COVID-19 has unleashed an unprecedented set of questions for the world to answer. And the global community has quickly come to realise the only way to answer these questions successfully is together.
In this unlikely environment, united by a pandemic, the death of a black American man, George Floyd, at the hands of the police has served as a global catalyst for anti-racism movements worldwide.
Leading up to the Reykjavík Global Forum – Women Leaders, we have engaged in this pressing discussion regarding racial injustice and inequality with Hafsat Abiola, Founder Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, President of Women in Africa (WIA), and 2020 Conversationist. Read as Hafsat Abiola shares her insight and analysis of the situation and offers suggestions to seize the momentum of the global movements.
A global catalyst
“George Floyd’s death came at a time when the world was facing a common experience. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world together, perhaps for the first time ever. Unlike World Wars and other global events that pit one set of countries and people against another, all countries and all people are on one side against a common enemy – the COVID-19 virus. Along with our heightened awareness of our shared humanity, because so many people were living the same experience of lockdown, many had the time and space to pay attention to what was going on around them. So when George Floyd died in the midst of that heightened awareness of our common humanity, when so many of us had the bandwidth to pay attention to the manner of his death, our empathy brought us out of our homes and into the streets all around the world in a unified rejection of racism.”
Maximum pressure: how can we trigger real change?
“Any real change in the situation of African-Americans only ever came about as a result of organised action to change the rules governing the political system.
One of my favourite examples is about the labour unionist, A. Phillip Randolph. He met FDR in the Oval Office and gave him a catalogue of things that needed to change to improve conditions for Black workers. At the end of the meeting, President Roosevelt essentially said, I have heard you. Now go out there and make me do it.
As the story illustrates, real change requires people organising to compel politicians to do what we want. The Black Lives Matter protests were a beautiful statement about human solidarity. But if we don’t follow through by demanding concrete changes in the way our systems function and for whom they function, all our protests won’t make much of a difference. And it wouldn’t be the politicians that are at fault. Politicians respond when they face maximum pressure. It’s up to us to make sure that we are the ones exerting it.”
Pay attention: inclusion is the answer
“Exclusion is perhaps the most pervasive form of racism. So racial justice is a call to put an end to exclusion based on race. So it is linked to the general problem of exclusion of all vulnerable groups (expressed in the rising inequality among and within countries) and even to the exclusion of those who do not have a ‘voice,’ such as future generations and the environment.
The best thing we can make now is to define ‘Building Back Better’ to be as inclusive as possible. Essential workers should not be struggling to pay their bills. We often talk about the gender pay gap. I think we have also allowed an unconscionable pay gap between the top tier of company management and the rest of their employees; between people who could be working but are unemployed citizens and are being left behind by globalisation and those who still have decent work; and between those in the gig economy or in the informal sector and in the more regulated formal sector.
The fault lines between these categories of people make it difficult for us all to confront the threat of the pandemic together because while we are all facing the same storm, some of us are safe in secure shelters while others are just left to face the elements. Also, our failure to pay attention to ensuring the sustainability of the planet is what led to the pandemic in the first place. ‘Building Back Better’ has to pay attention to the limits to growth. Paraphrasing the bible, what does it profit human beings to gain the whole word but forfeit our only home?
Countries, governments and people all over the world are in retreat and reflecting on how to go forward. This is the time to engage policy and opinion makers with ideas that focus on local and regional development and global solidarity.”