Golriz Ghahraman: Care for each other will get us through COVID-19 but make sure it includes our most vulnerable

OPINION: A pandemic is a bolt in sky reminder of our essential connectedness to one another. There's nothing like a communal threat of literal life or death to dissipate divisions and highlight our shared humanity. That means that the way we formulate our response to this crisis must include shedding of old prejudices that have kept some groups from receiving basic social support until now.

Despite significant Government support packages, some left without access to COVID-relief are our migrant workers, those with housing uncertainty and even those we have trapped without the means to 'self-isolate' safely in our over-crowded prisons.

Right now, our response is exceptional among nations for placing people rather than profit at its centre. But our systems are still leaving some people out - either because their voices are less likely to be heard, or because they have been marginalised until now based on old ideas of who is morally or socio-economically deserving. Now, more than ever, we can't afford to let prejudice get in the way of compassion.

What gives me hope is that here in Aotearoa we were clear that the health of our people comes first. We provided for people's lost wages, raised benefits, and doubled the winter energy payment among other swift subsidies. As a community, we learned fast to change our behaviour to protect the people at most physical risk from the virus, in part because it turned out so many of us were either in that group ourselves or have a number of vulnerable people close to us.

Our Government's response is still working hard to fill the gaps in care that those communities need because those living with disability and chronic illness have it harder in isolation.

But some communities are living with complex vulnerabilities whose experiences are not often widely known.

One such group are those who do some of the most important and hardest work among us, our migrant workers. At any given time, Aotearoa relies on thousands of migrant workers to care for our elderly, provide medical care, help grow and provide our food. This is a community who faces abuse and prejudice even as they serve our society, and have faced blame for the pandemic itself.

Our migrant workers currently do not qualify for social welfare support, not even to cope with the direct effects of COVID-19. I have heard this loud and clear and have been taking it to our partners in Government. It is time to re-think who we care for and how we value our community members, not based on their visa status but on our shared contribution to a diverse and thriving Aotearoa.

Re-thinking the way we treat migrant workers is all about recognising that our systems are built to exclude certain segments of our community based on arbitrary judgements of who is worthy, who is one of us.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman.
Green MP Golriz Ghahraman. Photo credit: Getty

We must re-think whether we can ever live in a society where some among us have no homes, or who work, often in essential service, and yet earn anything below what we know is a 'Living Wage'. There is no such thing as the 'deserving' or 'undeserving' poor. We know that systems built to de-value any one of us below a basic level, weakens our whole society. Today we are more at risk of a deadly virus because some of us are stuck in overcrowded homes, or without the means to buy necessities in isolation.

And what about the group we routinely treat not just with disregard but vengeful disdain: the thousands in our overcrowded prisons, who are faced without the facility to isolate, or where enough cells exist, face living in solitary confinement for the duration of lockdown, a condition amounting to inhumane treatment by most measures.

How do we justify that vast risk? How do we keep arguing for an approach that has demonstrably failed to keep crime rates down, rehabilitate offenders, or restore victims, in a time of pandemic?

The truth is that community-based sentences work far better to help low-risk offenders address the causes of their offending and move forward. The more crucial truth has always been than it is the strength of our social safety net, access to homes, mental healthcare and addiction treatment, and equality that determines how safe we are from crime. Now that prisons are a public health risk, we must acknowledge the need to invest in taking care of people far more than a broken ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

If this pandemic leaves our world fundamentally changed, as other pandemics have done, we must choose to make that change good, and lasting. This past week we have learned that there is no room for hate and prejudice that dictated who among us gets basic human dignity- because leaving people out puts us all at risk.  Inequality has always weakened us in the fight against all communal threats.

The change we instil now must be to combat poverty, racism, and systemic prejudice, in our Government's immediate pandemic response, and purge those threats from our systems in the long term. If we are living in a moment of historic crisis, then let's make history.

Golriz Ghahraman is a Green Party MP.

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