Vulnerability and the Virus: The Other End of the Hammer

Editor’s Introduction: This Corona Connection on vulnerability suggests some conceptual tools for an inquiry intended to direct the post-pandemic “recovery” process toward a preferred, renewed world, as it encourages a focus on such questions as, “Who has suffered what harms from what particular causes? What might we learn about vulnerability from this pandemic? What concept of vulnerability appears to be guiding recovery planning?”

 

The Worst of It

“It’s the folks at the bottom of the ladder who are worst hit by it.”

That, or words to that effect, were part of every conversation about the COVID 19 pandemic, in many “checking-in” conversations and e-mails with friends around the world and across the US. It was evident that those with the least were suffering the most in every respect: incidence of infection, number of deaths, economic loss, especially among hourly wage earners, lack of health and support services, and multiple other deprivations among those made vulnerable by economic structures, by immigration status, by being members of a minority or women.  These are among those who suffer regular structural vulnerability, under all economic and political conditions, and other forms in other circumstances of social stress. Now, as the pandemic struck, they felt the most severe impact of the catastrophe that befell all as the virus spread throughout the world.

Will this new recognition of vulnerability finally awaken all nations to the need and possibilities for thinking anew about a post-pandemic global society that strives to eliminate structural vulnerability?

The pandemic has fully exposed the fact that those at the bottom of the global socio-economic ladder live in a state of regular, systemic deprivation that makes them especially susceptible to harms from any and all catastrophes. Acknowledged now, even by the mainline media and public figures, a long-dimmed light has been shone on the facts of chronic vulnerability, how it is experienced, and what might be done about it. This Corona Connection, and some previous posts, illustrate how the pandemic exacerbates the human insecurity and marginalization constantly endured by the most vulnerable.  We in the United States saw that made shamefully and painfully clear during Hurricane Katrina, when the African American community of New Orleans was decimated before our eyes for lack of adequate emergency and recovery assistance. Those eyes, however, soon turned from that devastation, returning to “business as usual,” reconstruction without reform of the underlying racism. And in the US, once again, African Americans suffer the most from COVID with the greatest number of infections and the highest death rate. Will this new recognition of vulnerability finally awaken all nations to the need and possibilities for thinking anew about a post-pandemic global society that strives to eliminate structural vulnerability? The first of the Corona Connections, “The Nail Problem” attempted to provoke critical reflection on the militarist response to combatting the pandemic, this one is an effort to encourage a similar inquiry into the planning of the “recovery” and its role in bringing about a renewed world.

Conceptual Clarity, a Principle of Peace Education; Distinction as a Means to Clarity

Among the goals of peace education is the development of capacities for critical inquiry as the grounding of shared reflections on civic issues, political discourse toward policies that make for peace and justice. Clarity of communication in general, and in particular clarity about exactly what we are inquiring into, the ideas on which we share our political reflections is integral to our pedagogy. In an effort to facilitate thinking anew about peace-learning pedagogy that Corona Connections aspires to encourage, I suggest here some concepts of what I see to be forms of vulnerability, each of which may require that distinct – if essentially related – remedial and reconstructive strategies be undertaken in the “recovery,” now a central issue in the COVID discussion. If learning for justice is a core peace education goal, should not the core query we bring to inquiry into recovery planning be, “Who has suffered what harms arising from what particular causes? What might we learn about vulnerability and its causes from this pandemic? What is the concept of vulnerability that appears to be guiding recovery planning?

If learning for justice is a core peace education goal, should not the core query we bring to inquiry into recovery planning be, “Who has suffered what harms arising from what particular causes? What might we learn about vulnerability and its causes from this pandemic? What is the concept of vulnerability that appears to be guiding recovery planning?

All living things are vulnerable. Thus, in an accord with my advocacy of ecological thinking as more appropriate than the abstractions of most political thought to addressing the peace problematic, I assert that vulnerability should be a significant issue in peace education. As diversity is an integral aspect of ecology, it should be noted that all vulnerability is not manifest in the same way.  This Corona Connection focuses on differences experienced in socio-economic vulnerability now made so evident. Vulnerability, as a core concept, I take to mean to be at risk, imposed risk. It is not the inherent risks of all life, nor voluntary risk, as for example, taken on by the Plowshares anti-nuclear activists, the focus of two previous Connections. Socio-economic vulnerability is not chosen, and rarely is it caused by the vulnerable themselves.  As a human experience, it is the lack of means to resist the harms of adversity; to have limited resilience or “come-back” power in the face of crises and disaster. Historically, being among the vulnerable has meant suffering the most destructive impact when crises and disasters occur. As peace educators, we have written about and discussed socio-economic vulnerability as a component of the peace problematic, but we have yet to clarify and conceptualize it sufficiently to build inquiries appropriate to the learning required to overcome it. As I contemplate imposed vulnerability, I see various ways that lack of means and limits to resilience manifest and interplay in the global order.  I perceive a common root cause of all imposed vulnerability in a general tolerance of inequality, arising from a widely held belief that inequality, like other human problems, is simply a given of life. More to the point here, I also see some variations in causality of forms of vulnerability that I believe should be considered in speculating on remediation of the its consequences and overcoming its causes. Such speculation should be, I assert, seeking ways to provide the vulnerable with means to at least reduce, preferably to avoid risk, and opportunities to develop resilience, ways that respond to the particular causes of their vulnerability.

As peace educators, we have written about and discussed socio-economic vulnerability as a component of the peace problematic, but we have yet to clarify and conceptualize it sufficiently to build inquiries appropriate to the learning required to overcome it.

With reducing risk and increasing resilience as the goals of this learning inquiry, I conceptualize three general forms of vulnerability that we might distinguish in planning for just and equitable post pandemic “recovery,” and engaging in thinking anew for a renewed world. In addition to the general forms put forth here, I hold the belief that within and, probably, in addition to these forms, there are other variations that may be revealed and considered to further clarify and more precisely conceptualize vulnerability and more effective remedies. I encourage peace educators to seek out and add such forms to the inquiry.

The three that I propose now, in terms of their causalities and how they are experienced; the “why” and the “what” of imposed vulnerability are: structural/systemic, conditional/material, and situational/episodic. While distinct, the three are not discrete. Like all else in the global system, they interrelate and frequently function in concert to increase the burdens of the vulnerable. The distinctions here, as they were in the Connection on COVID and climate change, are made in the interest of planning more relevant and effective modes of remediation in the short term, and viable and practical reform and reconstruction in the longer term.

Structural/Systemic Vulnerability

The major and most threatening form is structural/systemic vulnerability in which the vulnerable are put at risk by the economic and political structures and institutions of the global order, in concert with the systems through which the policies to achieve the purposes of the structures are carried out. (In her Corona Connection on COVID and climate change, Ursula Oswald Spring asserted that profit making was their primary purpose.) Sometimes referred to as structural violence, there is considerable literature on this concept. Most of the poor are born into this structural/systemic vulnerability, and remain trapped there by these structures that limit their possibilities to avoid risk and build resilience; all their meager resources, expended for basic, usually short-term survival. Their situation is made even more precarious by such other contemporary further stresses as forced migration, and political oppression, sometimes to the point of persecution, victims equally of civil crimes without legal redress, as they are of poverty and oppression.

Conditional/Material Vulnerability

As human civilization has “progressed,” some have graduated from this constant risk into less severe and constant conditional/material vulnerability, wherein the fulfillment of material needs to thrive may be limited as a result of particular conditions, among them: war, economic depression, climate change events, lack of health care and education, unemployment, political upheaval, racism, sexism and pandemics. The threats to the human security of the conditionally vulnerable are usually addressed by attempts to eliminate the causal conditions. The survival risks within this realm of vulnerability, while affected by the structures are not primarily systemic. The risks might be reduced by medium-term remedies, applied through policy change.   These vulnerable, not on so low a rung of the ladder as the structurally vulnerable, are currently the major concern of the “recovery” planners: small business operators; laid-off salaried employees; those whose income has been reduced or ceased because of the illness; hourly wage earners, and many of the socially vulnerable, such as the disabled, victims of domestic abuse, and some oppressed “minorities” that had made it to a rung or two above the bottom.

Situational/Episodic Vulnerability

People on all rungs of the ladder may find themselves in a state of situational/episodic vulnerability, the form of vulnerability of which it is said, “We are all in this together.” In these days of quarantine, social distancing, masks and gloves, all, but a few ideologues in denial, know themselves to be at risk, vulnerable to this lethal virus. This level of lethal vulnerability is new to most the affluent (some of whom have fled to refuges of second or third homes), to many of the middle class, even some of the working class; tolerable only because it is, however long it may seem, perceived to be a temporary situation. “We will get through this together.” Current discomforts, shortages, inconveniences and uncertainties, alien to those with adequate means, but familiar and constant to the all the structurally and to many of the conditionally vulnerable, for many on the middle and higher rungs, are a first experience of such vulnerability.  Many fear that they might fall from the situational to the conditional, as the conditionally vulnerable fear slipping down from their regular rungs on the ladder; well-founded fears, given the relief response mounted thus far. So, for some, it is an awakening, at least to conditional if not yet structural vulnerability. Awakening all to the realities and requirements for overcoming structural vulnerability, without which I do not believe lasting remediation of the other forms is possible, is an immediate challenge now faced by peace education.

Awakening all to the realities and requirements for overcoming structural vulnerability, without which I do not believe lasting remediation of the other forms is possible, is an immediate challenge now faced by peace education.

The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the poverty-prosperity divide may be as wide as ever in history. But, still that divide per se is not at this time being systemically addressed. Nor, with the exceptions of the conditions addressed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, does there appear to be any attempt at comprehensive assessment of the scale and nature of global vulnerability. Most responses, thus far, have been to situational and conditional vulnerability, totally inadequate to the needs of the structurally vulnerable. This reality was made clear in the Corona Connection on domestic abuse, an instance where the vulnerable are trapped in the structures of patriarchy, structures not being addressed by any of the forms of relief being offered.   Structural vulnerability cannot be eliminated with methods designed to remediate conditional vulnerability. Neither, can any forms be adequately addressed without a comprehensive assessment that instructs in both the breadth and varieties of vulnerabilities. To fulfill that need, I suggest the surfacing, world-wide, of all forms of vulnerability as the substantive basis for shared critical reflection toward developing a more holistic and integrated approach to planning for a post pandemic renewed world. On the basis such a map, we might begin to undertake the challenge of our role as peace educators in the elimination of structural vulnerability.

Most responses, thus far, have been to situational and conditional vulnerability, totally inadequate to the needs of the structurally vulnerable.

Sketching a Global Map of Vulnerability

With the goal of sketching a global map of vulnerability, we’ve curated some “Corona Connection” stories, offering a few illustrations of diversity among the vulnerable, distinctions among the forms of vulnerability, and how they often converge with other forms being simultaneously experienced.   From Africa, a previously posted report on peacekeeping from Cameroon, COVID19: challenge of peacekeeping in conflict-affected environments shows us such a convergence in which COVID jeopardizes efforts to achieve peace in an area where armed conflict had already intensified structural and conditional vulnerability. A news story from India, In Lockdown Desperation, Migrants Pick Bananas Trashed Near Delhi Cremation Ground, demonstrates the severity of the lack of survival means among the millions of structurally vulnerable in that country, a lack replicated the world over. An account from Catholic sisters, working on conditional vulnerability, shows the fragility of human security among the vulnerable and humanitarian workers seeking to provide them means and sources of resilience. An account of the record high unemployment in the economic dislocation arising from lockdown is an example of severe situational vulnerability that promises to increase the ranks of conditional vulnerability. These examples recall the Corona Connections by Anita Yudkin, wherein we see how the colonial structures that impede human security Puerto Rico produced greater conditional vulnerability in the wake of Hurricane Maria, now worsened by COVID. Vulnerability has been re-enforced by inadequate responses to what might have been limited in both the case of Maria and COVID to situational vulnerability. The Connection from Amada Benavides is another case, similar to that of that from Cameroon, of the convergence of all three forms under conditions of armed conflict in Colombia. The peace agreement that promised to end years of death and bloodshed is now threatened by COVID, and the most vulnerable again are most severely affected.

Together all these examples of vulnerability are the starting point of a map that peace educators might further extend with case studies of any and all forms of vulnerability in all parts of the world. My hunch is that such a map will not only reveal the interconnected web of vulnerabilities endured by millions, but also could shine a new light of recognition more intensely on the structural limits to life chances and capacities of resilience built into the bottom rungs of the world’s socio-economic ladder, and the systemic human insecurity of those clinging precariously to those rungs.

The Other end of the Hammer

When I shift the focus of the light shone on the web of vulnerabilities to the global socio-economic ladder, I am reminded of the hammer and nails with which it was constructed. I look at the tools put to the service of building a hierarchy of privilege and deprivation, the militarist force of the hammer head referenced in “The Nail Problem.” I think of the processes of doing and undoing that we sometimes refer to in peace education referring to economic conversion and political transition to peace; eliminating injustice and striving toward disarmament. So, prompted by the possibilities inspired by Howard Richards’ thoughts on how teachers can contribute to economic transformation, my gaze shifts to the other end of the carpenter’s hammer, the claw. I see the hammer now, as an instrument of conversion to extract the nails, to undertake a review of the components of the ladder.  Now, seeking to design a new structure to reduce conditional vulnerability in the process of eliminating structural vulnerability – all the while mindful to the vulnerability of Earth itself to the exploitation of these same structures – I posit such queries as:

  • Might we (being ecologically and economically responsible) repurpose any of these parts?
  • What additional components might we need to design a new structure?
  • Who will join us in the processes of design and construction?
  • How might we design a structure of which we might truly say: “We are all in this together?”

– Betty A. Reardon (May 4, 2020)

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