tragedy and trauma are mounting, the immediate effect of the pandemic has been to dampen most forms of unrest. They have not disappeared – rather, many of the underlying concerns have been exacerbated. The social gradient continues to widen.

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As we navigate the months ahead, we will be shaping the kind of economy and social systems that will emerge from this crisis. Will we recognize the difference between privilege and rights? Will we continue to focus on personal privilege and feed inequalities that undermine our politics and sense of community and sabotage our health and the sustainability of our ecosystem? Will we continue to focus on “efficiency” (which has come to mean short-term profit maximization) or can we embrace the need for longer-term resilience and deeper communal ties?

Our existing frameworks are not easy to change. That said, the opportunities for moral and civic renewal often come as a surprise, typically after and in response to trauma. We should be asking whether we are prepared to allow ourselves to be pulled apart – from one another, future generations and our planet – or whether we can muster the collective will to pull closer together.

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