René Mendoza Vidaurre, Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo
Along the trails
-Cousin, you have traveled so much that I am sure that you earn and know a lot, help us to travel in that way as a cooperative.
-I have traveled along the highway, it is fast, and you only see money rolling on wheels.
-That´s right…. We want to make money.
-When I get out of the car and walk on foot or on horseback, I see people, groups together, I hear that song of the cicadas.
-What do you mean to say?
-If the cooperative takes to the trails, it will touch hearts, dig into our roots, make people think and walk together.
-In other words, feel, walk and begin to cooperate, instead of taking the highway.
-That´s right, Ana, it is the first step…along the trails!
The hurry to make money makes us run and keeps us from seeing what is at our sides. When we reach the goal, we are like the dog in the countryside, who at the first sound of some car, takes off barking at full speed, and then when it reaches the car, nothing happens, it returns in silence. Organizations, aid agencies and institutions are desperately providing their resources and trainings under the discourse of stamping out hunger or poverty, and when they achieve these investment goals, they return in silence. The impoverished population are like the car that the dog reaches, increases its speed of adding more people. With COVID-19 that velocity is increasing dramatically. How can one get out of extreme poverty? The parable tells us that in order to begin to cooperate, let us take to the trails and delve into our origins. What does this mean? It is the time for communities!
1. The reality is in full view
The march of COVID-19 lifts the covers, and realities appear that are difficult for us to recognize. The rural population migrates to the forests or outside the country under the pressure of mono-cropping agriculture or ranching, pushed in turn by the financial and commercial industries. This is not new, with or without cover, we have known it for decades and centuries.
With COVID-19 we were hoping that the internal assets of communities, which have been supported by hundreds of international aid projects, might be guiding preventive actions. That the churches, with so many centuries of preaching the Good Samaritan, might mobilize. That first- tier cooperatives, members of second tier organizations, might move in the face of the virus. Strangely they are still. “We are waiting for directions from above”, “without projects, there is no organization”, “donors are not sending aid to those who organized in cooperatives”, “everything is in the town (municipal capital), the meetings, the harvest collection”. What is left of the “anchor”, “articulations”, “networks”, “public-private alliances” and “empowerment”? The gaze of elderly women seem to tell us: “nothing”. Maybe that is what is new, in the sense that we are surprised.
It would seem that the projects, sermons, credit and commercial policies instead eroded communities. They pushed ideas about being individual, taking on mono-cropping agriculture and relying on aid; some argue that by supporting an individual they are supporting rural families, but a family as an institution is hierarchical and patriarchal, in addition to the fact that the notion of “nuclear family” is nearly non-existent in the rural world, where it is common to see a son or daughter grow up with their grandparents, aunt or uncle, and/or mother. With COVID-19 that erosion is intensified, the quarantine and confinement accentuate the neoliberal idea of “save yourselves those who have”. Because a daily wage earner in farming or construction and most of the population who work in the so-called “informal economy” cannot stay home for more than a week, they begin to go into debt, buy on credit, make storefronts go broke, and affect their daily food intake, and this in the long term will mean loss of human life.
2. Knowing how to get to communities
The idea of harmonic communities of Robert Redfield (1931, A Mexican Village: Tepoztlan), has been left far behind. Since the studies of Oscar Lewis (1951, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied) we understand communities as heterogeneous spaces with diversity, and even opposing interests. They are communities with which people identify, it is their utopia and mission – as Thomas More would say (1516, Utopia: The Happy Republic): They are not a “sack of potatoes”, as Marx suggested, nor “pockets of peasants” as certain agrarian literature categorized them for years from 1980 to 1990. They are disputed spaces where external policies and resources should know how to get there, facilitating the first lesson of humanity: cooperation. People who organize can bring their produce together and get better prices, free themselves from usury at the point of group savings, protect water sources in the high areas, and along the length of the creek, and coordinate to prevent natural and social viruses. Individually, they cannot change prices, free themselves from usury, protect water nor prevent viruses.
Let us illustrate how these community assets move from the few interesting experiences that exist in Central America. Rodrigo Pérez, a delegate of the Word from the community of San Antonio, said, “this community store saves me a day, and the bus fare of going to the town to buy what I now buy here.” If the crowding in town favors COVID-19, people like Rodrigo find what they are looking for in the community store. “It is the first cooperative that came to coordinate work with us,” they said in the school in Samarkanda, appreciating the support of the Reynerio Tijerino cooperative so that students and teachers might protect themselves from the virus. “Only our cooperative collects the harvest in the community, and right here does the payments and assemblies,” said Selenia Cornejo. “Buyers and financiers come to visit us in the community,” said Daniel Meneses, from the October 13th Cooperative. We find similar words about community coffee roasters, bread makers, groups of beekeepers…”The coffee that we produce and roast, we sell ourselves along with our relatives outside, isn´t that a network?” Each organization has a mural with information to prevent COVID-19, while at the same time together are weaving a support network for people who end up affected by the virus.
What is common for all of them? They are in the community itself. Their focus is on their origins. They function with their own resources and rules polished in their assemblies. They improve their oral tradition with writing. They represent a diversity of ages, where youth under the age of 40 are leading them. They distribute their profits. They organize and are transparent with their information. They compete for and rotate their leadership. They organize their solidarity. They fight against their old “demons”, the rules of elites that have nested in their minds: “in group, but for me”, opportunistic actions when internal and external control is weak, prejudice against women legitimized by the churches, prejudices against workers without land (“the cooperative is for those who have land”), and providentialism (“God has a plan to protect us”, “the big chief has a plan to take care of his people”). This type of grassroots organization no longer waits for direction from outside, they visit one another, discuss and, in the midst of their internal tensions and mutual distrust, resort to their social fund, while they look for external contacts that can reinforce their collective actions.
How are these community assets formed? Following a universal lesson: studying realities to innovate as a group and train ourselves. Combining efforts of people from the communities and from outside to organize social enterprises in the communities. Recording data, analyzing it and making decisions. Delving into histories to find values and rules with which to cooperate and recreate identities, because “the origins are in front of us, not behind”, as the Mapuche taught us, the indigenous people in Chile and Argentina. Bringing to light their old “demons” and ours as well as accompaniers (“providing information confuses people”, “donating food is the solution to hunger”, “we know your future because that future was our past”). Walking along the trails discerning what the processes themselves show us about how to accompany them.
3. New veins that the effect of COVID-19 forces us to think about
COVID-19 raises the covers, and what appears are not just those realities that it is difficult for us to recognize, but also new veins to be worked on related to the social fund, the connection between organizations, the coherency between words and actions, and the decentralization of decisions.
Grassroots organizations, like those that we have described previously, have the practice of equitable distribution of what they have saved in a social fund. In the current context of COVID-19, that social fund gains importance, like the use of offerings and tithings on the part of churches. If the State provides curative health care, preventive health is an area where grassroots organizations and churches can invest resources and energies. This includes how to improve nutrition, prevent obesity and diabetes, invest in natural medicine and clean water, improve hand washing and introduce the use of masks in crowded spaces. How can this social fund be organized into areas of prevention?
If a person discovers the importance of combining efforts of several people, in the same way also organizations (collective groups) discover that coordinating among organizations to face COVID-19 is fundamental. Making connections among churches, schools, rural community Banks, community councils, businesses and the municipal government expresses the spirit of superimposed communities that exist in every territory. It is like the baby chick that breaks the eggshell, moves out of its comfort zone and connects with other organizations, it is something that we are not accustomed to do, but we need to do. For example, connecting with the church is not to sit down to discuss one or another form of religious faith, it is to rethink together the solidarity of the Good Samaritan, who did not rely on God sending his angels to save the wounded man, but simply acted, while other were in a hurry (“passed by on the other side”). Being connected is having the freedom to express these community cultures of each organization of which one is a member or participant. On their part, each organization should understand itself as a community, where their members or their staff identify with that organization, not so much for “what one gets”, but for “what one gives” the organization, where titles are opportunities to serve. How can churches, farms, community stores, schools, cooperatives and health centers be connected?
Governments, aid organizations, international enterprises should be coherent. Importing the best coffee, and leaving the worst for the producer families, feels bitter. Demanding meat that deforests, and at the same time being ecological, is disgusting. Supporting small scale production with credit for agrochemicals like glyphosate, that is damaging to natural and human health and increases rural unemployment, is repugnant. Donating certified seed to get rid of native seed and making them dependent on companies that sell that certified seed is shameful. Extracting minerals through strip mining and defending nature, seems like that Nazi who during the day sent children to the gas chambers and at night played with his children at home. How can coherency be obtained and also benefit rural communities? How can each organization and institution conceive itself and organize itself as a community?
Decentralizing decisions seem urgent, it is like letting the baby take its first step, this is in all spheres. That each delegate of the word celebrate the Eucharist (sharing bread and wine) in the rural communities would be a real institutional change in the Catholic church. If a grassroots organization understands their community better than an organization with an office in a city, why do aid organizations and international enterprises persist in believing that organization means having an office and manager in the city? Do grassroots organizations need accompaniment? They need it, like aid organizations need grassroots organizations to accompany them. If people organize in a cooperative or a community store to administer their loans, technology and commercialization, why doesn´t a second-tier organization support them in these purposes, instead of abducting those services and decisions? How much we need to reflect on that old and still good principle that “the stronger the children are, the stronger their parents will be”.
The effects of COVID-19 tend to produce more extremely impoverished people, like the title of the novel of Victor Hugo published in 1862 (Les misérables). Along with extreme human impoverishment, the extreme impoverishment of nature, compiled in Laudato Si: “the cry of the poor and the land.”
Between 2000 and 2014, according to ECLAC, 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean reduced people in a situation of hunger (extreme poverty) from 73 to 38 million. Julio Berdegué of the FAO stated that between 2015-2018, without the virus, those 38 million increased to 43 million people. ECLAC projects that if economic growth in 2020 falls by 6% we will have 73 million people hungry, the same amount that there were in 2000. And with hunger, probably, will come social and political rebellion. Playing with hunger is playing with fire.
The solution to hunger that aid organizations have practiced and continue suggesting is that States provide food, and that they rely on social and economic organizations; in fine print this means that governments, with the taxes paid by the entire society, buy from large corporations GMO food, coopting grassroots organizations and providing that food to hungry populations. This movie we have seen before, including the magic they tend to perform with the indicators of extreme poverty, its resulting erosion of community assets, and what is called family agriculture, the nullification of native seed, the fact that rural populations become docile masses dependent on aid and electoral patronage, and that aid organizations resist conceiving themselves and organizing themselves as communities, and of something bigger that would cover all of us.
In this article we showed that community efforts can be effective in the face of COVID-19 and the virus of hunger, and that these aid agencies, organizations and institutions of the world that talk about “providing food” as the panacea to evils, might rethink their modus operandi and that culture of believing that they already know the solution without previously knowing the people “in extreme poverty”. We should recognize that if communities organize and have accompaniers who also feel and function as communities, they can – and we can – face this and other viruses, eradicate hunger, producing and distributing food, mitigating climate change and contributing to social cohesion, which prevents violence and instead puts our societies on the path to their democratization.
It is the time for rural communities. It is time for organizations, aid agencies and institutions to feel and act as communities. It is time to feel and think that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.
 René accompanies rural organizations in Central America, is an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University, member of Coserpross (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/). Fabiola and Esmelda are advisors to rural organizations in Nicaragua.
-Who isn´t afraid? Fear is the biggest enemy of reason. Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything…Besides, the rain is coming now!
The entire world is experiencing difficult days. People feel fear, impotence, the desire to cry. The only thing certain is uncertainty. Every person would like to support themselves with something, protect themselves under the shade of a tree. But there are almost no natural, supernatural nor social “trees” anymore. It is when that Nicaraguan phrase becomes even truer, “if you have your health, the rest doesn´t matter.” And health is like the rain, it does not fall from the sky with some prayers, it is something that is provided and strengthened with human actions. And who provides it? And how is it provided? Maybe “the love” that one feels for others provides it, maybe the love with which we were made in a passionate morning helps provide it. Maybe it is time to look farther ahead, because “the rain is coming now.”
In this article we reflect on this rural world, that thin strand between hygiene and the economy, between home, church, health center, and between individual and collective actions. To do this we list the facts or risks, we start to explain this “strand”, we look at how scientific recommendations help these different cultures revive – like plants which dry up become green again when the clouds release the first drops of water, and we point out the role of accompanying organizations. The importance of grassroots organizations in protecting their communities runs throughout the article, while the notion of community matures with the turning of each page.
1. Conditions that work for and against COVID-19
The situation with COVID-19 seems to be getting worse. The gap between the official information in any country and what is in the social networks is large, with which anxiety buzzes like a mosquito at night. In rural communities this concern is connected to the continuity of classes in school, religious celebrations in churches, and festive crowds, with or without quarantine. People think that through that “door” of the school, church or public transportation, the virus can get into their homes and pass through the community. What are the rural conditions that work for or against COVID-19?
Rural families have some advantages and some disadvantages in the face of the virus. The advantages are: the physical distance between people to avoid COVID-19 is facilitated by the low population density, and because a good number of families live on their own farms; the average age of the population is relatively young, which limits the effect of COVID-19, even though this advantage is evaporating because of poverty; living in areas with little air pollution; communities that have grassroots organizations with members and offices in the community itself, through which they access some information and some collective actions. The disadvantages are: if people are infected, it will be difficult for them to go to the health centers with the first symptoms and it will be difficult for them to stay at home, or prevent visits when rumors buzz along the footpaths of neighboring houses, all of which have the potential to infect more people; the quality of the health centers, in any country in Latin America, is less in the rural municipal capitals and is inexistent in rural communities.
Gatherings of people in schools and churches is the greatest risk; let us remember that in a church in Washington one member infected from between 52 to 60 members of the choir, 65 were infected in a Zumba class in South Korea, 80 people in a concert. Rural gatherings tend to happen in groups separated by the lack of connection between organizations. Cooperatives, schools, churches and party or governmental organizations (e.g. councils, mayor representatives) move in a “walled off” manner; each person in their own world, and under their own leadership. Churches move in their religious world and with their own leadership structure. Schools with their educational programs and with their own institutional leadership. Cooperatives focus on the economy with their own leadership structure. And so on. This separation means that the gatherings move separately, isolated, which is why people tend to behave in an opportunistic way: “let others spend on hygiene to prevent COVID-19”, “I don´t care, I don´t have children in school”, “I am going to church because God is protecting me, what better doctor than God?”
This separation is worse with external institutions. Markets are reduced to offering hygiene products, raising their prices because of increasing demand, and move by means of intermediation; States limit themselves to making an effort in health centers; aid organizations provide resources within the circles in which they move; and second tier organizations and NGOs expect to mediate resources. None of them tend to cross over “to the other side of the river”, in the sense of understanding how rural societies move, lack experience working at the community level with grassroots organizations. This limits our ability to understand rural population from their own perspectives, and limits the communities from understanding external organizations. We live in a world of one-eyed people that is attractive for any virus.
This separation or “fortress-effect” feeds the prevalence of beliefs. It is a universal truth that when there is less information and less articulate comprehension about certain habits, beliefs prevail. What beliefs? In peasant families: “If I believe in God, nothing is going to happen to me”, “lightening is not what kills you, it is just your time has come”; “long suffering people will resist any virus”; “I am not washing my hands because my hands are hot because of work”, “chloroquine and azithromycin get rid of the virus” (self-prescribing without evidence that it cures and without investigating its damaging effect on the heart; and according to the WHO seem to increase the risks and consequences of the disease). Beliefs in external institutions: “information confuses people”; “money makes the monkey dance”; “if the economy improves, all improves”; “give them alcohol and with that COVID-19 will not affect them”; “boil eucalyptus and cypress leaves”; “read the bible where it announces the end of the world”, “everyman for himself”. Doña Coronavirus laughs and is attracted by these beliefs!
We resist learning. We read about the 15 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the 10 member countries of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, as the region that has best dealt with COVID-19, a region that has 2 billion people of the 7.7 billion that exist in the world. How did they do it? With good public health: they closely observe the symptoms people have, if there are symptoms, they test them, if they are positive, they isolate them in their homes or in hospitals, and they do contact tracing. In other words, the more they diagnose, they more they know what to do, and thus save more lives. In contrast, national and international organizations tend not to do diagnoses to formulate and implement policies, except to appear to formally comply; our mentality of providentialism and resignation resists learning from rural populations, we do not seek to understand them, we believe that we already know them, that “the market knows more”. We are societies that seem to live like in the middle ages under the church with the inquisition, in those times “there was no reason to think, it was enough to believe”, when thinking was a sin and punished by death.
2. Hygiene in rural societies
What is it that we need to understand? We begin with some history, to then paint something about the rural reality and show the vein that we have to continue exploring.
There are several studies on diseases and the architecture of cities and homes, not much on rural spaces. Public health has contributed to the fact that the population lives longer, architecture has also done that. So closets were imposed instead of armoires, because they were anti-hygienic because they accumulated dust. In the last 150 years we know of great changes in the cities of London, Barcelona or Paris; in 1866 they cleaned up most of the river Thames in London, and that clean up saved most of the people of the city from the threat of cholera; in 1844 they redesigned the city of Barcelona, knocking down walls that contributed to the overcrowding, which made lack of hygiene worse and supported epidemics; also Paris was redesigned for health purposes. Other smaller changes also had large impacts: clean water and management of sewage to prevent malaria or yellow fever; in the face of the bubonic plague, that killed 12 million people between 1855 and 1959, they rebuilt homes with more concrete and metal to keep out the rats who carried that pestilence. In other words, the design of homes and cities for health purposes lengthened the lives of people.
Now with COVID-19 architecture is challenged to redesign homes. Even though architecture has not been able to respond to respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can cause the redesign of the home, where the idea of what is private is reconceptualized, giving way to the home as a space for school, work, reflection and gymnasium.
Unfortunately, there are no studies about that same relationship between architecture and health for rural areas, at least none that I am aware of. In rural areas, hygiene has been in deficit for centuries, a situation that has been made even worse by the discrimination toward the rural world. This situation of hygiene is due in part to the fact that rural families every day are grappling with land, farming, agro-chemicals, small livestock, slaughtering or the fire in the kitchen, and they do it without having protective measures like gloves, boots or masks, partly because they are living with limited water or means of catching water, on large haciendas the patrons customarily do not provide protective equipment to their workers, and partly because they do not have access to information while beliefs lead them to not protect themselves.
This daily work of women with fire, or men with the land leads them to bathe less frequently. This is not necessarily, however, a lack of hygiene; in fact, many people during the winter in Europe and the Andean altiplano do not bathe very frequently. The difference is that peasant families think that after work a person should not touch water, it is an understanding about the combination of temperatures; so it is that after making tortillas they do not wash their hands, after weeding they do not bathe “because the body is hot”. Also the lack of water and minimal infrastructure has conditioned them to carry out certain practices; women gather dirty clothes to go to the river to wash them, they spend little water to wash dishes. Likewise, little access to information has an impact on daily life, for example, dishes are not washed with Clorox that could contain the salmonella bacteria, which tends to be found in food contaminated with animal feces. We mention these points to illustrate how difficult it could be the fact that, now with COVID-19, they have to wash their hands frequently and with soap, when customs and their natural (water) and economic conditions weigh in.
Most rural homes, particularly those of low-income people, have dirt floors and are closed structures with little ventilation. For example, it is known that Chagas disease, that “forgotten illness” because the pharmaceutical industries do not see it as profitable, mostly happens in homes with grass roofs and cracks in the clay walls where the insects that cause this disease tend to live. Peasant homes are a prolongation of the farm, or the reverse, for example corn is stored inside the home or above the hearth, while the cats deal with stalking the rats who are after the corn…
These rural practices became customs, and those customs, laws, which tend not to be seen by the eyes of State institutions, markets and international aid agencies. External actors, instead, tend to see agriculture or ecology as separate from hygiene in the home and family, and the economy as separate from health, education and religion. External actors, when they touch on the issue of hygiene, do so viewing the rural reality from the urban experience, and so any weed seems dirty to them, any home for them should be in towns or villages, any farm should be mono-cropped, and any insect should be fought with agro-chemicals. From the urban perspective it is hard to understand that a home on a farm probably is healthier than a city with an over-populated cattle industry, or chicken or turkey industry, which are true virus factories.
We need to scrutinize the relationship between hygiene and agriculture, home and farm and school and church to understand the culture of hygiene in rural populations, to then look at improvements and changes to be made. Without understanding, one cannot see, Rodrigo López told us, a peasant from Waslala. How true that is! Otherwise, how can we imagine that just using chlorox and alcohol is going to prevent COVID-19? Without understanding, how they can reflect on and change their habits coming from their own cultures and farming systems, any chlorox or alcohol that they are given runs the risk of ending up in the municipal markets, as has happened with the donation of tin roofing sheets, pure bred hogs, coffee roasters or grain silos. The community, that heterogeneous amalgam of disputed realities, is like a book, inside of which dance letters, pages and imagination, opened up only by the reading of those who love it, a reading which is like a person who shells a corncob sensing a hot tortilla with “”cuajada.
Our challenge is to rethink community spaces from a perspective in which health and economics are embedded in each other. Homes on farms with materials that protect them from rats and the insects that carry Chagas disease, and at the same time are ventilated spaces, and agro-forestry farms, in communities with spaces for food, reflection, social interaction, entertainment, open field school and collective actions. Communities with fresh air, revived, which end up being the “tree” to protect oneself from the virus. This is the vein to dig into.
3. It is the moment for organized rural societies
While we study, let us not lose the pulse on COVID-19. What should we do? If classes and/or religious celebrations continue, and if markets and States do not show they are effective, grassroots organizations (cooperatives, associations, parent-teacher committees, water committees…), located in the communities, must act to protect their communities. The effectiveness of these organized rural societies can be better if supported by organized global societies (international aid organizations).
How? These grassroots organizations must turn themselves into entities that inform, connect with schools and churches to accompany them to understand the problem and their prevention practices in the face of COVID-19, and look up while they deepen their roots.
3.1 Informing yourself and analyzing the information
Dry cough + sneezing + body aches + weakness + high fever + difficulty breathing = coronavirus
Source: Pathology Department, UCH London
In the first box are the elements to tell whether a person has coronavirus, flu, a cold or just air pollution. The scientific community reveals that a person with COVID-19 can show mild symptoms, and days later have other more serious symptoms. In other words, a person could have a cough and sneezing, and not have a high fever, which does not mean that they do not have COVID-19, in the days following the other symptoms may appear. Box 1 is a simple aid to differentiate, it does not assure you that you do not have COVID-19 with the first symptoms, but at the same time helps you to not get alarmed with the first symptoms, helps you to stay calm and discern; this is a big help in rural areas where it is difficult to go to a hospital.
COVID-19 is not just a new virus, but the scientific community still does not know much about it. Current evidence reveals that a little more than 40% of people with the virus were infected by people who did not have symptoms of COVID-19. This obviously makes prevention difficult, at the same time, knowing this helps us to get a grip on the problem and respond in the best way possible.
Box 2. Recommendations
1. Do not touch your face–because the virus enters through the mouth, nose and eyes
2. Wash your hands with soap – the virus is dissolved with 20 seconds of hand washing.
3. Maintain physical distancing (1.5 mts) from another person; avoid groups of people
4. If you do not feel well, stay home. The family can help you determine whether it is coronavirus (see box 1)
5. Avoid meetings in closed spaces without ventilation
6. Above all, think, think, and think–it is the most vital thing that we should practice.
Box 2 has information also based on studies. Grassroots organizations can disseminate it in their communities, but first they should read and analyze it: why shouldn´t you touch your face? Why should you wash your hands with soap? Why maintain a distance of 1.5 meters with other people? Why should you stay home when you have a cough, mucus and sneezing? The more we think about it, the more we understand it, the more we are going to put it into practice and tell other people. Talking through information allows us to think about reorganizing activities, for example, the measure of maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 meters can help so that in a religious celebration, a meeting in the cooperative, or a class in the school people take their seats maintaining that distancing, so that the meetings be for shorter periods of time or with frequent recesses, or so that the meetings might be better prepared in advance so that, like chickens, you go straight to the “grain.” Information that is thought through can save lives.
Grassroots organizations also should reflect on other contributions from scientists. Let us look at 3 contributions. The first, studies show that children under the age of 12 do not get infected much, compared to adults; in the cases when they are infected, they almost never get seriously sick, nor are they great transmitters of the virus, like they were in the case of the flu, because the amount of receptors that COVID-19 needs are less in children under the age of 12, and consequently the viral charge (in other words, the amount of the virus that they can gather) is much smaller. Statistics confirm this statement, minors under 12 are less than 0.2% of COVID-19 deaths.
Second, statistics how that men become more infected by COVID-19 than women, and they tend to suffer more from the virus than women who are affected. This is due to the fact that “the blood of men has higher concentrations of the converter enzyme of angiotensin II (ACE2) than the blood of women (…). This receptor is found on the surface of healthy cells, and helps coronavirus infect them” (see: https://www.iprofesional.com/actualidad/315900-coronavirus-por-que-hombres-se-contagian-mas-que-mujeres ). Active genes linked to the X chromosome provide women (XX) greater protection against coronavirus than men”. In addition, be it for the type work in which rural women are more involved, in general they have more hygienic habits than men, for example, they wash their hands more frequently, be it because they are washing dishes, clothing or for personal care. This indicate the importance of hand washing.
Third, studies also tell us that the use of masks is preventive, but they also warn us of the risk of reusing them, because they can become a means of infection, because the virus can remain for hours and even days in the masks. The masks are more for infected people, with or without symptoms, so they do not infect other people. Why the masks? Because they reduce the particles that come out of the mouth when a person breathes or talks. When should masks be used? They can use them in school during classes in closed classrooms with little ventilation, in relatively closed churches during celebrations, when it is not possible to maintain physical distancing, when the interaction lasts a certain length of time, in places with human crowding (banks, markets…). They should also be used when you travel to town, on returning home you should wash it, in this way the mask will be ready for a new outing or meeting. Countries that have overcome COVID-19 have used the masks as part of their strategies, which is why rural communities probably will have to introduce the use of masks as part of their culture of care, particularly for the moments we just pointed out.
3.2 Linking to and contacting schools and churches
It seems easy to connect to and assume that any organization or institution will be happy to be contacted. Nevertheless, churches, schools and party structures are not accustomed to coordinate with community organizations, except to “orient them” about what to do, and treat them as their dependents. Their worlds and leadership which we mentioned previously really carry weight, they are true walls to community coordination. How is a grassroots cooperative going to react if the pastor of a church tells them, “God is our doctor, we trust in God?” What is it going to say and do if the principal of a school tells them, “we can only receive support if it comes through the ministry of education”? What are they doing to do if a committee of a political party, the councils or mayor deputies say that “directions and projects only come from above?”. What can you say to the parent of a family who only believes in the patron of their hacienda? How difficult it is to be community and work for the community! There, where things get complicated, money will not even make monkeys dance.
In the midst of these worlds we have learned the following steps. First, discussing the information in figures 1 and 2 really empowers people, it is in-forming, and informing is forming. Information can be an antidote to despotic religious, political and economic leaders. Second, the cooperative or association should start from what it is and has; what do they have and who are they? Each member has, at least, a family member who is a student, believer of some religion and/or is member of a political party; they should talk with them, discuss the COVID-19 situation, and the information provided here. Third, members of the organs of the cooperatives, having now conversed at the grassroots level, visit the parent/teachers committee of the school, people with positions in the churches, (e.g. deacons, delegates of the word) and party members or government authorities, reflect with them and discuss the information. Finally, the board members of cooperatives communicate with the parent/teacher committee of the school and with deacons and delegates of the word. In other words, connect with the grassroots of different organizations and institutions, their intermediate leaders, to then connect with the leadership of the organizations and institutions. In these steps, it is not a matter of convincing anyone, but of listening, bringing together elements that help to understand, and once each person understands, they will be able to see and then act – it is like preparing the soil and planting a seed, then you have to let the seed germinate and struggle to grow.
Table. Cost of kit for 90 people (1 month; in US dollars)
Chlorox (cleaning equipment) (liters)
Hand towel (units)
Bar of soap (units)
Re-usable masks (units)
With these steps, each organization can supply itself with a kit of hygiene products to prevent COVID-19 (see table). Cooperatives have a social fund that they can use to acquire the kit, unless they have used it for other social agendas that they tend to have. Schools can, through the parent/teachers committees, gather resources to acquire the kit. If the cooperatives, with or without international support, can gather resources to support the schools and churches, it could make a difference, strengthening the bonds in the community, and the entire community would benefit. The more bonds there are, the more autonomous the community will be.
3.3 Looking forward
The sixth recommendation in Figure 2 is the most important reason for a grassroots organization rooted in the community to exist: think, think and think. Thinking is the most important element to resisting COVID-19. Thinking is looking forward and seeing beyond our noses. A cooperative is not a church nor a political party, its members are there voluntarily, they are not subordinated to anyone, they discuss and reach agreements in their assemblies, which is why they must examine their beliefs and fight with and against them. Individually they can believe or not in God, but they should not expect God to send them angels or saints to wash their hands for them, or put their masks on, just as they would not expect that he plant beans for them or remove botflies from their cattle; they can believe in their political leaders, but it is shameful to subordinate themselves to anyone. As cooperative members they have free will, their source of power is the assembly composed of the members themselves, and their reason for being is thinking, thinking and thinking in favor of their communities.
Part of this thinking is reflecting about COVID-19: How to protect their own community? If the State does not show up in a community, the cooperative must also take on that role. If the health system capacity is overcome, grassroots organizations should discuss how to help prevent the outbreak in their communities, and how to help people who might be affected by the virus. If in any country COVID-19 is being controlled, in all countries there are waves of outbreaks of the disease, so the cooperative should keep looking for those possible outbreaks. In Central America the urban waves of COVID-19 are still ongoing, which is why the rural waves that come later, can be lethal, not just for the reasons mentioned in this article, but because we are in the midst of the rainy season, which will make it more difficult for infected people to get to a health center or any support. If a community receives external support, the cooperative must be careful that that support not be counterproductive, because there can be support that displaces grassroots organizations, and when that donation ends the community´s own autonomy and their own efforts can be left eroded.
Cooperatives need to organize how a network of women can sew masks, how to make soap with lard, how to recover old ways of making alcohol in order to use on hands, how to recover natural medicine… Cooperatives need to think about connecting hygiene, economics, social and environmental elements, thinking about the food in the community beyond COVID-19, thinking about environmental sustainability with pure air and water, thinking, thinking, thinking.
4. Role of international organizations in living communities
Even though for multiple reasons most of the international aid organizations have withdrawn from Central America, there are still international organization that are supporting the region. There also is the fair-trade network, as well as local-global networks among national and international organizations, unions, churches, social banks and universities in the world. When there is the will, there is the way, as the saying goes. If each person feels a mission of service, we can deepen those relationships of collaboration and reactivate “dead” relationships, because “where there are ashes, there was fire.” Each person and organization can play an important role if in this COVID-19 context they realize the importance of working on the community level that is organizing: what good does it do to provide individualized credit or training, as neoliberalism does, promoting mono-cropping, environmental degradation and the erosion of communities? The current situation wakes us up: people who organize and follow rules agreed upon in their assemblies, instead of gurus or chiefs who see themselves as the law, are those who really energize their communities, sustainable farming systems and contribute to social and environmental equity. Communities save communities.
Within this framework, what role do aid organizations have? Traditional donations, involving donating and awaiting reports invented by organizations “confined” to the cities, can be counterproductive, particularly if they displace the efforts of the communities themselves, which in the long term would undermine communities. Aid organizations need to connect with counterparts who really are working with grassroots organizations that meet the following criteria: they are democratic, redistribute their surplus, are transparent with their information and are rooted in their communities or specific micro-territories. This type of organization will persist in the communities, while other external organizations, or those with disperse membership, will continue treating the communities like their lovers, showing up from time to time and leaving. Forming alliances with grassroots organizations so that a donation might provide an initial push, for example, with what is indicated in the table, supporting wash basins in schools with access to water, or working on agro-forestry systems that would protect water sources, where grassroots organizations might accompany their communities, and that their national partners might accompany them in the communities themselves, being careful, but overcoming fear, is the network which need to be built now and always. The dilemma is not whether to leave your urban home or a rural farm; it is how we strengthen internal community assets, how we can take advantage of this “momentum” that exists in global awareness as an effect of COVID-19 to see the importance of communities. In this way, external financing to build a community response would decisively help the community deal with the virus and its new outbreaks, and help in the long term to democratize the community itself.
5. By way of conclusion
In this article we showed the risks of COVID-19, we have begun a reflection on the relationship between hygiene, the economy and social factors, we described the strength of communities if they build lasting connections, we have emphasized the role of grassroots organizations to reflect on their values and principles in light of what is happening in their communities, and generate ways to cooperate in the prevention of COVID-19, and to innovate in ways of accompanying their communities in the midst of the uncertainty. We showed that, through these short term measures, and starting from an analysis of the processes which we are experiencing, it is possible to look forward to the medium and long term: to improve, correct, and generate habits of hygiene connecting home, farm and nature, and home, school, health center and community building.
The impact of what we are proposing, nevertheless, will be seen above all on more structural issues. For example, an exponential increase is coming of people in extreme poverty, the goal of eliminating extreme global poverty for 2030 is going to be only left on paper. The crisis for rich families of the world is how to have less desert options in their dinner, while for our communities the crisis means that they might miss a meal or face empty plates, becoming vulnerable again to any disease. This article and the previous one on basic grains aim at preventing those impacts.
The current situation also provides us with opportunities, because “behind every adversity there is an opportunity”. What opportunity? Mitigation of climate change which, in the case of rural communities, means water, land with life, biodiversity; it is the moment to rethink farming systems and intensify more sustainable forms and farming systems that stop the loss of nutrients in food because of the decreasing quality of the soil. It is the time for communities, never before has the importance been so clear of investing in communities who organize and embrace a culture of care; now is the hour for life, amen.
To look at these structural issues we must understand that it is not the economy that solves health care, it is not a matter of knowing whether the chicken or the egg is first, now the economy is public health and community health; and health, the economy, social and environmental reality are like a mountain slope, if you are on the higher part it looks different than seeing it from below, if you are on the very top, it looks different from one side than from the other, but it is the same slope, the same mountain slope.
“Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything else…Besides, the rain is coming!”
 It is likely that air pollution facilitates the virus and makes its impact worse, which in part would explain why countries in Europe have had high mortality, measured by the indicator of “over-deaths” or “over-mortality” (number of deaths above the average deaths from previous years) as an effect of COVID-19.
 Many people even with clear signs of having been infected, decide not to go to the health centers or hospitals. Why? “They say the hospitals have no room”, “I don´t want to die intubated”, “I want my family to wake me” and “we want to now where he is going to be buried to be able to go to pray for him”. The express burials frighten the population.
 L. Engelmann, J. Henderson and Ch. Lynteris (eds), 2018, Plague and the City. Londron: Routledge. They study the relationship between plagues and measures to fight plagues and cities from the middle ages up to the modern era; they also include cities like Buenos Aires.
 Inspired in these realities and by actions of Dr. Mazza and his team, in 1995 they filmed the movie Casas de Fuego. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6yWNBytu3U The movie illustrates the relationship between disease-insects, homes (shacks) and social inequality, the wealthy class is against homes being rebuilt, because “they are not concerned” about the millions of poor people.
The movie Casas de Fuego (footnote No. 5) illustrates the duality science/faith and committed science/academic science. The priest is opposed to science benefitting the most impoverished and affected communities; for him “faith and science are fighting over the same people”; a Manichean dilemma that smacks of the middle ages and that did a lot of damage to humanity. Also in this movie, that captures a good part of that experience, the University blocks the mission of Dr. Mazza and his team; fortunately Dr. Mazza and his team persist, their commitment is worth more than restrictive science, a commitment that nevertheless, they paid for with their lives, caused by the Chagas disease itself.
 If there are other organizations in the community, like alcoholics anonymous, water or road committees, the same is done as with the schools and churches.
 Note that traditional organizations tend to do just the opposite: the meet first and only with the leadership of the organizations, and then send technicians to “train” (in other words, convince).
 If some national or international organization wants to provide support under this spirit, they can contact the Coserpross cooperative (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) in Nicaragua, the Comal Network in Honduras (http://www.redcomal.org.hn/). Coserpross and the Comal Network accompany dozens of grassroots organizations in the region, synthesize verified information to provide to the grassroots organizations, and move about in those same territories. There are also organizations like Aldea Global and ADDAC that we mentioned in footnote 5; their uniqueness is that their network is present in dozens of communities.
 What would happen if a bee stayed in its hive? It could live as long as the food that it stored lasted, the honey that it produced, and then? We must understand that we, flowers, bees and humans, are all one network. The bee leaves its hive and goes from flower to flower, pollinizes, does it at the risk of losing themselves and of losing their lives. So is the network. So are we accompaniers, taking on the corresponding measures (use of mask and frequent hand washing), we should not “pass by on the other side” like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we should be inspired by people like Chagas and Mazza did and their teams in Brazil and Argentine that the movie Casas de Fuego portrays.
“It is said that the children of the very poor are not brought up, but dragged up.” Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
It’s an image that is haunting, and daunting, this observation from 1852 Victorian England: the idea that some children- many children, in fact- in the very prime of their learning and forming years were forced to find their way to young adulthood through the hauling and heaving of desperate poverty and abuse. It was a reality distinctly at odds with the Victorians’ self-proclaimed progressive era of reform and improved societal standards. Author Charles Dickens made his mark, in part, chronicling the sad realities of the time.
That was a long time ago. The pokes at our collective conscience by Dickens have persisted since his time, as his works are among the most revered and widely-read in the English language. As a result, we should have every reason to expect that, with the passage of time and a presumed greater enlightenment about healthy societies, our nurture of children might have changed since 1852.
I’ve re-read a number of Dickens’ classics in recent years, including Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Oliver Twistand A Tale of Two Cities. I’m drawn to his characters and the ambience of the times in his writings. But I also find myself distracted by the conditions encountered by many of his characters, especially the children. The stories are uncomfortable. The children’s circumstances are often abhorrent, to the point occasionally when I think that Dickens has likely exaggerated the realities faced by his young protagonists. But I read on in the certain hope that things will get better by the tale’s end.
Dickens’ hopes for any kind of empathetic reforms or changed sensitivities as a result of his works would be shattered in the face of today’s world. The travesties of Victorian England are comparatively small compared to the cold calculations of despots today. Reading fictional accounts of treachery and evil pales in comparison to the very real atrocities that we tolerate repeatedly on the world stage today.
A Christmas Caroldelights audiences because of its ability to take us from the depths of human greed to the pinnacle of generosity and redemption. It makes us feel good in the hope that it creates for eventual justice. I wonder if Dickens would be inclined to write very different conclusions to his stories today….
The following reflection was written during my recent week in Nicaragua. I had the unusual experience of writing it on paper, with a pencil, no less. It was composed in nearly “real time,” as if for a journal, and only minutes after the experience occurred. Maybe that’s partly how it came to be such a personal, emotional record. (And for the record, writing with paper and pencil still works.)
The time is 8:35. We are overnighting in the municipality of El Cua, in the department of Jinotega. The mountains of Peñas Blancas are just behind us; indeed, the road from the mountains to El Cua features some of the most beautiful kms anywhere on earth. The vistas around each corner are filled with valleys and peaks that truly steal the breath away. Hotel El Chepita is arguably one of the more modern accommodation in the town, though in order to flush the toilet in my bathroom, I am required to lift up on the back of the toilet until the stopper, which is somehow attached to the tank lid, is pulled up and the flush can commence.
We are a little late getting in. We arrive to an empty registration desk and even the desk bell fails to summon anyone to receive us. Mark calls the phone number for the hotel and we can hear the distant ringing of a phone, but it has no more effect than the bell. A guest from the lobby, impatiently waiting to retrieve her room key, comes to the desk and bangs on that desk bell with a fury. But the assault proves to be no more effective than the other summons, so we simply wait and discuss other lodging options.
After maybe 15 minutes, a young woman comes running to the desk with profuse apologies and a promise to get us registered immediately. She defends herself by explaining that she is the only person working at the hotel in that moment and she is having understandable difficulty covering all bases. As she records our identities, she does inquire whether it would be acceptable if one of the rooms has no TV. Since I still do not speak Spanish with any skill even approaching “just getting by,” a TV is of no import to me so the registration continues.
The room, not unexpectedly, is sparse in its appointments. There is no chair. No table. No clothing hooks adorn the walls, the bathroom has no counters, my room looks directly across the narrow street to a discotheque (yes, even in this era) and the music there is only drowned out by the persistent roar of motorcycle and truck engines racing down our street. I can shut my slat-style windows, but I need the air in my air-conditioner-free room. Besides, two of the glass louvers are missing from my windows, so the effectiveness in shutting out noise is highly suspect. But the barking dogs in the property next to ours do take a break every half-hour or so to rest their voices.
My room is dark and hot. (Oh-oh, there go the dogs again.) I keep the single overhead light turned off, to reduce the heat and the depressing feeling that overhead lights always convey to me. The overhead fan tries hard to keep up with the heat in this upstairs room, but the blades cannot turn fast enough to generate any meaningful cooling. All I can do is to lie on my bed in the dark and read by the light of my Kindle. I keep the bathroom light on, though, because the 8 o’clock hour is too early to fall asleep for the night, even in weary Nicaragua.
Staring across the room into that dimly-lit WC gives me pause to wonder to myself how I possibly came to be in a place like this on a Tuesday in March. It is certainly unlike any place I ever experience in the course of my “normal” life.
And that is precisely the point. The sounds, the smells, the conditions reveal the life of rural Nicaragua in ways that words or even photographs cannot. At this moment, I would not choose to be in any other place but this. In a single, isolated moment I am confronted with gratitude for the good fortune of my life, the shame of my self-centeredness, a humility at my recognition of being the most fortunate of men, an anger that I have not shown the strength and wisdom to have accomplished more, a thankfulness for the men and women here who have taught me even as I posed as the teacher, and gratefulness at being permitted to be among people who are at war with the injustice of their poverty. Ironically, this place and time represents privilege: my privilege at the opportunity to become a part of their lives, if only for a short time.
To be sure, this evening I miss my wife and the comforts of our Iowa home, as I always do when I travel. But I am filled up tonight in ways that I could not at home. In this moment, it turns out that the most important grant during this trip is the one made to me….
My wife and I were looking at some photos of ourselves the other day, marveling at how young we once looked and subsequently commiserating at how old we appear today. I stared for some time at one photo in particular, one that seemed to capture the relative innocence and naivete of the young man in question. I tried to recall his state of mind at the time of the photo, what issues weighed heavily upon him, and the decisions with which he would be confronted in the days and years ahead. Hindsight is a wonderful perspective to play with; when you already know the result, the journey becomes an interesting study of choices.
Each of us is, after all, the sum total of choices we have been permitted to make throughout our journey of life. Our choices reflect not only preferences but, more importantly, our values, our principles, our character. They serve as articulations of who we wish to be and of who we actually are. And they are the milestones of our journey, marking the signal events of our lives.
Choices are the acts of bringing to life our beliefs. They are the expressions of our innermost feelings about lifestyles, about the type of vocation to which we aspire. Choices reflect our most intimate feelings about having a family and what is important in our personal and spiritual lives. Choices are dynamic portraits of who we are. I reflected long and lovingly about the choices that the young man in the photograph made over his coming years, with a sense of satisfaction that his decisions had been, for the most part, the right ones for his own unique psyche.
But what if I had not had the luxury of choice? What might my portrait look like if my life, instead, had been channeled at every turn. if the circumstances of my being were such that I had no choice?
I might never have been introduced to and courted by music. Maybe I would not have encountered the opportunity to know sports and fitness, the elements of my physical well-being. Perhaps I would never have known the centering peace of my spirituality. What if there had been no option for education? Possibly I’d have served in the military during the Viet Nam war. What if Katie and I had never met? Our adopted children would have been raised in different homes; our mutual, familial love for one another would never have come to be. Maybe our beautiful grandchildren would never have been born. What if circumstance had dictated that I spend my days in search of food instead of organizational strengthening? The list of choice-based outcomes is nearly endless. How might you own life have evolved differently if you had not had the blessing of choice?
The luxury of choice stems, in part, from political philosophies which recognize and value human independence. It also arises from circumstances that allow the human spirit to envision new aspirations and realities for itself. In the absence of these elements, choice is minimized. And outcomes are dramatically different. It’s true everywhere. In the U.S. In Nicaragua.
Winds of Peace Foundation works with many organizations and individuals in Nicaragua who have few choices. They are moved in directions dictated by their realities and their histories, in the former cases often motivated by need for survival, in the latter cases motivated only by what they know from previous generations. And when motivation stems from either absolute need or limited knowledge, then choice is often a forgotten, impractical dream. The nature of the Foundation’s work is to create the environments for more choice, with the certain knowledge that, over time, greater choice invariably leads to better outcomes. I wonder what Nicaragua might look like today if their history was populated with greater choice and fewer outside impositions that eliminated it.
In the years ahead, I expect to make lots of choices about things. Perhaps the Foundation will adopt some new methodologies. Maybe I’ll move into a new vocation altogether. I might do some more writing. My wife and I will make some determinations about eventual retirement. We’ll think about travel that might be important to us. I’ll even continue to choose the kinds of food I want to eat, whether for my health or for my enjoyment. But whatever the issue, I’ll have in mind my gratitude for having the opportunity to choose, and a hope to be a resource to those who do not….
I’ve taken to re-reading the Charles Dickens classic tale, Our Mutual Friend. It’s Dickens’ last work, a long piece of literature that captured my imagination as a young man and for some reason (perhaps the recognition that if I ever intended to re-read it, I’d better get going), I decided to tackle it again. It’s full of lessons and observations about Victorian (and modern) life, as well as those long and circuitous sentences with which Dickens was so adept.
Dickens’ focus on the great disparities in Victorian London are well-known, such as in his tale, A Christmas Carol. But I ran across a passage in the current book that I simply couldn’t pass up for sharing. One doesn’t really need to know the context of the story or the characters to understand the clarity of the message. It reads like this:
In the meantime, a stray personage of meek demeanour, who had wandered to the hearthrug and got among the heads of tribes assembled there in conference with Mr. Podsnap, eliminated Mr. Podsnap’s flush and flourish by a highly unpolite remark; no less than a reference to the circumstance that some half-dozen people had lately died in the streets, of starvation. It was clearly ill-timed after dinner.It was not adapted to the cheek of the young person. It was not in good taste.
“I do not believe it,” said Mr. Podsnap, putting it behind him.
The meek man was afraid we must take it as proved, because there were the Inquests and the Registrar’s returns.
“Then it was their own fault,” said Mr. Podsnap.
The man of meek demeanour intimated that truly it would seem from the facts, as if starvation had been forced upon the culprits in question- as if, in their wretched manner, they had made their weak protests against it- as if they would have taken the liberty of staving it off if they could- as if they would rather not have been starved upon the whole, if perfectly agreeable to all parties.
“There is not,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing angrily, “there is not a country in the world, sir, where so noble a provision is made for the poor as in this country.”
The meek man was quite willing to concede that, but perhaps it rendered the matter even worse, as showing that there must be something appallingly wrong somewhere.
“Where?” said Mr. Podsnap.
The meek man hinted Wouldn’t it be well to try, very seriously, to find out where?
“Ah!” said Mr. Podsnap. “Easy to say somewhere; not so easy to say where. But I see what you are driving at. I knew it from the first. Centralization. No. Never with my consent. Not English.”
An approving murmur arose from the heads of the tribes; as saying, “There you have him! Hold him!”
He was not aware (the meek man submitted of himself) that he was driving at any ization. He had no favorite ization that he knew of. But he certainly was more staggered by these terrible occurrences than he was by names of howsoever so many syllables. Might he ask, was dying of destitution and neglect necessarily English?
“You know what the population of London is, I suppose?” said Mr. Podsnap.
The meek young man supposed he did, but supposed that had absolutely nothing to do with it, if its laws were well-administered.
“And you know, at least I hope you know,” said Mr. Podsnap with severity, “that Providence has declared that you shall have the poor always with you?”
The meek man also hoped he knew that.
“I am glad to hear it,” said Mr. Podsnap with a portentous air. “I am glad to hear it.It will render you cautious how you fly in the face of Providence.”
In reference to that absurd and irreverent conventional phrase, the meek man said, for which Mr. Podsnap was not responsible, he the meek man had no fear of doing anything so impossible; but-
But Mr. Podsnap felt that the time had come for flushing and flourishing this meek man down for good. So he said:
“I must decline to pursue this painful discussion. It is not pleasant to my feelings; it is repugnant to my feelings. I have said that I do not admit these things. I have also said that if they do occur (not that I admit it), the fault lies with the sufferers themselves. It is not for ME- Mr. Podsnap pointed ME forcibly, as adding by implication though it may be all very well for YOU- “it is not for me to impugn the workings of Providence. I know better than that, I trust, and I have mentioned what the intentions of Providence are. Besides,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing high up among his hair brushes, with a strong consciousness of personal affront, “the subject is a very disagreeable one. I will go so far as to say it is an odious one. It is not one to be introduced among our wives and young persons, and I-“
He finished with that flourish of his arm which added more expressively than any words: ” And I remove it from the face of the earth.”
It is an easy thing to simply banish disagreeable realities with a sweep of the arm. Or to claim that something is true when it is not. But doing so does not change the realities or absolve us from the human stewardship that we owe to one another as fellow-travelers on this earthly journey. Dickens knew it. And as unpleasant, repugnant, disagreeable and odious as it may be, so do we all….
One of my daughters, Molly, has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege. She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege. It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege. It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students. Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context. Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds. (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)
But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy. She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.
The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants. We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life. We want to be “first in line.” It might be first in line for a new technology. We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets. We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others. We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay. We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work. Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays. It’s in us instinctively. Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are. We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.
The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives. Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom. For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us. We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below. All of us are more privileged than some. Some are more privileged than most. Most are more privileged than the least. I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most. So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”
Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it. We seem to feel as though everyone else has it. No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives, we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged. The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others. There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention. But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.
Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less. The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been cause for debate throughout our history. It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government. That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.
If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation. It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion. But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….