Pandemics and racism


Sept. 2020
Miriam Sager

It felt like an impossible choice: what do I write about at this time? How can it be anything but the pandemic? But, too, how can I not write about the calls for racial justice? And then it all fell into place: these two issues are actually deeply connected, are both relevant to us as Jews. 

No, I have no intention of blaming the Jews for any of this. Scientists have been warning for some time that the melting of permafrost and the continuing human encroachment on wildlife habitat are increasing the risk of future new, and therefore highly contagious, virus- and bacteria-caused diseases being unleashed. “It is a question of when, not whether,”  has been the message. We must urgently limit both if we wish to limit such future pandemics.

We, in the “developed world” cannot continue with some of the luxuries which we have taken for granted, such as unlimited consumption and travel. These have driven the growth of extractive activities, industry, transport and an outpour of pollution. As well, government policies such as supporting urban sprawl and fossil fuel projects, and the weakening of environmental protections, drive both the dangerous proximity of wildlife to humans and the escalating heating of our globe.  2020 is well on its way to be the second hottest year on record after 2016.

COVID-19 and the recent uprising for racial justice have exposed for all to see the longstanding and disastrous, unhealed inequities in our society. Although slavery in Canada was abolished some 200 years ago, its fallout and the dehumanization of black people persist in big and damaging ways. As we wash our hands with soap and water yet again, let us remember that more than 100 Indigenous communities live with boil water advisories. The encroachment on Indigenous sovereignty by the government-backed fossil fuel industry continues in spite of heroic resistance, and despite both mounting evidence of the urgent need to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions and international commitments to do so. 

We know that the brunt of the environmental harm will be suffered by those who have contributed the least to it: the young who will grow into a less-livable planet, and people of colour who have been rendered vulnerable by the stealing of their resources, first by colonization and still now by ruthless mining companies. Being a land defender, both at home and abroad, is a very dangerous occupation. 

It all comes down to the ethos of our society, which is based on power and profit even if we like to pretend that it is not the case. Exploiting or sacrificing the environment, people, and ethics, are all permitted or at least ignored if profit is to be made by some corporation that is in a position to lobby and pressure the government. Ordinary people cannot escape being implicated in this system: almost every item we buy was grown or made by an underpaid worker, likely a person of colour; and many of us are unawarely invested in destructive and racist activities through our CPP and the banks we work with.   

And antisemitism? That is one of the oldest tricks in the book. It has been used for millennia as a safety valve for oppressive rulers, having a convenient scapegoat at times of social unrest. In more recent times, we have seen it used to undermine any push for systemic change. There have already been antisemitic rumblings against the climate movement, and the antisemitism in some of the black rioting has been highlighted and manipulated in an attempt to turn support away from the justified, and mostly peaceful, demands for racial justice. Divide and rule is another old colonialist trick. 

The interconnectedness of the problems, far from being a source of despair, can give us hope that a broad, united front with a common goal of a sustainable, just society that puts human well-being ahead of profit and leaves no one behind, is possible. Many people are already working towards such a vision. You could look up the Just Recovery, Green New Deal, the Leap Manifesto or the Movement of Movements. 

It is a huge and urgent task, but to paraphrase Theodor Herzl, if we wish it, and take action to make it happen, it is no fairy tale.

Miriam Sager facilitates sharing circles about climate change. She can be contacted at