On Callousness: COVID-19 and the Inhumane Treatment of the Downtrodden.

Inhumane treatment of prisoners in El Salvador. Photo Source: Human Rights Watch, 2020.

(Sorry it’s taken so long for me to make another post. Essential service work and all that jazz has kept me extremely busy. Anyway, I’m back and we’re still in a pandemic so let’s talk about how people are handling it. Hint: Not that well)

Firstly, I must say that I’ve been amazed with the sheer amount of solidarity actions taking place during this crisis. It’s been wonderful to witness the love and care for our neighbours through outreach on social media, phone trees, food banks, and charity drives. However, as always, life has a way of revealing the rot beneath the superficially pristine surface. I wrote a piece around a month ago about the smug superiority of people regarding COVID-19, but lately I’ve noticed how much worse discourse has gotten despite rising cases, more deaths, and increased quarantine measures. Many people are choosing to vent their frustrations by punching down yet again. According to these steadfast gatekeepers of the status quo, some people are not people and thus not worthy of protection from this virus. The homeless, prisoners, and immigrants have all been targets of derision and hate from our own working class as well as from those up top. It’s both sickening and counterproductive in a time when we need to stand together as compassionate human beings. Smug callousness is a cancer on society and one that’s been allowed to spread for far too long, but I firmly believe that we still have time to operate. To put it bluntly, we have to try or else we’re all fucked.

Photo Source: Times Colonist, 2020.

I was inspired to write this piece because of recent articles concerning the homeless population in Victoria, British Columbia during this pandemic. The homeless camps at Topaz Park, Oppenheimer Park and along Pandora Street have been a source of debate for citizens. Many folks are calling for proper housing for vulnerable populations and some are calling for forced removal and sometimes even violence. The latter group makes me want to vomit. The homeless are unable to self-isolate and are now placed in close proximity in camps, but these “not in my backyard” champions are content to let them die while simultaneously blaming them for trying to survive. They don’t want them in park camps. They don’t want them on the street. They don’t want them in motels. They just want them out of sight and out of mind. Their arguments here are worthless because there’s no justifiable excuse for this indifference towards suffering. You found some dirty needles on the street and now want to condemn every homeless person for ruining your pure city? Some goddamn saint you are. It’s just another example of working class people blaming other poor and working class folks for capitalism’s failures instead of I don’t know the unfair system that’s led to this situation.

These comments were found on articles regarding Victoria’s plan to shelter homeless citizens in motels for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. Most of the comments are the same “socialism bad, poor people are dirty, woe for the unlucky landlords and motel owners that are forced to put a roof over the heads of human beings” that we’ve come to expect. However, the last comment showcases the violent language being spouted and liked on social media. “Dregs of society” “bat awakening” “Gas and a match…GONE” are undeniably cruel/misguided statements, but in regards to homeless folks, they’re fair game cause the people are just so unsightly, right? It’s not like this language is new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has lit a fire in some folks that’s seeking scapegoats to burn. Why them? People on the street are easy targets to blame. We surely can’t fault the “hard-working” landlords who play the market and keep Victoria rents high. We can’t judge City Hall for prioritizing tourism and wealthy condo development over low income housing. They don’t want to open up empty recreation centers and numerous vacant buildings for exposed citizens? Hey that’s okay cause the economy will bounce back any day now and those businesses will be booming. Let’s instead blame the mentally ill, the addicted, the evicted, and the laid off for not being just like us and having what we have. That certainly sounds like a rational response to rampant inequality to me. It’s definitely more cost effective (and way easier) than being empathetic and actually getting off your ass to alleviate societal issues. Now go forth and be a loyal keyboard warrior for the State cause bleeding heart SJWs like me relish having the same conversations over and over again with a brick wall.

Photo Source: Common Dreams, 2020.

You know what’s a fun topic? Prisons. Get out your party hat, champ. The first photo I used in this piece is from Human Rights Watch and depicts the inhumane treatment of prisoners in El Salvador during a search. Despite the threat of infection, they are forced to remain in degrading conditions and in close proximity to hundreds of other people as prisons, guards, and politicians abuse their power under the guise of ” national security”. Plenty of comments praise President Bukele’s blatant disregard for human rights because many of the prisoners are gang-affiliated. You might also agree that they don’t deserve basic rights or dignity for being criminals, but that’s the backwards thinking that keeps this bullshit train chugging. People are choosing to blame human beings (again) instead of looking at the big picture and wondering how this came to be. You aren’t born a hardened gang member. You aren’t running a fully operational drug den because it’s fun and a good way to bond with the kids. No one wakes up one morning and decides to be an addict or a schizophrenic getting beaten up by the cops. Societal problems and wealth inequality breed crime and fill our jails and prisons (and ones all over the world) with victims of a system never designed to help them in the first place. Now these overstuffed detention centers have become petri dishes for COVID-19 and prisoners are getting treated like expendable props for the State. I’m talking about this because, as it was with the homeless, so many people couldn’t care less if prisoners live or die from the virus.

I’m not going to rant to you about the prison-industrial complex today cause that’s not my primary focus right now. I want to instead talk about how prisoners are being treated during this pandemic and how the public is reacting to it. In short, jails and prisons are woefully unprepared for COVID-19 and have no effective measures in place to facilitate social distancing or proper hygiene. Prisoners have to live in those conditions which to me is wrong, but many commenters have a different point of view. We’ve already seen how they’re reacting to homeless individuals so don’t expect a lot of empathy from these torch-bearers of “law and order”. The comments above are just a taste of this rich stew of bootlicker spittle being served by folks outraged by the mere idea that prisoners also deserve to live. “Murderers, dealers, addicts, mentally ill people, shoplifters, and jaywalkers all deserve to get sick and die because they made their choice to be criminals” is the basic point these democratic paragons like to make. It’s a simplistic argument for sure, but damn if it isn’t easy to sell to people who view the justice system as ultimately fair and unbiased. Thankfully, plenty of allies are standing up and demanding proper care for those in detention facilities as we speak. Organizing phone zaps to companies running and/or profiting off prisons, writing to Governors/representatives, keeping in contact with inmates on the inside, and blasting the unfair treatment of prisoners on social media are all small ways people are speaking out against injustice. Inmate-organized strikes and protests are also occurring all over the world in response to the crisis. I’m not going into the morality of prisons or of crime (once again, not the topic today), but I do want to argue for basic human rights. I don’t care what you’ve done. You don’t deserve to get sick and die just because you’re incarcerated without safety nets. Crime isn’t a black and white issue and shouldn’t be viewed as a life or death one either.

Photo Source: NBC News, 2020.
Photo Source: Media Matters for America, 2020

Finally, let’s talk about the sharp increase in racism and xenophobia during this pandemic. Anti-Asian/anti-immigrant hate crimes are on the rise especially here in North America. Vancouver’s mayor had to address the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the city last week one of which was an assault on a 92 year old suffering from dementia (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/elderly-man-attacked-canada-targeted-coronavirus-slur-200423044938550.html). 5 anti-Asian hate crimes had been reported to authorities in Vancouver in March alone which brought the total to 9 since the outbreak. That might not seem like much to you, but compare it to 2019 when 12 hate crimes were reported over the course of the entire year. The USA numbers in the thousands currently for anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 thanks largely to Trump’s “Chinese Virus” rhetoric and his administration’s tireless devotion to xenophobia. A poll from the Center for Public Integrity found that around 1/3 of Americans had witnessed anti-Asian discrimination related to the coronavirus and Stop AAPI Hate reported approximately 1500 instances of harassment since mid-March including the stabbing of an Asian American family in Texas (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/over-30-americans-have-witnessed-covid-19-bias-against-asians-n1193901). Unsurprisingly, fears over immigration, border security, and economic instability have resulted in an increase of white supremacist and nationalist propaganda this year as well. From basement-dwelling Stormfront members to “legitimate” news sources like OANN (One America News Network), Rebel Media, and Fox News, the peddlers of hate and fear have this pandemic to thank for prime time exposure. Racist lies and propaganda thrive with our inaction so don’t let quarantine stop you from being an ally during rough times.

Photo Source: NBC Bay Area, 2020.

To conclude this piece, callousness in the face of suffering is not a healthy coping mechanism.  Standing in solidarity with the peoples who are condemned or ignored during this crisis sends a much stronger message. Venting our rage and harassing the most vulnerable members of society only serves to divide and distract us from the real issues.  Companies are gleefully cashing in on your panic as you pay exorbitant amounts for necessities.  CEOs and politicians safely quarantine themselves while you have to risk your health for a meager paycheque.  White supremacists and far-right media are using this crisis to push a hateful agenda ripe with xenophobia and overflowing with nationalist poison. You and I are far better than this and shouldn’t be so easily conned by hateful rhetoric or divisive propaganda. Critical thinking and compassion are our most powerful tools right now in the fight against both COVID-19 and the accompanying fear and uncertainty that’s paralyzing our brothers, sisters, and non-binary friends. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best when he wrote “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” I would like you to consider that statement as we continue to face this pandemic together. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you again. Solidarity, my friends.

     X.S.     

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