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Sick of the System: Why the COVID-19 Recovery Must Be Revolutionary

by BtL Editorial Committee (eds.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has had various impacts, both minor and severe. For Between the Lines Publishing, it’s provided an opportunity to answer the call of writer Arundhati Roy, who penned a viral essay inviting her readers to view the pandemic as a portal to dreaming and working for a better world.

The Toronto publisher quickly pulled together this strong collection, in which a wide diversity of experienced voices, remarkable lack of repetition, and shared sense of urgency combine to make this a perfectly timed read. Some of these writers have spent decades in the policy and front-line trenches of other public health challenges (SARS, MERS, AIDS, H1N1). Others discern how their work as activists is now viewed through the insidious lens of a crisis whose physical distancing mandate moots their traditional tools of mass street gatherings and face-to-face organizing. (Granted, these pieces were compiled before the murder of George Floyd sent protestors into the streets around the globe.)

Taken together, this incisive and no-nonsense ebook provides an excellent overview of systemic failures and well-documented red flags that left the world so vulnerable to a novel virus. It also posits future-focused progressive alternatives that recognize a return to the “normalcy” of climate catastrophe and a toxic, globalized system metastasizing with economic inequality is simply unsustainable.

Some of the work occasionally veers into the limiting language of the academic left. But the majority of the essays capture a truly visceral pain – all too often hidden in the daily bustle of pre-pandemic life – that’s further magnified in a lockdown world. Even for many in progressive politics, it is rare to hear such voices: prisoners, Black Nova Scotians, and Indigenous people long used to the failure of governments in providing accessible health care. Also represented are those living with the still stigmatizing diagnosis of AIDS, women fleeing male violence, and cleaners and grocery clerks who, despite their new-found hero status, continue to survive on poverty-level wages.

Equally provocative are essays that explore a public health system that works for some but not others. This has been especially acute as the pandemic has revealed in sharp relief the socio-economic fault lines that ultimately determine who suffers most from COVID-19 and related afflictions. How does one physically distance in overcrowded housing, wash hands when there’s no clean water, or enjoy fresh air while living in concrete enclosed high-rise neighbourhoods?

While the speed with which a modest-sized publishing house produced this work is admirable, it could have benefited from a concluding chapter and list of resources or organizations for those wanting to build a just future. Despite that, there are plenty of thoughtful moments, including an especially touching chapter by Kai Cheng Thom that imagines a world based on webs of care while eschewing punishment.

As both diagnosis and prognosis, Sick of the System opens a timely door to fruitful and reflective discussion about the uncertainty and instability of what may well be a prolonged period of crisis.