Anna’s Pandemic Reading List

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It’s been a month of physical distancing here in Ottawa.  I have spent a lot of time on my couch eating gummy candies and watching Betty la Fea, while feeling overwhelmed by the need to act urgently and effectively in response to a crisis, with no idea of how to do so.  As the days go by, I am reminding myself that this is not a sprint and to devote all my energies to urgency is not only a recipe for failure, it will also lead to burnout. Instead of watching endless news clips, I’ve been re-activating my curiosity to try to better understand the moment we are living and the tools we already have. Instead of firm conclusions and action steps,  I want to share with you some of the pieces that I have been reading. 

Tara-Lynn Kozma-Perrin, We Are Resilient. Part of the nākatēyimisowin – Taking Care of Oneself, art collection in the tunnel under Wellington Street.

This excellent compilation of ways to understand collective care gathered by Maria Faciolince is full of essential reading. Especially given that half the COVID-19 related deaths in Canada have happened in institutions that are supposedly set up to provide care, this is a good moment to re-frame and re-think our own understandings of care. This framing goes beyond care homes to the ways in which typically gendered work is valued and understood as we reevaluate our concepts of essential work. How can we learn from other cultural concepts of care and wellbing, such as buen vivir, that may strengthen our abilities in the global north, to better understand our connections and the responsibility we share for each other? This is a perfect moment to also pick up Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Alex deWaal takes a historical and context specific look at pandemic politics in his piece “New Pathogen, Old Politics” the Boston Globe. While cautioning about the simplistic uses of history, deWaal explores some of the logic of social responses through looking at a cholera outbreak in Hamburg in 1892. He also reflects on the success of a contextualized, local response to ebola and concludes:

“But epidemiologists don’t know everything. In the end it is mundane, intimate, and unmeasured human activities such as hand-washing and social distancing that can make the difference between an epidemic curve that overwhelms the hospital capacity of an industrialized nation and one that doesn’t. Richards reminds us of the hopeful lesson from Ebola: “It is striking how rapidly communities learnt to think like epidemiologists, and epidemiologists to think like communities.” It is this joint learning—mutual trust between experts and common people—that holds out the best hope for controlling COVID-19. We shouldn’t assume a too simple trade-off between security and liberty, but rather subject the response to vigorous democratic scrutiny and oversight—not just because we believe in justice, transparency and accountability, but also because that demonstrably works for public health.” 

I also appreciated deWaal’s shorter piece about critical thinking during a pandemic. Focussing on Africa, it highlights the need for deep listening to local actors and communities to form a context appropriate response, especially in places with limited access to health care. Public health is not one size fits all.   Just like urban violence, outbreaks of COVID-19 are not evenly spread out among countries, regions, or even cities, understanding local dynamics allows for effective local responses and national policy implementations that can also help to avoid panic. While Brazil is framed for its terrible response to COVID-19, Paul Katz and Leandro Ferriera write that the community of Marica, Brazil demonstrates what public health can look like with universal basic income and a solidarity economy and that those policies are capable of influencing a federal response. 

How we frame COVID-19 in all our communications matters. This resource list is an excellent start!  There are also a number of great feminist pieces pushing back at “the war on coronavirus.” Start with Federica Caso’s illuminating analysis of the use of war rhetoric and alternatives:

Like war, the coronavirus pandemic is a collective trauma. The ways in which we have dealt with war traumas have instantiated various forms of structural violence: nationalism, state borders, toxic (militaristic) masculinity, muscular politics, economic competition, expansionism, and settler colonialism. And this is another reason why we must avoid the language of war to describe the coronavirus pandemic, for we don’t want another collective trauma to turn into an opportunity to instantiate more structural violence. In the face of collective trauma, Emma Hutchison invites us to consider the politics of grief to reshape our sense of collectivity. This demands that we name and face our injuries, negative emotions, and their sources as a way of integrating the experience in our narratives of communal life and adapt accordingly. Through the politics of grief, we do not re-enact the past over and over again; we empower ourselves to write a different future. We need to come to terms with the limitations of our systems of politics, economy, society, and beliefs that the coronavirus pandemic is showing us. These limitations are the source of our collective trauma and the items that we need to address to grieve and integrate the traumatic experience of this pandemic.

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom is publishing a series of blog posts that explore militarism and gendered analysis of COVID-19. Cynthia Enloe’s “COVID-19: Turning Swords into Ventilators? Or is it Ventilators into Swords?” is a good example. 

Here is the conundrum: When soldiers are deployed to do civilian public health and disaster relief work, are they serving to de-militarize their state’s military? OR is the deployment of soldiers to perform civilian health and relief work, further entrenching the legitimacy of the state’s military? Today, in this confusing coronavirus-era, what are we witnessing: steps toward demilitarization or deepening militarization?

Based on a local, feminist response, what are some advocacy asks for international policy? I loved this list from deeply knowledgeable African, community-based, mostly women mediators that suggests specific ways to implement the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire. If you know of other similar lists or articles for other contexts, please pass them on! 

A bit more global in scope, this Civil Society Statement on COVID-19 and new solidarity with migrants and refugees reminds us that our emphasis should always be on saving lives and never based on citizenship or legality. This includes in Canada. I also appreciated this thoughtful piece by Dr. Hannah McLane on the ethics of deciding which lives to save and how to take structural injustice into consideration when making impossible decisions. What does this look like on a global level? 

This brings us back full-circle to questions of care. How do we love ourselves and one another in the midst of uncertainty? Aisha S. Ahmad’s article on Productivity and Happiness follows up on her popular piece last month.  She reminds us to take our time and to seek gratitude and radical acceptance, rather than normality.  Veronica K. Tonay has a helpful list of mental health tips and info.

Art is also a powerful reminder of being human together. John Paul Lederach is writing haikus (they say we’re at war/ i think we’re falling in love/ with the human race). Over on Instagram, Women Photograph is engaging in a special project called WP the Journal, a collection of photos documenting everyday life during a pandemic, around the world. Not only does the account help us see what life looks like outside of our bubble of Canadian and US centred news media, it’s visually stunning.  

Let’s end with hope. We can and are caring for each other. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us, in the midst of fear and isolation, we are learning that profound, positive change is possible. 

Hope offers us clarity that, amid the uncertainty ahead, there will be conflicts worth joining and the possibility of winning some of them. And one of the things most dangerous to this hope is the lapse into believing that everything was fine before disaster struck, and that all we need to do is return to things as they were. Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it. It is, I believe, what many of us are preparing to do.

What am I missing? What are you reading?


“Kindness starts here.” Art seen on a walk through downtown Ottawa. 

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