The world is about to become embroiled in what will surely be a vital social experiment. As countries around the globe open up their communities, how will humanity respond? Will there be a change in behaviour that will provide protection from this novel coronavirus or, as we are seeing in places that already have opened in the US, will people go back to behaviour that ignores social distancing and protective measures like wearing masks? The real question is what will be the outcome? Will we have the resurgence that some scientists fear or will we be able to stop the spread at least for now?

The challenges facing us have developed over a long period of time. Going back to 1941, Richard Wright wrote about the disparities that formed our society and caused divisions along the lines of race and economics. They are intertwined in a way that most people may not consider. In a quote from his book 12 Million Black Voices he summarizes a very important consideration.

“A division of labour among men, splitting them up into groups and classes, enables whole segments of populations to be so influenced by their material surroundings that they see but a little phase of the complex process of their lives and the whole is obscured from them…”

Surely, as true as this was to Wright in 1941 when he wrote to explain the complexities of a society that permitted the enslavement of a whole race, this is true today. We have not taken off the blinders of materialism that perpetuate discrimination, prejudice and a sense of superiority. Even today, while we think we live in an age of enlightenment, materialism is the god that rules what we see rather than the human suffering that encompasses so much of the world.

As we observe the behaviour of our society during the chaos of this pandemic, we can see how confusion over social and economic status have blurred our vision. Small flashes of light peek through the clouds of self-centeredness as we slowly acknowledge the tremendous disparities that lock us into the groups and classes that Wright talks about in his book.

A spotlight has been focused on the racial and economic disparities in the United States and this can open the way towards a fairer and more just society. However, a battleground of efforts has developed. It entails those who work selflessly to ensure the well-being of others who are less fortunate and those who disavow the needy because of their desire and need for economic survival.

It is obvious that, in the recent behaviour of our fellow citizens, we still cannot grasp the full significance of our disunity both in the United States and in the world. We wander around perilously close to destruction with our behaviour. Predictions for the future are not pretty and the dismissal of those predictions with blanket statements, “there will be more deaths, unfortunately” show the enormity of the challenge we face.

Protesters and people bearing arms in the state of Michigan or other places do not have a full grasp of the enormity of the world situation. Individuals hoarding supplies and those who are complicit in defrauding others in need with overpriced essential supplies show that the greediness of materialism continues to cloud our path to a more unified society that would protect and care about every citizen.

Resistance to social distancing and wearing protective masks do little to promote the safety of the health of others. It may ultimately destroy the end goal of getting people back to work and building back the economy. If thousands more get sick and cannot work we may well see more shutdowns, an economic recession and more suffering all around.

I appreciate the cautious approach in the United States that governors like Phil Scott of Vermont and Andrew Cuomo of New York are taking when it comes to re-opening the economy. I appreciate the emphasis that we must change our behaviour to include protective measures so that the reopening will be successful.

I appreciate the conversations that highlight the social and economic disparities of our society. Each one of these steps is important to ensuring our survival as small communities, as a nation and as a world.

We must protect every citizen, to ensure the success of every business and continue to support our health care and essential workers. There is no better time to erase the divisions of groups and socio-economic classes that categorize people so that the experiment facing the world will be successful.

  • Dr Alis Headlam, Ed.D is a retired educator who taught children and trained teachers in the United States, Jamaica and Nigeria. She resides in the state of Vermont with her husband.

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