The following article introduces a blog post series sponsored by the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center. The GeoTech Center’s mission is to define practicable initiatives to ensure new technologies and advances in data capabilities benefit people, prosperity, and peace in open societies. Its overarching goal is a “world comprised of just societies.” The GeoTech’s mandate is an ambitious one and, while focused on applying new technologies to solutions to global problems, is anchored in an explicit assumption that its efforts will promote just societies.
This blog post series will explore the meaning of a “just society” through multiple lenses and in the context of today’s challenges, including but not limited to the coronavirus pandemic. With contributions from multiple authors, it aims to stimulate thinking and questions that distill the prerequisites and responsibilities for “just societies” in our times.
COVID-19 spotlights the need for people everywhere to insist on collective action to create a better future. Specifically, the impacts of COVID-19 so far underscore the need for bold new policies grounded in novel thinking better matched to the enduring twin challenges of pandemics and climate change. The COVID-19 disease has hit the most neglected communities worldwide the hardest, as disasters tend to do. As the virus causes death, destruction, and tragedy around the world, human society has gained a sort of pandemic intelligence dashboard about the hot spots of modernity’s failures. In many ways, the pandemic offers us a chance to learn and test new responses to the ever-more challenging future disasters that are inevitably bearing down upon mankind in the 21st century.
COVID-19 has, in effect, illuminated all of modern society’s pre-existing conditions.
As she tells her story, in April 2020, Cassandra Greer-Lee’s husband, Nickolas Lee, age forty-two, died of COVID-19 while detained and awaiting trial in a room with fifty other men in Cook County Jail in Chicago. He had recently told his wife that two other detainees in his cell were ill. Lee had no way to protect himself from the virus as no sanitizing products were available, and it was impossible to socially distance in the crowded room. His wife called the jail repeatedly — one hundred and thirty-two times — to try to get help for her husband and for the other ill individuals in the unit. No one responded in time. “He left in a body bag,” she said. “And it was not his fault.” (As of early April 2020, about 350 incarcerated persons and staff at the Chicago jail had already tested positive for COVID-19.) Now, Greer-Lee, a public school teacher, works to raise awareness about the injustice of pretrial detention for thousands who cannot afford bail in Illinois. Her cause is called the Pretrial Fairness Act. Through it, she is calling attention to a nationwide practice of holding pre-trial detainees in jail. She wants to remedy the conditions of injustice that killed Lee.
Greer-Lee has her work cut out for her. The United States imprisons five to eighteen times more people per capita than other Western countries. In a global ranking as of June 2020, El Salvador, Turkmenistan, Thailand, and Palau rounded out the top five countries with the highest rate of incarceration.
Furthermore, over a half million of the approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States as of mid-2020 were held in pre-trial detention, according to The Prison Policy Initiative. The proportion of African American males who are imprisoned has fallen in recent years, but black males are still imprisoned at nearly twice the rate of Hispanic males and nearly five times the rate of white males, according to the Pew Research Center. “COVID-19 has made the situation much worse, threatening both defendants’ lives and their constitutional rights, and worsening the conditions under which they are held,” according to a report of The Project on Government Oversight. In fact, as of June 2020, the COVID-19 death rate for prisoners in the United States was 5.5 times higher than the US population case rate of 587 per 100,000, according to the COVID UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.
Since early 2020, COVID-19 has swept through communities around the world, bringing with it the threat of death, illness, grief, destroyed lives, and, for tens of millions, loss of work and income. The pandemic has affected students everywhere, widening a digital divide that already exacerbated global inequality. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected minorities, low-wage workers, and people living and working in congregated settings, including in prisons, long-term care facilities and food processing plants.
COVID-19 has, in effect, illuminated all of modern society’s pre-existing conditions. These pre-existing conditions are familiar to most of us, but rarely have they been so visible to all who are willing to see them. COVID-19 has exposed the deadliness and injustice of what Pope Francis a few years ago called the “globalization of indifference.”
The pandemic has been like a slow-moving but constant earthquake, violently shaking every tie that holds together modern society. First to fall through the cracks were the most vulnerable, but even the most powerful industries in the world have been affected. For example, in the United States, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) tallied a drop of more than 417 million air travel passengers since the virus hit, compared to the same period in 2019—a drop-off of about 75 percent. Globally, air passenger numbers will drop by as much as 55 percent over three years. The rapidity with which the crisis unfolded stunned the industry: “It wasn’t a crisis until it was, and when it was, man, it was full on,” said Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association to the Washington Post.
This sudden change in fortune describes the coronavirus’s effect, broadly speaking, on the world at large. The virus has killed people in their prime of life, young and old, rich and poor, and people of all ethnicities and life styles, but it has disproportionately affected marginalized communities. As of May 2020, there were 4, 253 coronavirus cases and 146 deaths reported in the Navajo Nation, the hardest hit tribal reservation in the country, with a higher per capital rate of infection than any US state.In fact, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) researchers have found “staggering racial disparity” in the number of African American, Hispanic American, and Native American children who have died of COVID-19. As of September 2020, of the 121 children who had died from COVID-19, “…78% were children of color: 45% were Hispanic, 29% were Black and 4% were non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native.”
Globally the disaster affects every corner of the world from the most densely populated cities to the remotest tribal villages. Paradoxically some of the world’s wealthiest countries are proving to be the worst at controlling the disease:
- The UN World Food Program has warned that an additional 130 million people could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020, on top of the 135 million people who were already acutely food insecure before the crisis, because of income and remittance losses. Rapid phone surveys done by the World Bank in a number of countries confirm the widespread impact of COVID-19 on household incomes and food security.
- Worldwide, in less than seven months, one million people already have succumbed to COVID-19, and the World Health Organization recently increased its estimates of those infected to one in ten of the world’s population, or about 760 million people. In the United States, the number of COVID-19 infections passed eight million by October 2020.
- As of the fall of 2020, nearly a quarter of those who have died from COVID-19 were in the United States, although it has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and, as a country, has traditionally been at the forefront of the global leadership in scientific and engineering research, disaster preparedness, and crisis management.
“Normal led to this”
A return to pre-pandemic “normal” times seems less and less likely and, even more to the point, counter productive. As The Atlantic journalist Ed Yong writes in “How the Pandemic Defeated America”:
“Despite its epochal effects, COVID‑19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come. The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festering wound and reopened scar….”
If normal is no longer achievable, what is a “just society” in the world now emerging? Will US incarceration policies continue unchanged, for instance, in view of the dangers that pandemics clearly pose to those inside and outside of its prisons? Bold thinking is necessary to inform new concepts about justice, security, prosperity, and peace in the epoch now dawning.
In view of evidence that conventional thinking, injustice, and inequality have contributed to the scale of COVID-19’s devastation, it is possible to imagine that humanity is on the threshold of a shift in self-awareness with little precedent. It is this possibility that will prompt future blog posts in this series to consult a wide body of work, including that of historians, philosophers, scientists, economists, artists, and novelists, and to focus particular attention on earlier eras when new disciplines, such as geology and economics, first emerged , contributing to new thinking about mankind’s relationship to the natural world.