By Jeanine Heing, IJPC Blog Team Contributor
The last pre-pandemic event I attended was the IJPC Annual Gathering in October 2019, featuring indigenous activist Winona LaDuke. Winona is a member of the Ojibwe tribe of the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, co-founder of Honor the Earth, and a water protector. She was forced to resist the fossil fuel industry when plans to build an oil pipeline through her reservation would most certainly threaten her tribe’s land and their harmonious way of life as wild rice farmers.
As she explained to the audience, the frenzied last gasps of a fossil fuel-based economy to extract and transport the dirtiest oil on the planet is a continuation of imperialist tradition going back generations. It is the old way of profit for the powerful and privileged few at the cost of survival for the many, with entrenched practices of greed, dehumanization, racism and violence that indigenous people struggle to overcome.
“In the world that we live in,” Winona said, “perhaps the solution to the problems we face today will not be found in the paradigm which created them. We will need to have big hearts, good minds and good prayers to change the situations around us.”
Within months, COVID-19 was crossing the boundaries and borders of our planet. For many U.S. citizens, the pandemic was the most acute threat to our health, well-being and survival that we had ever experienced. Then, in the darkest days, hope came in a breakthrough on vaccines. As we approach some semblance of recovery, I wonder what happens when the next crisis comes? Will the pandemic response be a template for how we respond to future crises?
Tragically, the United States has fared worse than all other countries with 33,472,000 million COVID-19 cases and 600,000 deaths and counting. We now know the United States did not take effective preventative action to contain COVID-19. By the time the public was informed, the virus was already here and there was not adequate mobilization to test, contact trace and quarantine to prevent wide-scale community spread.
With the opportunity for offensive action gone, all we had was defense – social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands. My worst fear was passing the virus to a loved one, especially my parents. My family did as millions of others and stayed apart. My mom, a gifted seamstress, sewed masks and mailed them to everyone in the family. My mask helped me feel safe, yes because it lowered risk of coronavirus exposure, but also because it became a small reminder of connection to those I love.
However, masks became a divisive symbol, and many decried them as pointless or a threat to personal liberty. The former president and most of his administration did not wear masks and held events where many attendees did not wear them. Without a robust, unified federal response, states and localities were left to decide what measures to enforce which ultimately led to higher rates of infection. It is estimated that universal mask wearing could have saved 130,000 lives during the fall and winter of 2020/2021.
Scientific guidance was often sidelined by those in leadership roles and replaced with jarring misinformation and downplaying of the danger of the virus. For example, that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu and the pandemic would “go away” when the weather got warmer.
Those already enduring long-standing systemic racial and economic inequalities were further marginalized. African American and Latino populations got sick and died from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates compared to white people due to factors like inadequate access to healthcare, housing, and unsafe workplaces.
Immigrant communities were scapegoated leading to a rise of violent attacks, particularly on Asian Americans and Asian immigrants. Undocumented immigrants were vulnerable as they faced barriers in accessing care and feared deportation if they came forward for vaccines. Native American communities like the Ojibwe tribe also suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 in addition to the threats they already endure.
Will this be a predictor of response to the next crisis? I would argue that the failings of the U.S. pandemic response stem from the way things have been for too long – neglecting to take preventative measures, bypassing science, spreading misinformation when lives depend on transparency and truth, using fear and confusion to divide when people need unity, excluding and scapegoating those most vulnerable. It is the old paradigm.
It is the old way that has prevented us from confronting what may be the greatest threat humanity has ever faced – the effects of climate change. And there is no vaccine to ward off the varied, wide scale causes and effects of climate change.
It used to be that survival depended on the ability of one’s group to dominate another. But viruses and climate change do not recognize groups or borders, and as people seek refuge from threats unlike any we have experienced in the past, we must evolve.
But there is reason for hope as we come through COVID-19, in the ingenuity of the medical and scientific communities that are saving millions of lives and in the ability of people worldwide to mobilize and adapt quickly to dire threat.
In a parallel struggle over pipelines, on June 9th the Keystone XL pipeline project was cancelled once and for all, the biggest setback to the fossil fuel industry in recent memory. This was the result of ten years of resistance by millions of activists across a broad range of coalitions with indigenous groups playing a central role.
These are signs of something new. Winona LaDuke told of a prophecy that described a time when we have a choice between two paths, one well-worn but scourged, and another not worn and green. The green path is to start again with the understanding that there is no ‘other’. There is just us – all human, all vulnerable – the planet we depend on and all the life it sustains. If we are brave enough to choose this path, we may find we can face the obstacles ahead. Our acts of love and resistance matter. They matter a lot. They may be, in the end, what matters most.
Please support the ongoing campaign against construction of Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 crude oil pipeline:
Please join IJPC’s monthly Immigrant Dignity Coalition meeting on July 28th.
IJPC’s Community Corner is a collection of blogs written and edited by the IJPC Blog Team – a group of volunteer writers who work together to provide insights into social justice issues through the lens of IJPC’s mission. The views expressed in these blogs are not official statements of IJPC. If you are interested in joining the Blog Team, please fill out this form and we will be in touch with you.