Anthropologist Julie Billaud: The pandemic offers us a chance to redefine our social relationships. (Photo: © J. Billaud)

«It’s a moment of collective reflection»

While the Swiss Parliament meets in special session (4-8 May) to discuss policy directions for the “post-COVID-19” period, civil society groups such as the Fourth of May Appeal (L’appel du 4 Mai), are demanding that a return to “business as usual” be replaced by a more sustainable and humanistic approach to social and economic development. After forcing us so far apart, can this virus teach us the true meaning of living together? Julie Billaud, Associate Professor in Anthropology and Sociology of Development at the Geneva Graduate Institute explores the lessons learned and stark choices that we now face.

What has this extraordinary lockdown experience taught us?

This experience has taught us two main things. The first is that the virus does not affect everyone in the same way. Inequalities in societies have been reinforced as a result of the pandemic between rich and poor, documented and undocumented workers, men and women, young and old. People in poor economic situations, living in overcrowded neighborhood are more likely to be affected than those living in greater privilege. In Chicago, black people are twice as affected as whites. The second lesson is that we cannot disentangle the ecological crisis from the social crisis. We need to redefine the boundaries between nature and society. We need to think about the economic crisis in tandem with the social crisis.

Governments should protect us and yet millions of people around the world are threatened with hunger. What inequalities has the virus highlighted?

Even though the Swiss state has spent millions supporting companies and individuals who have lost their jobs, on Sunday 2500 people queued for hours to get food parcels, only because civil society organizations realized people had trouble feeding themselves. This is happening in one of the richest countries in the world. Again, what we see is that the response is not proportionate to the needs and inequalities that exist in our societies.

Our lifestyle and values have been challenged?

Perhaps, people who have been locked in their houses for the past six weeks have started to redefine what their values were, but I don’t think it’s the case at the global level. That’s why it’s the right time to open public debate and decide collectively about what matters most to make our planet and our lives sustainable. It’s really a moment of collective reflection, and I hope that there will be a space for democratic debate to take place. One value people may have realized when they were clapping at 9 pm every night is health, for instance. The fact that Switzerland has a partially privatized health system is a scandal. We cannot clap and accept that people do not have access to a respirator, because they don’t have the proper health insurance.

We see citizen movements emerging but do you really think politics will react and not go back to «business as usual»?

We need to learn from people from the global South who have been in a state of crisis for their entire life. In his last book Brutalism, the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe observes that Africans have survived colonialism, neo-imperialism, the plundering of their resources, and pandemics. What is extraordinary is they managed to survive all this violence because they learnt to repair. They repair things - making new things with old stuff, recycling, but also repairing their bodies. We need to learn this art. And at a more philosophical level, we need to repair the Earth. We need to be attentive to what we break and repair collectively.

You speak in metaphorical terms about the virus… What is it telling us?

The most important metaphor is the loss of our capacity to breathe. We have experienced it in a somehow luxurious way in our developed countries because we are locked in our houses not able to see our loved ones. But in other parts of the world, people had lost their breath in a very tangible way, like the migrants who tried to find a safe refuge in Europe and drowned at sea. Or miners who died of suffocation. The over exploitation of the Earth is also a direct attack on their lungs. Before the virus, we had all lost our breathing capacity. This is why this metaphor is important; it has been happening for a long time.

Going out after the lockdown means putting ourselves at risk again. What's our main risk, going out into the world?

Yes, it’s a risk, but if we are not able to meet each other again, we also lose our freedom and our breathing capacity in a way. Many governments are using this moment to increase surveillance and control over their population, in China, in India. If we do not pay attention, it will happen here too. So, it is very important that despite our fear of infection, we find ways to recreate the common good. That’s the main challenge but it is also an opportunity, now that we have had a taste of what it’s like to live in a state of emergency like the global South experiences permanently, going through wars, civilian conflicts, pandemics. This is a chance to redefine our relationships with each other and not only based on our production capacities. Work defined through the capitalist system has destroyed relationships. We cannot only be reduced to forces of consumption and production. We need to define social relationships in a more sustainable way.

Do you really think that’s possible? The appeals from the civil society look like small islands lost in an ocean of power and money...

We cannot be creative by being pessimistic. This lockdown has shown us that if we want to, we all stop. We did not stop because governments told us to but because we collectively understood that to protect ourselves and others we had to stay at home. If we are able to do this, we can do this collective reflection as well. With the help of governments, there is room to think all together about what matters. What matters is the work of people who are essential to the economy and do not make a decent living. The value of work is not indexed to its necessity. This has to be redefined. Switzerland is a good place to have this debate with referendums or initiatives. It’s the right time to ask citizens what they want. This is not a utopia.

How do you see this collective dialogue reaching the politicians?

A massive public consultation could be easily organized. A «book of grievances» could easily be created through the internet even. Not in the instrumental way the French government did this during the Yellow Vest «gilets jaunes» social protests, but in a sincere and mature way. What people suggest should be taken into consideration.

Interview by Kyra Dupont