Social Justice and Radical Hope in a Global Pandemic

On the 8th April three Comhlámh staff members, Sive Bresnihan, Caoimhe Butterly and Mark Malone asked if it were possible to have radical hope and show solidarity with social justice issues during a global pandemic, when people are experiencing such challenging feelings.  They recorded the conversation and posted it on Comhlámh’s YouTube channel, in lieu of the long standing First Wednesday debates.  The conversation lasted a little over 40 minutes and covered a wide range of themes and concerns, and you are invited to join in the conversation by adding your comments and reflections to our social media or by recording your own conversations.  Below is a snapshot of the recording, but we would encourage you to listen back to the whole piece, which is linked at the end of this blog.  

Mark Malone, who is Comhlámh’s communications officer, started the discussion by noting the number of deaths from Covid-19 and he reminded the listener that these were real people who were mourned by families and friends around the world.  He then asked his colleagues to begin to think about how it was possible to still show solidarity with social justice issues when everyone is living in a time of such grief, fear and anxiety. 

Caoimhe Butterly was the first to try and answer this.  Caoimhe is working on a European funded project for Comhlámh called Working for a Better World which aims to provide psycho-social supports to people working directly with people applying for international protection, in several European countries. Caoimhe is also a trainee psychotherapist, so it came as no surprise that her first concern was the general mental health of people.  She noted that people were struggling to manage feelings of grief, loss, anxiety, fear and uncertainty and that many people were experiencing trauma.  However, she was encouraged to see that people were being open about their worries and their vulnerabilities and were, perhaps, more willing to discuss these issues than normal.  She was also positive that as we are all going through this crisis together, (albeit subjectively and with unique pressures and challenges) we will all have an opportunity to go through a healing process together too.   

Caoimhe was hopeful that the experiences people are having now, might make it easier in the future, to show a greater empathy with those who are seeking refuge or applying for asylum. People are now experiencing how it feels to have life decisions taken out of their hands and to have even daily routines restricted and controlled, and she very much hoped that we would be able to use these feelings in a positive way, in the future. 

Sive was also hopeful.  Sive Bresnihan is Comhlámh’s education and training officer and she develops and delivers training courses on global citizenship.  She wondered if this pause on busyness and activity could be an opportunity for people to reflect on the structural inequalities in society and their place within it.  She asked us to think about the benefits we enjoy in this society, and our embeddedness and complicity in it. She warned that these questions and answers might not be easy to work with, but hoped that the compulsory silence might be a time to do it. 

In terms of those structural inequalities in society, everyone agreed that the current crisis had brought them all into a new light, and made them more visible than ever before.  Mark noted in particular, it was evident that the front line staff, the previously referred to “unskilled workers” were literally keeping society functioning, while the higher paid, and more secure professional workers were turning out to be not that useful in a practical, day-to-day way.  That society was functioning at all was due to the risks, sacrifices and deaths of some of the lowest paid people in the country and Caoimhe hoped that people would remember this reality long after the clapping has stopped. Mark hoped that we might address this imbalance in the future.   

Or perhaps sooner than the future? 

In terms of international development, the colleagues worried about countries in the so-called global south that had under-resourced health care systems and other competing health emergencies.  There was also concern for people of colour in the United States, who are being disproportionally affected by the virus and palpable worry for people living in refugee camps where social distancing is not possible.  

Comhlámh is the Irish association of volunteers and development workers and there was a discussion around the duty, as a sector, to be more accountable now than ever before.  Caoimhe voiced her concerns that agencies shouldn’t be using the “buzz words and fuzz words” of development (Cornwall, 2007) in these days.  Sive agreed that this crisis was a wake-up call for accountability of organisations as well as individuals, to dramatically look at the work that has been done and to ask new questions.  She said that some of the new questions have been “waiting for us, and screaming at us” and that if we missed this chance to answer those questions it would be a shame.  She said she didn’t want to swear on this recording, but it would be a shame! 

Mark concluded the conversation with the hope that those who work in the development sector would be authentic and honest in their appraisal of the current crisis, and how to find meaning in it.  That people would meet the new demands and challenges with radical hope so that they could continue to show solidarity with social justice issues, as they move through the changing landscape. 

We would welcome your thoughts and comments on how to find new meaning and we hope to hear from you soon.  You can hear the full conversation below.

Further reading: 

Buzzwords and Fuzzwords:  Deconstructing Development Discourse (2007).  Andrea Cornwall: 

Gesturing towards decolonial futures:  (a number of contributors, including Vanessa Andriotti):