A kind of silence has descended on our communities over the past weeks. Many people comment that the lack of traffic noise means they can now hear the birds sing. Birds and other wildlife have become more present in our quietened streets and neighbourhoods.
Perhaps it has not been so quiet for others in over-crowded homes, with young children needing attention and activity, teenagers’ pent up energy looking for outlets, or where relationships come under pressure in the confinement of lockdown.
Some may be finding the silence overwhelming, their sense of isolation magnified by lack of outside contact. It is now quiet enough for our society and our country to hear the cry of the downtrodden. And maybe our country is starting to listen.
Last Friday we released the second Covid-19 Social Impact Dashboard. Our reason for producing the dashboard is to give voice to the ‘cry of the downtrodden’, those who are pushed aside and excluded from participation in society, whose experience and perspectives are not so often heard.
The texts, 0800 phone calls and carefully spaced queues outside foodbanks and welfare centres make up the cry. Many are embarrassed to have to seek help, some overwhelmed by the pressures of loss of employment and income, but few are crying out or shouting.
News media has been quick to report on the extent of the crisis, people have been generous in their donations and offers of help, the Government has moved quickly to introduce the wage subsidy, support for business, additional welfare assistance, more emergency housing, and other measures.
But are we really listening as a nation to the cry for justice? Acts of kindness are vital to help us survive but we cannot build fair and equitable relationships in our communities with a stack of cardboard food boxes. Dignity, mana and the opportunity to live fulfilled lives requires much more radical change in our society.
Our faith tradition is founded on this call for justice that has echoed through the thousands of years of the Judeo-Christian faiths. Jesus began his ministry by announcing that he had come “to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). He drew on the words of the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew scriptures (Isaiah 61:1), answering the cry of people in a land that was occupied by a foreign empire that dominated every aspect of their lives, ‘you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.’ (Isaiah 58:9). We must listen to this call in New Zealand today.
Hear the cry for work that is meaningful, safe, and fairly paid. Hear the cry for adequate incomes for those who cannot work in paid employment because they are living with a disability, caring for their children, or caring for others who are sick or disabled. Hear the cry for decent and affordable housing. Hear the cry for mental health and addiction support that is widely available and sufficient to meet the growing need.
The Government has shown that large scale and effective action that involves the whole nation can overcome a health crisis. Just as the race to develop a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus will be most successful when done as a global team effort, so also must the spirit of cooperation and teamwork guide our attempts to eliminate the chronic social disorders of low incomes, poor housing and unequal health outcomes. The coming months and years will be tough, and our community ministry teams are really concerned about how people are going to get through this time.
The Government will need to spend billions of dollars to build more houses that are affordable to rent or buy, underwrite the welfare system with adequate income support, repair and strengthen our worn and frayed public health system, and facilitate the re-training and re-employment of tens of thousands of people away from low wage and unsustainable sectors into future-focused, and environmentally sustainable employment.
As a nation we need to join in this shared work of re-inventing our social relationships and building together something better after the pain of illness, death and economic loss. We owe to all those who have suffered and died in this crisis to learn from it and come out of it a better place for all.
By Paul Barber, Senior Social Policy Analyst
Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash