Saskatchewan·Point of View

I don't think we'll be nicer after COVID-19, but we might be wiser. That's more important

This shared crisis moment has given us the opportunity to show one another that ‘community’ means something big and important.

All we need is a stronger sense of our own fragility

We must not forget what the COVID-19 pandemic teaches us after it's over, Chris Kutarna says. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/The Associated Press)

This shared crisis moment has given us the opportunity to show one another that 'community' means something big and important.

As the phases of this pandemic pass from crisis into containment, reopening then recovery, a lot of us have begun to wonder: will we still be nicer to one another, when this crisis fades into memory? 

This is entirely the wrong question. It will lead us down a path to disappointment. Worse, by taking it, we will miss the path to wisdom.

Letting go of the fantasy

We want so much to exit this pandemic event and enter into a kinder, more compassionate world, but let's admit that even during the worst of this crisis, our circle of concern failed to extend beyond some familiar borders.

I spent much of the past three months helping countries across the Americas and Europe secure medical supplies from China. At the height of the PPE March Madness, in a moment that screamed for global co-ordination, instead I saw ventilators used as geopolitical bargaining chips, cargo planes full of masks getting hijacked while stopping to refuel and rich countries outbidding poor countries for scarce supplies, leaving the well-off well protected and the vulnerable more vulnerable than ever. 

Now evidence is growing that our compassion hit familiar limits even here in Canada. Far from uniting us, COVID-19 has widened existing inequalities of race, ethnicity, income and geography. 

The narrative that this shared experience has brought us together is a beautiful one. And it is true. Unless by "us" you mean everyone. 

So, no, in the post-pandemic future, I don't expect we'll be nicer. We won't sustain a collective sense of kumbaya. The facts don't support that fantasy. 

The sooner we let that fantasy go, the sooner we will see the path to genuine wisdom. 

We must not forget what the COVID-19 pandemic teaches us after it's over, says Chris Kutarna, who is an author and fellow of the Oxford Martin School, U.K. 4:52

Facing our vulnerability

The strength of a community isn't rooted in how nice we are to one another. It's rooted in us each realizing how much we depend on one another for our own well-being.

To exit this pandemic into a better, brighter future, we don't need to hold onto a stronger sense of compassion for others. All we need is a stronger sense of our own fragility.

Here, the facts are more consistently in our favour. 

We've all come face-to-face with how vulnerable we really are. Pre-pandemic, we mostly went about our lives thinking and feeling we were individuals (mostly) in control of whatever happened to us. Albert Einstein called this humanity's "delusion."

If we each hold on to this newfound wisdom, then as a community we will become much stronger and more resilient to the next shock that none of us will see coming.- Chris Kutarna

Now we've each been slapped awake to the reality that we are far less in charge of our own lives' outcomes than we pretended. My health depends on your health. Right now, my basic freedom of movement depends on you giving up yours.

Organizations, too, have been slapped by the recognition that their own strength depends on others. "Your business is only as strong as your customers" used to be a nice sentiment, something to print inside annual reports. Now it is a plain fact facing every corporation from airlines to Airbnb.

Unable to cope with the collapse in customer spending, these companies turn to governments for relief. There, they face another dependency that was always true but now is obvious: the taxes they paid (or avoided) now determine how much relief governments can give.

Holding on to newfound wisdom

As a society — as citizens and voters and lawmakers — we have been forced to reckon with how much we took abstract collective goods like "public health" and "emergency preparedness" for granted. Many recent policy choices affected those goods. Most were decided on far narrower grounds — wrongly, it turns out. 

From the kitchen table to the cabinet office, we are in the midst of a brush with doom. There are already signs that it is broadening our sense of self-interest.

As individuals, most of us are doing our part to flatten an imaginary curve that none of us can see, but that we all understand has the power to ruin us. In business, "resilience" has already become the new buzzword and boardroom agenda item.

In politics, policies that were considered radical in January are now being taken more seriously, including a universal basic income, which many governments have already enacted (at least temporarily). The debate had previously been framed as left versus right. Now the bigger frame — securing the normalcy upon which both sides depend — is obvious. 

We've all been gifted with rare insight, at great cost. COVID-19 has turned an abstract truth of the human condition into everybody's direct personal experience. My well-being depends on you and so your well-being makes me stronger. 

If we each hold on to this newfound wisdom, then as a community we will become much stronger and more resilient to the next shock that none of us will see coming.

We won't be nicer. But we might be wiser.


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About the Author

Chris Kutarna is an author and fellow of the Oxford Martin School, U.K. He divides his time between London, Beijing and Regina, Sask.

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