Press Pause, So We Can “Figure It Out”
It’s been an Easter Weekend like no other. This was touted to be the period when the UK coronavirus numbers hit their peak. Sadly, it looks as though that peak has still to be reached. We’ll never know for sure if having a quarter of a million people packed tightly into the Cheltenham Race Festival in the middle of March — or the arena rock gigs that took place all over the country — has given us all a couple of extra weeks of lockdown. But it can’t have helped.
It looks as though Britain will have the largest number of Covid-19 cases in Europe, with only the US preventing us from being the worst-affected nation in the world. Perhaps those people touting British exceptionalism for the past three years had a point, after all. Similarly, when Trump chanted ‘America First’ this probably wasn’t the context he had in mind.
Among the strange normalisation of news reports (“Only an additional 700 deaths today — things are looking up”) there have been no shortage of stories of creative collaboration. No limit to the number of herculean efforts in building field hospitals, and streets and communities never having been so closely connected, while experiencing self-isolation. Millions of us are learning new skills, enjoying better air quality and lower noise pollution. Small comforts, I guess, but the past three weeks have given us a chance to ‘press pause’ on our lives. It’s been 10 days since I crossed my own doorstep, so I’ve had plenty of time to think. Here’s what’s been going through my mind, and I’d love to know if you’ve had similar thoughts.
- We really are all in this together It’s a cliche, I know, but we have a chance to rethink the nationalist direction in which we’ve all been heading. Yesterday, on his release from hospital, Boris Johnson heaped praise and gratitude on two nurses in particular that kept watch by his bedside in the intensive care unit. One was Portugese, the other a New Zealander. During this pause, perhaps our government might want to rethink who gets a visa, once we’ve ‘taken back control’ of our borders? Which leads us to:
- Which workers are ‘key’ to our future? Every day, the risk of contagion is felt by, not just the heroes of the NHS, but also by the checkout workers and shelf stackers in supermarkets, the delivery drivers, the agency care home workers, the teachers. Most of the people who have shown that they’re ‘key’ to keeping our country running, are usually those paid the least. As a society, it’s our choice how to compensate our workforce. As we’ve learned, we still get to eat if the football programme is cancelled — so, by all means, keep applauding every Thursday evening. But we have to show we mean it, in the After Corona (AC) world, and the undoubted squeeze on spending that will come.
- We haven’t ‘had enough of experts’ after all. Despite Michael Gove’s dismissal of expertise in the Before Corona (BC) times, the whole world is looking to experts to bring this nightmare to an end. Trump was deemed to be beyond restraint — now, he defers to Dr Fauci, albeit begrudgingly. Which leads us to:
- The resurgence of trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2020 was published in January. It made for depressing reading — every aspect of public life (government, media, businesses, NGOs, ourselves) hit record lows. Because of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandals, we’d even stopped trusting our friends and peers. I’m willing to bet that the explosion of mutual aid that we’ve witnessed in recent weeks will show that, when lives are at stake, we can’t act without the support, and trust, of others. And the most trusted political leaders, After Corona, have emerged as those who tell us the truth and act decisively — however unpalatable the news. Jacinta Ardern, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York state, Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, Taiwan’s former law professor, Tsai Ing-Wen and Germany’s former quantum chemist, Angela Merkel. Which leads us to:
- The demise of authoritarianism? In sharp contrast to those I’ve just listed, former game show host, Trump, former journalist Johnson, former military man, Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orban are all experiencing domestic criticism and anger at their handling of the pandemic. It appears that the movement towards authoritarianism has been stripped of its authority. The complexity of the task at hand, is finding those leaders wanting, and we have renewed admiration for the technorati. It remains to be seen if voters will remember the attempts at disinformation, distraction and complacency when they’re at the ballot box. The US elections are only months away, so we won’t have to wait long.
- Work wasn’t working Before Corona — can we work differently after it? There’s zero chance that, when the lockdown ends, everyone working for a company will be heading back into the office. For one thing, it would be a highly risky strategy. Flare-ups, testing and mini-lockdowns, monitored by public health apps, will be with us for months, possibly, years, to come. For another, having experienced 70–80% remote working, workers have been happier, and no less productive, working from home. With employee engagement rates running at less than 30% worldwide, it will be fascinating to see how those numbers change when the next surveys are carried out. Does this mean that we’ll work 100% remotely? Of course not. But anyone who has read Ricardo Semler’s ‘7-Day Weekend’ will know that hybrid models work — so long as the business is built upon trust (and if it, isn’t it won’t survive the mother of all recessions that’s coming) Which leads us to:
- A new model of capitalism? Governments are understandably nervous about having lockdowns go on any longer than is necessary for public health. Imagine what happened to Greece a few years ago, and then multiply it by ten (or twenty, no-one can accurately predict how bad, economically, this is going to be). Some developing countries may well face economic collapse. In even the wealthier states, we’re already seeing record numbers of people claiming welfare. The idea of growth, and seeing Gross Domestic Product as the bellwether of prosperity, is going to be up for debate. Just as we have instinctively looked out for our neighbour’s health, so, in time, will we have to care for their wealth, too. There is such a thing as society, and the capitalist model of a market-driven, shrunken state, will not get us through the next decade. We’ll need an economic restructuring which favours the collective, common good, over individual wealth-accumulation. Again, these ideas have been around for a long time (see, for example, the ideas at the Post-Growth Institute). Their time has finally arrived.
- A chance to reboot education? Like the world of work, it’s been astonishing to see how, in just a few weeks, educators have adapted to the challenges of remote learning. True, some have simply taken what they were doing face-to-face, and digitised it as a stop-gap until ‘normal school’ resumes. For others, however, it’s been an opportunity to re-think the very purpose of school. Does it make any sense at all, to be filling in worksheets online, when you could be making face masks for your parent health workers, or PPE for local GPs? And after the faux-outrage at the cancellation of exams has died down, students will still be accepted into colleges. Why? Because governments have had no option but to trust teachers once again. Maybe we’ll see a return to portfolio-based assessment? Hmm, too much? Whatever emerges, it would be frankly ludicrous — in the face of so many structural and systemic changes to society arising from a global pandemic — if education stayed the same.
- How can we transfer the lessons from Covid-19 to the other challenges we face? For the past three years, I’ve been writing a book* about our innate ability as a species to work collaboratively to fix problems. I thought I’d finished it 2 months ago, and then it became obvious that it would have to be completely rewritten, what with one thing and another. These past few weeks it’s felt less like considered reportage and more like live-blogging. The explosion of people-powered innovation hasn’t surprised me — my research had uncovered the potential, we just needed a sufficiently big challenge to mobilise us. To quote Thomas Paine, ‘the time has found us’.
- But this burst of ingenuity via collective production — with self-organised groups responding faster and more effectively than the lumbering arms of government — leaves me with an indelible conviction: We have to raise our expectations of what’s achievable when the time finds us. If we can build a hospital in a week, or design an open-source ventilator in a few days, is the previously overwhelming threat of the climate emergency (remember that?) as impossible as it seemed 3 months ago? If nations can cooperate globally to find and mass-produce swab tests and vaccines, then surely we can find ways to address the misery of mass migration? If there’s going to be a coordinated global response to the recession, as there has to be, perhaps it’s time to revisit the notion of coordinated actions on global emissions. As ever, our young people have shown us the way through their incredible networked protests — let’s work with them to ensure we’re more prepared for the next pandemic, and that we leave them a world worth living in
While leaders have dithered and delayed, ordinary people — homemakers, students, citizen scientists, hobbyists and makers — have swiftly mobilised to ‘figure it out’. What else can the ‘power of us’ achieve?
(“We’ll Figure It Out: Mass Ingenuity & The Power Of Us” will be published late summer, 2020)