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Photo by Adam Cai

After The Pandemic, I Hope We Remember the Importance of Community

By: Vijai Kumar

I remember the frustration I felt in 2003 when my viewing of the Powerpuff Girls was cut short and I couldn’t use my dial-up internet. There must have been a power outage, I surmised. My parents later told me that this wasn’t a normal power outage, but instead a province-wide blackout.

It was summer, so to remedy my boredom I went outside. All of the kids on my street were outside, as well as their parents. There was nothing else to do but play with the other kids and chat with the neighbours. I hadn’t bonded with my neighbours before then, but in that time of discomfort, we were there for each other and it made the time pass quicker.

Many of us now understand what the “real economy” runs on. Most of our highest paid members of society - knowledge economy workers, the managerial class, financiers - can comfortably work from home. On the other hand, the working class, many of whom are considered essential, are expected to go into work without significant increases in pay. With our collective realization, online “care-mongering” pages were created to share stories of selflessness and help one another during the pandemic. A community formed.

Our system contains inherent flaws that have previously gone unnoticed due to the rat race. John Steinbeck once wrote, "I guess the trouble was that we didn't have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” When unemployment reached record low levels in 2019, we were too busy amassing individual wealth to get involved in the community. We were so tired at the end of the work day that we would just put on Netflix and go to bed. We didn’t care to know our neighbours then.

The irony of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has plunged our individualistic society deeper into individualism. It denies us any semblance of community that we had in our previous life - trips to the bar, outings to the movies, dinner parties. Care-mongering is, in a way, a form of rebellion. We should consider the next step in actualizing our sense of community. Before the pandemic, we were focused on building individual wealth. After the pandemic, we must start thinking about “community wealth”.

Community wealth building is an alternative to traditional economic development, focusing instead on local ownership of assets to ensure economic security and inclusion. Investors typically have no ties to the communities they invest in. This results in exclusion and gentrification, but more generally, in the degradation of communities. An agglomeration of condos isn’t automatically a community. Community Land Trusts (CLTs), like the one in Parkdale, Toronto, respond to this problem of gentrification by acquiring land for community use, including affordable housing.

Large corporations engage in “economic development blackmail”. Essentially, these corporations threaten to leave communities and take local jobs with them. The City of Cleveland responded to this problem by leveraging its anchor institutions, such as hospitals and universities, to buy locally from co-operative led businesses. This is known as the Cleveland Model. There are countless other examples of community wealth building. This is just scratching the surface.

The movement towards a more collectivist mindset is likely a generational endeavour, but community wealth building can happen immediately. Democracy Collaborative has set up a five-point plan for community reconciliation in the United States after COVID-19. Canada deserves the same. Finally, we should appreciate the role that communities, be it virtual or otherwise, have helped us get through this pandemic, and how they can help us through the throes of everyday life after it is over.

The day after the 2003 blackout, power came back on. People went back to work and life continued as if there had been no interruption to the status quo. I made new friends on my street but it was never quite the same as the day we lost power. The collective realization that we’d lived in a community and not merely a neighbourhood was immediately forgotten. The day will come when COVID-19 will be just a memory, but I fear that on that day, so too will our realizations.

Vijai Kumar is a freelance writer and policy researcher, having worked with organizations like the OECD and Indigenomics Institute. He is an engaged Bramptonian, lover of the arts, and impassioned advocate of community.

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