The Covid-19 lockdown may be disruptive but it is also a time of reflection and learning. Our shared experiences will re-shape how we think and act in future. The University of Otago’s Janet Stephenson offers six ‘new thinking’ themes. 

Like many of you, I have spent far too much time over the past few weeks obsessively following media stories, commentaries and posts. 

I have read of heart-breaking experiences and sorrows, stressed families, individuals making sacrifices to continue with essential work, communities supporting each other, businesses reinventing themselves, and extraordinary leadership at every level.

Ahead of us is a future that is challenged not only by the likely ongoing repercussions of Covid-19, but the urgent need to transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy and society. If we fail to do this, we’re condemning our younger generations and their children to a future worse than Covid-19

Currently change is achingly slow – too slow to avoid catastrophic impacts within the next 50 years.

In part, this is because individuals and organisations are very bad at adjusting their behaviour to deal with threats that aren’t directly affecting them right now. As political psychologist Conor Seyle notes, we underestimate longer-term and more complex threats like climate change, having evolved to pay attention to immediate and straightforward threats. We need to develop new skills, knowledge and ways of thinking that will enable us to break out of habitual patterns and work collectively for a sustainable future.

The enforced constraints of the lockdown have made almost everyone stop. Our usual routines are broken, and we have had to make sacrifices for the common good. It is forcing us to think about the world in new ways.

Here are six ‘new thinking’ themes that I’ve picked up in day-to-day media stories. 

1. Downsides of globalisation

Covid-19 has revealed the fragility of an economic model that relies heavily on global flows of goods and people. It has made us aware of our dependence on global supply chains, where one broken link can prevent products from reaching New Zealand. It has revealed the fragility of our reliance on just-in-time deliveries when transport systems are down. It has shown the dangers of having major parts of New Zealand’s economy dependent on international tourism.  

With the looming global economic depression, along with likely continued Covid restrictions, these issues are not going to evaporate any time soon.

There is an increasingly valid argument for building greater self-reliance and resilience, from the national level to the local and personal scales.  

This is not about turning our backs on the global economy, but making sure we are sufficiently diversified and locally resilient to cope with catastrophic change in the global economy.    

2. Understanding systems

Humans don’t tend to be good at thinking through complex chains of cause and effect. But coronavirus is teaching us a lot about what systems are, and how they work.  

With our usual systems of production and consumption temporarily broken, we’ve seen the halting of financial flows from consumers to businesses, and from businesses to businesses. We’ve also seen a breakdown in other values that we get from a vibrant local economy.  Things like work satisfaction, the quality of people’s social lives, and their mental wellbeing. The lockdown has revealed the complex interdependencies and feedbacks between society and economic activity.  

We’re also learning some quite technical things about systems.  

Covid has taught us about time-lags in systems. Sometimes effects take a while to show up, and when they do they can have an unexpectedly big impact. With coronavirus, for example, we now know that it might take two weeks for an infected person’s symptom’s to show, and over that time they may have infected many others. Environmental effects are often like this too – you won’t immediately see the impact, but it will eventually turn up and may well be far worse than you imagined.

Coronavirus also helps us understand that growth isn’t always a good thing. It has shown how exponential growth, where the number count increases ever-more rapidly, can quickly become explosively fast. At any scale, unchecked growth can destabilise and eventually destroy the system it depends on.  

And we’re all now familiar with ‘flattening the curve’, which involves changing our behaviour so as to make sure not too many people become ill at the same time. If we can keep a lid on the demand for hospital services they won’t become overwhelmed. This concept is equally applicable to other situations. It means changing our behaviour to live within the limits of human-provided services and ecological systems, rather than expecting them to be able to keep expanding what they provide for us.  

3. Crises affect people unequally

We are learning that when social and economic systems are destabilised, the hardest hit are those who are already disadvantaged.  

This is very evident with Covid-19. While the most devastating health impacts are on the elderly and those with pre-existing health issues, the brunt of non-health-related consequences falls on individuals and families who already face everyday challenges. Those who were already in unstable work situations or not employed are likely to be the hardest hit financially. Those who live in overcrowded and substandard housing will be suffering far more than others. Many of those who are carrying this nation through the crisis are low-income workers (eg health services and supermarkets) and they are taking big health risks.

The lockdown has also cast hundreds of thousands of middle-income Kiwis from a state of relative privilege to being in need of financial support.  

Climate change and other environmental crises will similarly have inequitable impacts across society.  

4. Welfare without blame

Many people have lost their jobs, or are working reduced hours. Almost all businesses will take a financial hit. Many businesses will not survive.     

I have seen no questioning of the assumption that government has duty to step in and financially support families and businesses.

Providing this kind of support seems a no-brainer now, but it is starkly at odds with the free-market beliefs that have dominated New Zealand’s political and economic system for the past 40 years.  

The impact of the Covid-19 shutdown is revealing that neoliberalism might work for the elite in times of financial buoyancy, but leads to increasing gaps between rich and poor, and these are exacerbated in times of crisis. Neoliberal beliefs such as individualisation, reduced state involvement in the economy, and limited welfare support would increase suffering in times of crisis. 

By holding out a hand to those buffeted by the lockdown, the government is not apportioning blame to those receiving assistance. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to conclude that everyone is better off when people can be sure they will be adequately supported and valued, even when they are unable to be an active part of the workforce.   

5. Change can have upsides

Although we’re living under extreme constraints, and many families are stressed, people are finding positive aspects as well. The crisis has brought out extraordinary good will and kindness. People have connected with their neighbours, supported those in need, and celebrated our essential workers. For many, it has been a chance to slow down. People are planting gardens and preserving food that would otherwise go to waste. Forced to take our exercise locally, we are getting to know our neighbourhoods.

We’re enjoying quiet streets. Noise and air pollution are way down. Nature is coming back into urban areas as though it was just poised, waiting for a moment such as this. In cities, sometimes all you can hear are the birds.

We’ve also seen a burst of creativity. Educators are developing new ways to communicate and engage with learners. Artists, deprived of face-to-face audiences, are finding new ways to make and share their work. Businesses are reinventing themselves to keep operating within the constraints of Level 3.  

Covid has shown how even extreme change to our lifestyles can have positive benefits socially, environmentally and for innovation. The kinds of changes we need to make to achieve a more sustainable future are far less extreme than this, and the benefits might surprise us too.

6. Each individual’s actions matter

Covid-19 has been a massive learning exercise in collective responsibility. We’ve all had to radically change our behaviour for the sake of others, and have done so with good will.

The global sustainability crises – pollution, climate change, resource constraints, and more – are brought about by consumers and producers acting as if our individual actions don’t matter in the big scheme of things. As if natural resources have infinite capacity. As if responsible behaviour is not going to make a damn bit of difference.  

But the Covid-19 response has taught us how each individual’s actions do matter. We know what it is to act for the collective good at a local, national and global scale. We have found out that by having a collective vision and commitment to an outcome, we can each contribute to a massive achievement. 

This understanding is essential if we are to shift direction to a sustainable future.

The world beyond lockdown

This pause has got people thinking about the future. I’ve collected over a dozen published perspectives by New Zealanders over the past few days, all on the need to change direction to a kinder, more sustainable, more resilient economy and society. All suggesting that now is the time to seriously start making it happen.

The Covid crisis is opening us up to new insights about our society and economy. It is ushering in new thinking about globalisation, systems, equity, welfare, behaviour change and collective responsibility: ideas that are critically important to underpin a future in which our younger generations can thrive. 

I suspect that we are more ready as a society to take on this challenge than we’ve ever been.  

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