I feel sadness about the disturbing events unfolding in the US. The murder of a presumably innocent young person by a police officer, and the immediate civic unrest that has erupted in cities across the nation. More is unfortunately likely to come in the days and weeks to follow.
I also feel disappointed, as I naively thought that we were further along in our evolution as a caring and compassionate society. Now the heartwarming responses that we have seen from many during the pandemic remain a source of hope for me, however these recent events make it clear how much more we collectively still need to grow and develop. Our journey continues.
While not all lethal, the social inequalities are plenty and all around.
I felt prompted by this week’s events to reflect on some of the social inequalities present in my field of awareness.
The coronavirus has disproportionately impacted racial minorities and lower income populations. These members of our society are more likely to live in close quarters where the virus can more easily spread. If that was not enough, they are also more likely to be in essential service roles, where they are more likely to be exposed to the virus from others. Furthermore, in the months to come, it will be clear how those in less developed and privileged countries will be further impacted by the virus in ways that we, in wealthier nations, are not able to even imagine.
Income inequality, while nothing new, has been made more clear in the midst of the pandemic. The impacts of an economic recession are not felt equally by everyone across the spectrum of rich and poor. Those with fat bank accounts and investments may see the value of their financial portfolios fall, however their present moment experience is limited to numbers on a screen changing. Compare this with those who have lost their only source of income and bear the brunt of the impacts of a recession. It is not their fault that governments ordered lockdowns and that consumers do not want to spend, and likely will not want to for a long time to come. These members of our society do not know how they will pay rent or buy groceries in a few months after the government relief cheques dry up.
Women have not been given the same career advancement and economic growth opportunities that men have enjoyed for a long time. While there are countless initiatives to support the movement and significant progress that has been made in recent years, it still feels to me that this is taking a long time. Unlike the other social inequalities that I am reflecting on, this one we all agree on and I do feel that we are headed in the right direction. This is the reason that I have hope for these members of our society, but still a growing impatience.
Climate change invisibly impacts some members of our society more than others, despite the climate changing as a result of our collective choices. Densely populated cities continue to use efficient, but carbon heavy, sources of fuel to get people moving that results in significantly more people dying from air pollution each year than the coronavirus will kill this year. Both respiratory illnesses, both lethal, one is far more pervasive and the curve is not flattening but growing exponentially. Populations near shore lines have to deal with rising sea levels. The increasing temperature of the planet means that some geographies are more susceptible to heat waves and uncontrollable fires. In the face of the social inequalities that climate change has led to, “we are in this together” takes on an equally important meaning as it continues to in the pandemic.
The mental health and addictions crisis continues to accelerate. The pandemic and months of lockdown have made it clear to everyone that mental health is health. We have all experienced first hand, or born witness to those close to us experiencing feelings of anxiety, stress and fear. Death by suicide rates have historically increased after recessionary times. However, rates are not evenly spread across income, education, age, location and racial groups. Some members of our society are more susceptible to death by suicide than others. I bring up death by suicide as but one example of what happens when we fail to support and strengthen mental health.
I believe that the social inequalities that I have shared reflections about here are in fact symptoms, not causes, of a different issue.
Death by suicide may be a symptom of losing hope and a lack of support, but these in themselves are symptoms of a different issue.
Climate change may be a symptom of our dependency on coal and oil, however this dependency is a symptom of a different issue.
Income inequality may be a symptom of our capitalistic structures, taxation loopholes and access to education, however these are each a symptom of a different issue.
Women inequalities in the workplace may be evidenced by a lack of pay and promotion for women alongside men, however these are symptoms of a different issue.
Lower income populations are at a higher risk of exposure to the virus due to the types of jobs they have, which is again a symptom of a different issue.
And the murder of a young man by a police officer is the result of a number of issues, including prejudice, fear and arrogance, which themselves are all symptoms of a different issue.
This different issue that I reference repeatedly here is one of values.
Our values inform our beliefs, which influence our choices. Our choices impact the friends that we keep, the schools that we hope to attend, the careers that we desire to pursue and the information that we consume. And the friends, schools, careers and information we choose shape how we see the world and how we show up in the world. And this is what directly influences the many social inequalities that I am reflecting on here.
I grew up in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, and was fortunate to learn about civics in grade school. I had the opportunity to represent my student class in school government at the age of 11 and continued to be involved each year, which led to me being co-president of my high school when I was 17. I went to the largest high school in Ottawa, a population of 1,600 students, that happened to be in a lower income neighborhood with tremendous ethnic diversity. In my leadership roles, I was lucky to be exposed daily to all segments of our student population. There were only a handful of Indians in my school, that I remember at least. Growing up, I identified more as a Canadian than an Indian. Even though my childhood was rich in Indian culture, which I continue to appreciate and have so many fond memories of, I grew up not seeing myself as any different than the other kids who were of different races or had less or more money than my family.
Upon reflection, I can now see that I was blind to the social inequalities that exist. It is only now as an adult, having lived in different places and traveled to most places, that I can start to understand the grave social inequalities that have and continue to exist.
In the many roles that we each may identify with, be it a teacher, parent, employer, government, religious leader, friend, relative or neighbour, we have an opportunity to bring intention to the values that we want to offer each other. The values that we inherit from one another influence who we are for each other. Every time we engage on social media, speak with a family member, connect with a friend or collaborate with a coworker, we exchange our values. This exchange is more unconscious than conscious and in each exchange, we give one another a little bit of ourselves.
We have given each other the inequalities that I have reflected about here, through the exchange of our values and the inheritance of our values from the choices of previous generations. We are all members of the same society.
While we get to enjoy its fruits, we must remember that we also have a responsibility to look after one another.
Now I believe that we are in Year Zero. There was life BC (Before Coronavirus) and there will be life AC (After Coronavirus). In between, this present moment, we have been given the space to inquire within and to question these values that we have exchanged and inherited. We can ask ourselves deeper questions, such as “what do I now believe to be true?”. It may be the same as what was but it does not have to be.
It takes intellect to question others.
It takes courage to question values.
It takes humility to be open to change.
It takes strength to be willing to change.
It takes leadership to initiate that change.
The social inequalities that we are witnessing, from up close like the front line healthcare professionals and essential service workers, who are putting their physical and mental health at risk for us, and from far, like the murder of a young person by a law enforcement official due to racial divides, has led to a strong desire for change.
This change can start with asking ourselves about what we now value.
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