WHAT THE PANDEMIC HAS TAUGHT US
COVID-19 has left an indelible mark on the world. The pandemic has upended our lives and changed our daily routines. Billions of people have been forced into lockdown, unable to visit one another, or go to work, or attend school, or meet with friends in public places. With constraints put on our basic freedoms to reduce the spread of the virus, any sense of normalcy has been lost.
The once-in-a-lifetime health crisis brought with it wide-ranging consequences which have tested our resilience. As with anything in life, experience is the teacher, so it’s vital for humanity to come out of the pandemic as better individuals and a more tightly-knit community. The fundamental question is: What have we learned along the way?
As we reflect on the lives lost, the suffering experienced and the disruption inflicted by COVID, there are many takeaways for governments, businesses, and individuals. The fallout from COVID has ricocheted into all areas of life, so there are myriad lessons – some painful (exposing our weaknesses and limitations) and others uplifting (spotlighting our strengths and generosity).
COVID-19 has been a wake-up call and – as society looks to rebound from this seismic event – it’s not surprising that scholars, think tanks, consultants, and other experts are jumping on the coronavirus “lessons for the future” bandwagon. I have read many of these opinion pieces and, in the main, believe that these analyses contain sound advice.
[NOTE: If you type the keywords – “lessons learned from COVID-19” – into your Google search box, that query will return pages and pages of search results. You can read 15 Lessons the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Taught Us, or you might care to peruse 10 key lessons to be learned from fighting COVID-19, or maybe you would prefer to dive into COVID-19: 6 Meaningful Lessons.]
To provide a succinct summary of the various “lessons learned articles” would be challenging as each analysis comes from a different perspective. Regardless, the pandemic has revealed many underlying societal issues that we’ve long known existed. To fix these problems, we should set ourselves the overarching goal of building a healthier and fairer society which is inclusive and sustainable.
Achieving this goal will require collaboration between governments and citizens and this is something that the boss of the World Health Organisation knows only too well. Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned the world that a “whole-of-government, whole-of-society” approach was necessary to crush the virus.
Predictably, many ignored his advice even though governments and citizens working together is a prerequisite to solving any global or national issue. This, I believe, is the most important lesson arising from the pandemic. Whether it’s defeating a deadly virus or tackling climate change, governments and citizens must listen to experts and work hand in hand.
The pandemic’s catchphrase, “we’re all in this together”, rings hollow as key stakeholders have not been joined at the hip. Around the world, collective action has been undermined by a lack of political trust (confidence in political institutions) and social trust (faith in other citizens). Waging a war against a disease has led to pandemic belligerence.
Ultimately, slowing the spread of the virus relies on people having faith in the policy prescriptions of governments. Citizens have been asked to adhere to a range of directives including stay-at-home orders and physical distancing practices. Even so, the call to make personal sacrifices for the collective good has been a bitter pill for many to swallow.
Governments everywhere have imposed emergency measures which limit the rights and freedoms of citizens and this has led to varying levels of civil disobedience. Mass protests around the world have seen anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and conspiracy theorists march shoulder-to-shoulder in defiance of lockdown laws thereby creating superspreading events.
The pandemic has exacerbated prevailing political discontent and resulted in citizens being quick to blame their leaders for not containing the virus. In some countries, this criticism is completely justified but in others, it is not. In fairness to governments, there is no rulebook for understanding how the pandemic will play out. We are all in unchartered waters, learning as we go.
Still, this does not excuse the “go-it-alone” attitude of many national governments which quickly retreated into populist nationalism in response to a global threat. As I opined in a previous post, Why COVID vaccines are being distributed unevenly and unfairly, wealthier nations have bought up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over.
Rich nations remain focussed on national recovery, not global recovery, as they are prioritising country over planet. The WHO has labelled this behaviour as “vaccine nationalism” and blamed it for the lack of solidarity against a common enemy. Dr Ghebreyesus warned that the lopsided distribution of vaccines harms everyone and protects no one as inoculating certain populations to the detriment of others is medically self-defeating.
This fever of inequality is being fuelled by a chronic failure of national leaders to display true global leadership. The inward focus of most countries places the pursuit of domestic political goals above those beyond their borders. In fairness to national leaders, their beggar-thy-neighbour stance is being driven by citizens who expect their elected officials to look after them first and foremost.
So, the “my-country-first” approach to vaccines reflects the sentiments of citizens. Even though it shouldn’t be this way, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison – like every other democratically elected world leader – knows that his party’s fortunes depend on giving the majority of Australians what they want – a jab in the arm and quickly!
Politics is nothing if not a mirror of the society it serves. As a society, we crave quick fixes and instant gratification and expect politicians to solve all of society’s ills at the snap of a finger. That’s why politicians who pander to the immediate demands and desires of voters (e.g., to be at the front of the vaccination queue) are invariably rewarded by the electorate.
Complex public policy problems typically involve changing the behaviour of groups of citizens or all citizens. With respect to the pandemic, we as citizens – as I stated in a previous blog – need to change our selfish ways because:
Not enough of us have shown grace under pressure. There has been a lack of camaraderie. Panic has prevailed over common sense. Many have behaved like a marauding swarm of locusts stripping supermarket shelves bare. We needed to be at our selfless best but have been at our selfish worst. The crisis has unmasked who we really are and proved beyond doubt that individual behavior has a profound impact on society. Many of us have failed the civic responsibility test.
Beyond national governments and citizens, a third actor in the COVID-19 saga is subnational governments – states, provinces, and municipalities. In most countries, governments at this sub level have been at the frontline of managing the COVID crisis. Many have recorded operational blunders which have resulted in them playing whack-a-mole with successive outbreaks.
To cover their mistakes, subnational governments have used a classic tactic – shift the blame on to others. When it comes to rising infection rates, some subnational governments have attempted to pin responsibility on citizens for breaking health directives while others have tried to scapegoat their national governments for health policy failures. Amid all the rancour, it’s clear that making a villain of other actors is counterproductive.
Despite this, the blame game – with its finger-pointing and mutual buck passing – is a familiar feature of politics in Australia. As I outlined in an earlier post, the pandemic has laid bare the inherent weaknesses of our three-tier governance structure. Australians have been treated to the unedifying spectacle of states being pitted against states and states slinging barbs at the federal government.
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The pandemic has been a learning curve for everyone and its continuance is stirring unrest. Pandemic fatigue is setting in and is eroding social cohesion. Our interdependence means that we are all in the same boat and need to work together. With that in mind, the territorial turf wars must cease, political leaders must present a bipartisan front and citizens must comply with health orders.
United we stand, divided we fall.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer