It’s easy to feel like the pandemic is the only thing that matters right now and that all other issues must take a backseat. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We find ourselves in a situation where long-overdue progress on issues of social justice is both more achievable than ever, but also growing more urgent by the day. As the crisis has shaken the foundations of our social order, it has both weakened resistance to change but also caused devastation in the lives of already marginalised people.
In many cases, measures taken by institutions and governments to adapt to the virus are things that they used to say were impossible or unthinkable. Students with disabilities have long asked for lectures to be recorded or online/flexible learning to be offered to make college more accessible for everyone. Reluctant to allocate the necessary effort or money, college administrations maintained for years that these measures were logistically or legally unfeasible. Now every third level institution in the country has introduced them for their entire student populations.
Similarly, the government has dragged its heels for years now on the issue of funding for higher education, despite colleges warning of impending disaster and many people citing money as a huge barrier to entering college. But in late July, Minister Simon Harris managed suddenly to announce that a staggering €168 million in emergency funding for the sector had been procured. As recently as February, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were maintaining that even a temporary national rent freeze was unconstitutional and therefore impossible. Less than two months later one was in place, lasting well into the summer. It’s clear that those in various positions of power have been holding back on badly needed policy changes not because they weren’t possible, but because they weren’t convenient. All the pandemic did was change their motivation.
But Covid-19 has also intensified many of the inequalities and injustices in our society. Even as the United States struggles with its deep and continuing legacy of racism, Black people and other people of colour have been dying from the coronavirus at staggeringly disproportionate rates there.
Here in Ireland, the system of Direct Provision has always been inhumane and unconscionable, but it took on a new horrifying dimension as many centres were the sites of devastating outbreaks. Class inequalities too have been intensified, both by the pandemic and its associated economic devastation. People working lower-paid service jobs – unable to work from home – have been more exposed to deadly infection in the workplace and more often the victims of business’ cutbacks and layoffs. As the meat-packing scandal reminded us, many workers in the most precarious jobs have very few rights or protections at the best of times. Those already most vulnerable in our society have borne the brunt of the virus’ effects. We owe these people our solidarity, and we simply cannot continue to uphold unjust and violent institutions.
There’s also a sense in Ireland right now that people are reaching the end of their patience. Years of economic inequality combined with a string of recent scandals and general poor management of the virus have fed widespread discontent. If an election was held today, the parties in power would barely scrape together a majority, and they’re acutely aware of this vulnerability. Opposition groups like Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats, having never been in government, are desperate to harness popular anger. In other words, there has never been a better time for mobilisation, protest, and putting pressure on politicians.
We need to press forward on multiple fronts, to demand that unjust systems be reformed or replaced, and to begin building a truly fair society. The necessary changes range from the small to the massive, and from the legislative to the cultural. For a start, Trinity desperately needs to fix its system for reporting racism and other discrimination on campus. We should put huge pressure on College immediately and accept absolutely no excuses or delays. But more than that, the wider Trinity community needs to have a cultural reckoning on racial discrimination. Ireland is consistently ranked among the worst countries in Europe for racism. Better ability to report it, while badly needed, won’t fix the problem. There are deep-rooted prejudices to be erased. People need to have difficult conversations with their friends, families, classmates and selves about the subtly discriminatory things they do and say. And outright discrimination of any kind needs to become anathema on campus. We all have a part to play in that.
The government also needs to be forced to take the issues of equality of access and funding in higher education seriously. An increase in public funding is urgently needed in the sector, both at an institutional and a student level. The SUSI grant needs to be both increased and made easier to avail of, and in the medium term the student contribution should be abolished entirely. We have the highest fees in the EU by far, fees people are still paying when most or all of their classes have moved online. Our system is not normal and a better one is possible.
Perhaps most urgently, Direct Provision needs to end. This was promised in the Programme for Government, but under no circumstances can the Coalition be allowed to drag its heel, let alone forget its commitment entirely. Nor can we allow the creation of a replacement system which is similarly inhumane. Asylum seekers should be allowed to live in actual homes and work to support themselves. Their claims must be processed quickly so they can get on with their lives. More than that, Ireland should in general be accepting far more refugees and migrants than we are. Following the devastating fire in a refugee camp on Lesbos last month, Ireland agreed to house just four unaccompanied minors. At a time when an estimated four thousand children remain in “insecure and unsafe conditions” on the island (according to Medicins sans Frontieres), this is pathetic and unacceptable.
The list goes on. There is work to be done almost everywhere. But as we’re seeing all around the world, the systems we live with are not set in stone. Change has never before been so possible and so urgently necessary. Now is the time.