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We Need Justice For The Pandemic, Not "Forgiveness."
Here is what restorative justice would look like for the pandemic.
The Atlantic writes that “we need to forgive one another for what we did and said when we were in the dark about COVID.” The magazine that claims There Is No Middle Ground on Reparations, a policy to redistribute wealth for events over a hundred and fifty years ago, believes we need to move on and make no reparations for events two years ago.
The resounding response to this suggestion has been: No. Those harmed by the wrongdoing that occurred through the pandemic need justice, not “forgiveness.” Calls for “forgiveness” from the perpetrators when no apology has been given are an attempt to escape accountability and maintain power they can further misuse.
I believe perpetrators call for forgiveness because they fear punitive justice. If the perpetrators were held accountable in our current justice system, the scale of the wrongdoing would result in punishments the perpetrators could not bear. These punishments would also not give those who lost their jobs, businesses, friends, family, health, or freedom anything back. What if there was another way that would be better for both victims and perpetrators?
In my book Children’s Justice, I discuss restorative justice, the concept on which ideas like reparations are based. Restorative justice is a model of justice that focuses on repairing the harm caused by wrongdoing, rather than merely punishing perpetrators. According to The Little Book of Restorative Justice, in order for restorative justice to take place three things have to happen:
The wrong or injustice must be acknowledged;
Equity needs to be created or restored;
Future intentions need to be addressed.
What would restorative justice would look like for the wrongdoing that occurred throughout the pandemic?
1. The wrong or injustice must be acknowledged.
The wrongdoing of the pandemic has not been acknowledged. Those responsible have made no apologies. Calls for “forgiveness” appear dishonest when those responsible haven’t apologized, which is usually a prerequisite to asking for forgiveness.
Acknowledging wrongdoing on a personal level is very simple: say you’re sorry. If you yelled at someone or shamed them for their personal health decisions, find them and apologize. If your business put a sign up refusing service to those who didn’t wear a mask or were not vaccinated, put up a new sign apologizing to them and inviting them back. Make amends. People who go through Alcoholics Anonymous do this all the time as the eighth step of their recovery. If they can figure it out, surely elected officials and public health experts can too.
Our culture already acknowledges wrongdoing on a larger scale. There are national holidays, museums, and official statements that acknowledge the harm caused by slavery, the Holocaust, and the genocide of Native Americans. Why not similar cultural initiatives to acknowledge the loss of freedom that occurred to all Americans during the pandemic? While this event is different than the aforementioned, the way we have previously handled culturally acknowledging those events might offer lessons for this one.
2. Equity needs to be created or restored.
Equity is equality of outcomes. In practice, restoring equity means creating the outcomes that would have occurred had no wrongdoing occurred. The result of the pandemic was highly unequal outcomes that benefited the perpetrators at the expense of the victims. Billionaires, the medical industry, and other perpetrators saw their wealth grow during the pandemic, while regular people lost their money.
Creating equity would mean taking the ill-gotten gains of perpetrators and redistributing them to the people who lost their jobs and businesses during the pandemic. In short, it would mean reparations. Those in power responsible for pandemic wrongdoing already vocally support reparations on other issues, so this is just the application of their ideas to their own actions.
Equity is not just about money. Losses during the pandemic were not just financial. People lose their friends, family, and freedoms. Much of the harm done was cultural, emotional, and social. No amount of money can replace the ability to grieve in person at your loved one’s funeral. Yet restorative justice requires creating equity around these events to the extent possible.
Documenting the full harm that occurred during the pandemic would require more than I can fit into this article, but it must be done - and it is the responsibility of the perpetrators to acknowledge and create equity around all of it.
3. Future intentions need to be addressed.
Restorative justice is only complete when the wrongdoing cannot happen again. Since restorative justice is about helping those who were harmed, ensuring there are no “repeat offenders” is critical. To address future intentions, we must understand the reason wrongdoing occurred during the pandemic and ensure it never happens again.
Until these reasons are understood and changed, the perpetrators must be removed from power. Leaving perpetrators in a position to continue harming others by “forgiving” them isn’t moral high ground. It’s complicity in their wrongdoing. This extends to all levels of wrongdoing. Those who lied need to lose their status as “authoritative” sources. While some of this status is cultural, it is also institutional through what sources are used for legal proceedings, fact-checking, social media moderation, and academic sources.
The Atlantic claims that “we didn’t know” (emphasis theirs) that COVID policy was wrong. Yet many did from the beginning. Their reputations were damaged and social media accounts banned for their historically correct actions. To create equity and address future intentions, those most vocally against the pandemic need to be placed in the positions of authority currently held by those who were cruel and wrong on this issue. Those who did the right thing even when it personally cost them are more likely to do good in the future than those who caused the original harm.
The harm the medical industry perpetrated was not due to a few individuals or “elites” as conspiracy theorists suggest, but systemic issues with the medical industry. These issues would require a book to explore. For that full critique, read Children’s Justice, but the short version is that the medical industry must move from their current model to a holistic one. The same medical mindset that prescribes opiates without considering the side effects also prescribes lockdowns without considering the impact on society. A holistic mindset would have handled the pandemic differently and address future intentions.
In the wake of other significant culture-wide harm, there have been social reforms. Civil rights and human rights law were a response to historical wrongdoing. To ensure future harm does not occur again, we need to make bodily autonomy a protected right. Had bodily autonomy been a protected right during the pandemic, much of the harm that occurred would have been prevented. There are other forms of harm the medical industry is still engaged in today that would end if this right were recognized through a constitutional amendment.
That’s what restorative justice would look like for the pandemic.
Restorative Justice Is The Moderate Approach
I suspect some will object to restorative justice as harsh or unreasonable. Yet this is a moderate approach. A harsh approach would be the punitive legal system we already have. In the punitive legal system, we would access damages and award punishment based on those damages. Punishments would include fines, incarceration, and even the death penalty. Simply removing perpetrators from power and asking them to participate in healing the harm they’ve caused is an incredibly merciful offer. It’s also what they should do if they believe the ideals they espouse.
To learn more, read Children’s Justice.
Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice: Revised and Updated (Justice and Peacebuilding). 2nd ed., Good Books, 2015. p. 57.