Commentary, Opinion

The true meaning of building back better

2020 will go down in the history books as the epitome of a bad year, characterized by a pandemic that has exposed the cracks in our healthcare system and other public institutions. In just 12 months, the lives, livelihoods, and well-being of people worldwide were drastically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving plans and resolutions unexecuted, and creating an overarching eagerness to label everything associated with 2020 a complete write-off. While the transition to a new year provides a much-needed sense of optimism to those who faced unexpected difficulties and traumas in 2020, it would be a mistake to disregard all of the racial and socioeconomic problems in Quebec exposed by the pandemic over the past 365 days as mere byproducts of a difficult year. 

It is important for students to cut themselves slack when it comes to their personal and academic shortcomings of 2020. Still, lumping Quebec’s broader societal issues underlying the pandemic’s disproportionate effects across the province’s minority populations together with a “worst year ever” mindset, undermines both the progress that was made to address these issues in 2020 and the ongoing need to establish long-term, systemic solutions to avoid similar health and social crises in the future. Students should embrace the new year as a chance to leave behind personal challenges from 2020, but they must not abandon the progressive societal momentum that the year generated.

The onset of the pandemic presented everyone with numerous challenges. From abiding by social distancing and lockdown measures to transitioning to daily Zoom-meeting sweatpants and suit jackets, 2020 forced us to adjust not only how we interact with one another but also where we allocate our time and energy. For students, this task was particularly daunting: Shifting to a remote learning environment while dealing with stressful matters like renewing student visas, living in isolation, and losing loved ones left many feeling unmotivated and unsupported both personally and academically. McGill claimed to prioritize student health and well-being even as the pandemic led to significant changes during the 2020 school year. That students were left to demand extensions to the S/U option and the 2020 winter break, however, reveals the McGill administration’s reluctance to recognize and address students’ stress and exhaustion the pandemic has induced. 

With the emergence of vaccines suggesting an eventual return to normal life and learning environments, it is no surprise that many are adopting an optimistic outlook heading into 2021. This new year mindset, however, which justifiably encourages students to attribute their disappointing academic performances and worsening mental health to the environmental factors that made 2020 so challenging, should not extend to the systemic issues that the pandemic exposed. High mortality rates among BIPOC communities, unequal access to healthcare services and outdoor spaces in low-income neighbourhoods, and the lack of supportive, affordable child and senior care which seemed to characterize 2020, are attributable to longstanding flaws in our government and public institutions. In the same way, the fight to implement institutional changes that address these issues must persist even as the 2020 calendars are replaced. Although 2020 forced students to finally acknowledge the calls for systemic change that some have allowed themselves to ignore, we must recognize that these issues were prevalent long before 2020. This recognition should fuel a continuous drive to address them even as we enter the year in hopes of returning to some semblance of normality. 

The 2020 pandemic did not cause the systemic injustices it exposed, and narrowing our focus to the 2021 Times Square ball drop does a disservice to those who finally brought these issues to the attention of a world that is too distracted to care under normal circumstances. While embracing the concept of Building Back Better on a personal level can mean trying to leave the academic and emotional struggles of 2020 behind for some, it must also come with an active commitment to ensuring that social, political, and institutional spotlights and advocacy efforts remain fixed on Quebec’s gaping inequalities, even if it takes years to see true change.

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