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Covid 19, ‘Risk’ and Solidarity by Stephanie McDermott

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Covid 19 and ‘risk’ are inextricably linked. There is a hierarchy of ‘risk’. Some, like the front line workers and people with existing medical conditions are more at risk than people who have the luxury of working from home, will continue to draw down their salaries, have good technological connectivity, have space in their houses, have gardens and can listen to birdsong daily.

Ulrick Beck (Risk Society 1992) has written extensively about risk and globalization. He defines risk as ‘a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced’. Anthony Giddens echoes Beck’s theory and discussion by arguing that risk is increased by the onset of ‘individualization’ (see Putnam ‘Bowling Alone’). Before Covid 19 for example, the risk of global environmental degradation became prominent. This manifested itself in Global demonstrations calling on individuals, governments, multi-nationals and industries to act fast to protect the planet.

Beck argues that in the age of globalization, new risks will emerge and will affect all countries and all social classes. Risks, in this new age of technology, have global and personal consequences. ‘Risk’, he asserts is not confined to environmental catastrophe. It includes the risk increase by shifting employment patterns, declining influence of tradition and custom, heightened job insecurity and the changes in personal relationships and how people communicate with each other. He also refers to forms of manufactured risk, such as those concerning human health which crosses national boundaries. Globalization has created new dangers and risks and has proved devastating for the parts of the world where the new risks become embedded.

‘Risk’ has always existed, be it natural disasters, floods, epidemics, pandemics, famine, genocide and war. Throughout the course of history, disease outbreaks have proved cataclysmic for humanity. There have been great plaques, Spanish flu, AIDS and more recently the H1N1 Swine flu and the Ebola epidemic which ravaged some Western African countries. Covid 19 can now be added to the list of viruses that have stopped us in our tracks as we fear for the more vulnerable members of our communities.

New risks require society to reconfigure itself to deal with them. As new and more complex types of ‘risk’ emerge, Beck argued, that it is crucial that social ties and connection be established (or re-established). The Irish response to ‘Risk’ in relation to Covid 19 has increased social ties (whilst social distancing stays in place). People are becoming more ‘reflective’ (as Beck predicted) and more creative in how we maintain relationships and manage ‘risk’.

People and countries (as we have witnessed across Europe and in America) have responded to the risks associated with Covid 19 in different ways. For example, Bangladesh, which houses the largest refugee camp in the world, Cox’s Bazar, homes to almost 1.1 million Rohingya refugees responded to the pandemic by imposing an internet ban. The internet ban imposed on the camps in the area is severely hampering the attempts by aid organisations to do their work and to limit the spread of the disease. The sharing of information and guidance on health is essential if ‘risk’ is to be minimised and yet another humanitarian disaster for the Rohingya is to be avoided. The blackout has made it harder for people to receive any reliable information and is fuelling a sense of panic in the region. The ban has also caused unwarranted stress, fear and anxiety among the Rohingya community in Carlow, many of whom come from the Kutupalong camp and cannot contact their families because of the ban. The lack of attention to risks and reality of this pandemic reaching the camps is  jeopardizing lives as the virus wrecks havoc among one of the poorest, most dispossessed, destitute and marginalized groups in the world. Carlow College has, for many years, been friends of the Rohingya refugees in Carlow. We have worked together in solidarity. For Beck, solidarity is a precondition for the reduction of risk.  Now, more than ever, we need to have a resurgence of solidarity to continue the long tradition and legacy of the caring, socially aware and inclusive college that we are.

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