Rebuilding a Compassionate Social Contract in the Face of COVID-19

Last night, I spent 2 hours on a call with over 160 activists, organizers, and concerned citizens from across the US coordinating responses around COVID-19. I signed off filled with both hope and anger.

Hope because the discussions reaffirmed that in times of crisis, people will come together to help each other. Anger because in such a wealthy nation, the questions being asked—all some version of: how do we protect the most vulnerable among us?—shouldn’t be worries for ordinary people.

Some folks had just lost their jobs and were still on a 9pm call finding ways to help those even worse off. They wanted to ensure justice for immigrants, support the mentally ill, and protect trans rights. Others wanted to organize their neighbors, farmers, or spiritual leaders.

I was there to coordinate mutual aid in Brooklyn, where I live, and to connect with fellow organizers around larger policy demands. But given the nature of my day job (which of late includes talks with major institutions on how to support response efforts), I suggested we find ways to get our concerns to public and global agencies to inform their work. This was met with hesitation.

Because people know that their governments are broken—and this past week watching the US federal response certainly drove this point home. We don’t trust our institutions to do the right thing. We don’t believe they will ensure protections for the most vulnerable. And so outside of the things we can’t control, such as the strength of our healthcare systems and the stability of our economies, many of us have no choice but to organize the responses we feel are necessary and just, instead of waiting for the government to deliver too little and far too late.

This logic, which drives so many people to act, is both understandable and unacceptable.

A broken social contract

Over the last two weeks, my partner has put up with a lot of my late nights working—and my ranting over 11pm dinners after. We’ve been comparing our experience here in the US with that of Denmark, where he’s from. Danes are acting similarly to New Yorkers right now: lots of anxiety about the future of the world, lots of extreme social distancing. Yet the mood there is very different: there is simply not the same level of stress over everyone’s individual well-being.

There are many reasons for this. But key is that conceptions of the social contract between citizen and state are drastically different between the two countries. There are very different understandings of the contributions that all Danes (whether as private citizens, employees, or business owners) make to the state, and of the assurances that the government then provides in return.

Denmark is consistently ranked among the top 3 happiest countries in the world. The average person pays 45% in taxes—and 9 out of 10 people do so happily. Why? They don’t see it just as paying taxes, but as investing in their collective well-being. They see it as buying individual quality of life. Or as my partner pointed out, they see it as paying for their government to hold their worry for them. So even in times of crisis, no one is worried that they can’t go to the doctor, can’t put food on the table, or won’t be able to keep a roof over their heads.

The fact that in America, we have to fight for these basic human rights is hard for him to grasp. It is hard for him to understand that in times like these, random citizens are connecting with each other over long conference calls to try and find ways to meet their basic survival needs.

It is hard for me to grasp, too. And I’m speaking as someone who works with and in the spaces between communities, activists, governments, and global public institutions.

The infrastructure of government is so broken that concerned citizens are cobbling together plans for our immediate security and future well-being via a collection of Google spreadsheets, Zoom videocalls, and Twitter hashtags. Of course it’s difficult to grasp. Because it is absolutely bonkers.

Hope in the time of crisis

People are losing their jobs and worrying about how they’ll pay rent. Isolated elderly people are suffering from debilitating anxiety and loneliness. Populations that were already vulnerable—those who are  homeless, undocumented, uninsured, working class, in abusive relations, with pre-existing conditions—are rightly terrified about their survival. Families in Italy are attending the funerals of their loved ones by livestream. And none of us have a true sense of how long this will last. So we brace ourselves, exhausted, trying to gather strength and fight.

At the same time, we’re seeing an incredible outpouring of creativity and generosity. There’s been a mushrooming of mutual aid groups, emergency food donations, financial support for wage workers, and solidarity for frontline workers. Our organizing is rapidly translating into life-saving policies and life-affirming actions. We’ve banned evictions, guaranteed access to basic utilities, and opened access to nourishing art. All seemingly overnight. What we were told were intractable problems were not so impossible to solve after all. Many of the reforms were forced by public health necessity. We need to ensure that when and as things “normalize”, our local and global leaders sustain the political courage to institutionalize them.

But first, we’re in the here and now. There’s a lot happening. People are looking for answers, as are our governing bodies. In the conversations I’ve been a part of, it seems like everyone is expecting the answer to come from someone else. But there is no answer yet. This is an unprecedented moment that will require entirely new ways of problem-solving both conceptually and literally (time to buy Zoom stocks!).

A call for radical collaboration

We have the opportunity to imagine, propose, and realize new paradigms for how society functions. We will figure it out together. As we do, here are some things we’re keeping in mind (and reminding others)—we’d love to hear yours, too:

These are tense times. It feels like the whole world is holding its collective breath as we see how this pandemic will unfold. How it plays out—and more importantly, how we collectively respond—will define our moment in history, and set the path for how we build a more compassionate, more resilient future.

I don’t know what this looks like, but I do know we can get there together. I’m coordinating with Reboot’s friends and partners both in the US around the world—activists, designers, civil servants, technologists, community groups, academics, movement leaders, policymakers, funders, development agencies—to build a network for radical collaboration around response efforts. We’re looking for new allies and ideas, so please drop me a line if you’d like to join us:

Now let’s get to work.

Futher reading.