The Urgent and the Important: Political Resistance During a Pandemic.

AuthorVasanthakumar, Ashwini
PositionSpecial Issue: COVID-19 and the Law

Introduction I. Responding to Structural Injustice II. Prioritising Emergencies III. Political Resistance as a Pandemic Response Conclusion Introduction

After the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020, Black Lives Matter (BLM) marches took place across the United States and abroad, with thousands protesting police violence against Black people and the structural racism it manifests. They did so during the COVID-19 pandemic, a "once-in-a-generation" global health emergency when "stay at home" and "shelter in place" orders were in effect. Superficially, responding to structural racism and to the pandemic are distinct projects and even at cross-purposes: the one requires individuals to stay at home, the other calls them to the streets and to gather in large numbers. Many urged protestors to stay at home and recognise the urgency, and hence immediate priority, of containing the pandemic. In response, others pointed out that police violence was its own pandemic, and that structural racism is a public health crisis as well. How should we, individually and collectively, respond to these seemingly competing claims? Does one have a priority over the other?

Productivity tools distinguish between the urgent and the important. (1) Urgent tasks are generally characterised by specificity and certainty: it is clear what a task requires, by when it must be completed, and what the consequences of failing to do so will be. Non-urgent tasks, on the other hand, do not always admit of such clarity: their targets may be expansive and aspirational, their timelines uncertain, the desired tasks underspecified and, as a result, accountability for non-performance--to others and to oneself--elusive. Many times, urgent and important tasks are one and the same. However, at times the urgent and the important come apart and a bias towards the urgent emerges, preoccupying us with urgent tasks that are relatively unimportant and intruding into our pursuit of the important. We reply to an administrator's email flagged as "high importance" instead of writing the long overdue letter to a friend, or focus on finalising a syllabus over drafting a new manuscript. Sometimes, this is for good reason: the urgent email is, in fact, of high importance, and beginning the new manuscript is a daunting task the rewards of which are uncertain and distant. But researchers show we sometimes manufacture urgency, focusing on non-important and non-urgent tasks so as to avoid the more difficult--but also more important--work. (2)

A preoccupation with the urgent and the immediate can interfere with addressing the important and long-term; worse, it can be used as a pretext for denial, deflection, or delay. A version of the urgency bias emerges in other contexts. We focus on curing disease rather than its prevention, on securing justice between an individual wrong-doer and her victim rather than the background conditions against which this wrong-doing occurs, on mitigating the symptoms of problems rather than ascertaining and addressing their root causes. And, I want to suggest, the urgency bias colours our approach to the pandemic and to the choices we apparently have to make. The differences between the pandemic and structural racism, and between the responses they often elicit, might seem to mimic the differences between the urgent and the important, explaining--to some, justifying--a tendency to focus on one over the other. But the pandemic illustrates that this focus is not always reasonable and is sometimes disingenuous, and that in any event, the distinction between the urgent and the important does not always obtain, and the choices we need to make are not so stark. For all the handwringing about the pandemic risks of BLM protests, the evidence is inconclusive that protests led to an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. (3)

In this essay, I consider how a version of the urgency bias informs our responses to structural injustice, suggesting a false choice between protest and pandemic and amplifying a sense of the priority of one over the other. I begin by outlining structural injustice and identify key characteristics of it. I then consider duties to respond to structural injustice and question whether there is a moral priority for addressing emergencies. I conclude that it is not straightforwardly the case that protesting structural racism is less important or less urgent than responding to a global pandemic. Indeed, the pandemic suggests that the distinctions between the two are far from stark, and that responding to the pandemic entails responding to structural racism. This will not definitively spell out the specific actions we should undertake as moral agents and citizens; however, insights from normative theory can clarify the distinction between the urgent and the important, alert us to a tendency to selectively imbue some circumstances with urgency whilst normalising others, and caution us against the temptation to prioritise the easy and obvious over the important and complex--and to in fact use the former to waylay the latter. While the pandemic has renewed attention to social and political injustices, the exigencies of the pandemic can also be used as cover for political repression. (4)

  1. Responding to Structural Injustice

    Justice may be understood broadly as pertaining to the distribution of resources in such a way that respects the moral equality and autonomy of persons. Disagreement about the requirements of justice will turn on, among other things, the relevant class of persons, the resources to be distributed, and what principles of distribution the moral equality and autonomy of persons generate. Call this the "standard account". On this account, injustice arises when a just distribution of resources, however conceived, does not obtain: when the law denies a class of persons equal treatment, when being born into a poor family over-determines an individual's life chances, or whenever individuals are placed in relations characterised by domination and subordination.

    Like the standard case, structural injustice is not beholden to a particular conception of justice--of what, for example, equal treatment entails or...

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