Just as a low tide reveals previously unseen objects on the seashore, the current dual crises of Covid-19 and the consequent severe curtailment of economic activity in response to it have revealed certain facts that were hiding right in front of our eyes. Most pertinently, the people, products and occupations that form the backbone of our modern-day society are visible in stark relief. At the same time, celebrities who filled so much space in our media and collective consciousness are relegated to near-irrelevance, despite their desperate – if fumbling – attempts to remain, somehow, in the limelight. In fact, some of their attempts have attracted derision, if not outright dismissal, from far and wide. It is worth noting here that these celebrities are not necessarily from the field of entertainment. There are various spheres that afford an individual the opportunity to gain fame, such as activism or other walks of public life. Sometimes, two spheres overlap as well. Regardless of their area of specialization, most celebrities have lost their spot in the limelight.
This experience should lead us to reevaluate how we assign value to the various segments and components of our society and our lives.
At this point, in order to further our understanding, it would be useful to categorize the people, products and occupations that are rightly being recognized as being heroic and/or pivotal to our well-being. I see three categories here:
- a. Those who were already valued, but their crucial role in an emergency, coupled with their selfless willingness to put themselves in harm’s way are visible in an enhanced manner,
- b. Those who were barely noticed earlier, if at all, and
- c. Those who were seen as a part of a problem, and were perhaps even reviled.
The first category consists mainly of doctors, nurses and paramedics. From time to time, we have all felt grateful to them, and for them. However, in the present circumstances, the value of their contribution to society is perceived with added emphasis, particularly in light of the fact that the first of the two crises consists of the spread of an infectious disease; they must go near the danger if everyone else is to be kept safe. That is truly heroic. These people are our feted heroes.
In the second category, we have people who are employed in occupations that are often characterized as ‘humble’. I have often felt that characterization to be condescending. Feelings aside, the fact remains that these occupations constitute the very terra firma on which a civilization stands. They encompass a wide range of activities, from garbage collection and sanitation to retailing and energy distribution networks. In normal course, even when we do interact with the people employed in these occupations, we hardly ever engage with them beyond the transactional level. Typically, these jobs are at the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to remuneration, and therefore generally seen as less desirable. We then interpret their lower desirability as a measure of their inherent worth. It is at times of crises, such as the present one, that our interpretation is revealed as a misinterpretation. In reality, remuneration is determined by the following three factors in most cases:
- 1. The additional monetary value that a business expects to derive by employing the person. In fiercely competitive lines of business such as retail, this value is typically low. The employer can only offer a remuneration that is less than this low value.
- 2. The employment environment. This includes laws such as those relating to minimum wages or imposing other costs on businesses, plus employer’s policies and competition among employers.
- 3. The bargaining strength of the worker.
Equating the sum total of these factors to the worker’s worth to the society is revealed as being misguided thinking once the very fabric of our economy is under immense stress. At a time when the prescribed course of action is social distancing, the willingness of these workers to come in contact with many people is an act of courage. The worth of that job is not adequately measured by the remuneration attached to it. It is distressing that it takes a crisis of considerable magnitude for us to acknowledge this. For this reason, these workers are our belated heroes.
Finally, we come to the third category, the one that I term our hated heroes. Before the current crisis began, these were variously attacked, derided and generally looked down upon. There is one prominent member of this category: products derived from oil. They have proved to be of vital importance – in the literal meaning of the word as ‘fundamentally necessary for life’ – but it wasn’t so long ago that these were seen by a large section of the population as completely undesirable elements of Canadian life. The intense opposition to the products derived from oil such as plastic is well documented, and does not bear repetition here. But the specific requirements of the present time have given a renewed sense of understanding of why these products emerged and became commonplace in the first place. It also bears pointing out that besides plastic, myriad other products derived from oil have proved indispensable now, such as the ‘humble’ hand sanitizer and the equally ‘humble’ gloves.
There has been an incessant narrative over the last few years against products made from petrochemicals. Many of the points in this narrative have merit and deserve to be discussed. We can also safely assume that at some point of time, humans will be able to find cost-effective substitutes to petrochemicals. Until then, however, it is these hated petrochemicals that sustain civilization. Their multiple advantages of being light-weight, economical and versatile are to be enjoyed and valued. Unfortunately, it has become fashionable in Canada to ignore these advantages and focus exclusively on the negatives. Or at least, it had been fashionable – until now.
With the realization of the magnitude of the Covid-19 crisis, all of a sudden the same petrochemicals-based products are being acclaimed as the ones that we depend on to fight the challenge facing our public health. The constant laments about their ill effects on the environment seem to have evaporated into thin air – although I have a nagging suspicion that they will resurface once the dangers have passed. In the meantime, those connected with products derived from petrochemicals can bask in their newly found status as heroes. In due course, they will revert to their default status of being hated.