Transformation

Seizing the unexpected opportunities of COVID-19

The pandemic provides a chance to re-evaluate and re-imagine our collective future.

Sam Earle
9 April 2020
Coronavirus graffiti, Leake Street.
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Flickr/duncanc. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The emerging human tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic is clear, but perhaps there are some opportunities disguised behind the facemasks, since the crisis provides a chance to re-evaluate and re-imagine our collective future.

Facing profound social injustice and eco-climate collapse, the need for wholesale societal transformation may seem obvious, yet the status quo always seems to prevail. Will life be so comprehensively altered during Covid-19 that we can finally break from this pattern?

There are some grounds for hope. The pandemic has inadvertently crashed our communities into what the sociologist Karl Jaspers calls a “liminal space” - a between-times in which the old ways of living and thinking are no longer relevant, but new ways have yet to emerge to replace them. We might also call this a “luminal space: a time of unprecedented reckoning that exposes the collective imagination to the light of day, warts and all.

After all, society is made possible through the invisible web of meanings that permeates social life: it is through webs and layers of meaning that society knows what to value, what to prioritise, and what trajectory to follow.

Most of the time, these webs and layers of meaning seem so ordinary that we don’t recognise them as the product of our collective imagination - we think that’s ‘just the way things are,’ and how they have to be. This is a necessary expedient for social interaction and cohesion, but it is also dangerous.

For example, in contemporary society we think of economic growth as a necessary fact, but the readiness to accept something as a given makes us impervious to its flaws, even when they threaten the health and wellbeing of the population the economy purports to serve, and when continued growth endangers the Earth itself.

But in times like these, such articles of faith are revealed for what they are, and can more easily be challenged, while what we’ve taken for granted for so long is revealed as something out of the ordinary. Covid 19 has shown us, for example, that something as mundane as a trip to the supermarket is extremely precious. The idea of food shortages, the vulnerability of the supply chain, and the importance of ‘unskilled’ jobs becomes much clearer - think of the considerable skill and competence that has been shown by many food shops (both independents and chains) in dealing with the urgent and complex demands that have suddenly arisen.

Conversely, the so-called ‘wealth creators’ and ‘bullshit jobs’ are being shown to be not so indispensable after all. We also see the central and irreplaceable role played by governments: the need for coordination; for clear, mass communication, financial support and planning that are central to the successful handling of crises like coronavirus. These are not things that businesses or citizens can do alone.

Of course, governments may respond poorly, while some businesses may demonstrate genuine social purpose and many citizens display great organisational efficiency. But none of this replaces government. The virus is exposing the fact that the core ideas of neoliberalism - a minimal state and the magic of free markets - are also fictions of the social or public imagination.

What society has valued most - highly-paid white collar jobs - and what it has consistently undervalued - things like nursing, formal and informal care work, food growing, grocers, and basic infrastructural services - are being shown up as misguided choices with major social consequences.

In addition, coronavirus has shown us the irreducible importance of personal action. The ‘personal’ does not replace the ‘political,’ it constitutes the political. Except for a flurry of panic buying and a few careless people who have thrown caution to the wind for the sake of a night out or a spontaneous vacation, it seems that most people in the UK and elsewhere have responded thoughtfully to the sudden and enormous changes that have been imposed on them.

We’ve taken pains to make sure our elderly relatives are safe and well-equipped; we’ve gotten in touch with old friends, and shared services, ideas and jokes; and we’ve celebrated the invaluable work of those on the frontlines of the crisis. Strangers are smiling at each other more as they negotiate a safe distance in awkward bottlenecks, so paradoxically, more distance may bring us closer.

By and large, these are not enforced behaviours, but voluntary and spontaneous - and they are also intrinsically political: how can we help those who need urgent assistance? What does relieving the burden on the NHS look like? What do we need government to be doing right now? How can we demonstrate gratitude for the dedication of others?

This point is worth emphasising because there’s an influential narrative (even in the environment movement) that seeks to diminish the role of personal action - perhaps because it’s easier to justify harmful behaviours this way (like flying long distances and eating animal products).

In short, coronavirus reveals that a populace of active and creative citizens is crucial, rather than one made up by mere out-for-oneself consumers, the role in which we are increasingly cast by others in politics and the media. What does that mean for reimagining our collective future?

In times of crisis - whether it’s a crisis of public health, eco-climate collapse or widespread injustice - we send a message to politicians and fellow citizens in our everyday behaviour, so why not make that a message of citizenship, community, and mutual responsibility rather than individual entitlement?

By changing the basis of our behaviour in these ways we can create a radically-different collective imagination, a new vision for the future of society that’s rooted in equality and solidarity; one that values things and people that add true worth to our lives rather than extracting value for private gain.

If a sense of entitlement undergirds our current imagination and drives our most cherished trope - ‘freedom to choose’ (to fly on holiday, eat what we want, see who we want when we want, and consume as we want) - then coronavirus is showing us that the reverse can also be true: that most people don’t value entitlement above all else, but rather the virtues of thoughtfulness, neighbourliness, kindness, supportiveness, and creativity. These are all things that are necessary to create a society that is equal to the challenge of responding fairly, courageously and imaginatively to crises that are even bigger than Covid-19.

But how to make these new patterns stick? I can think of two essential ingredients: awareness and practice. Awareness means being open with ourselves and others about what we are learning; practice entails putting those lessons into action.

For example, when skyping or whatsapping with our friends, families and colleagues, why not talk about how to build on what we value from the pandemic after it’s over, or write about our experiences from the perspective of others. What must it be like to be an underpaid frontline worker, and what does that say about changing the way we value different jobs in the future? Put yourself in the position of those with chronic illnesses or disabilities whose lives are on permanent lockdown, but who are largely forgotten as the rest of the world gallops on. How can the structure of caring in society be changed? And how can we transfer the lessons learned from Covid-19 to the struggle against eco-climate collapse?

Now is the time to be thinking about all the things that we know should be done, but don’t want to do, and about how to incorporate these changes in our lives. We can use the liminal space of the pandemic to practice living in different ways, whether that’s through veganism, localism, community support, or making do without stuff or cars.

Finally, it may help to keeping reminding ourselves of why this matters: because such opportunities for reimagining society are rare, and because we owe it to those who have died to emerge from this crisis in better shape.

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