Through the pandemic we New Zealanders learnt a lot about adaptability, so paid a low economic price. But despite that success we became more fractious, more cynical and more distrustful, so we paid a high social price.
A thousand days of Covid-19 have changed the world, for ill and good. Now our pandemic restrictions are history, though, it’s time for us to take stock. Time to apply the lessons to our monumental tasks ahead in Aotearoa.
It seems aeons since China declared the first official case of the new disease in late December 2019. Yet we number just 906 days from our first day in lockdown in March 2020 to our last under pandemic measures this Monday.
In that time, 1.76 million Kiwis, more than one-third of our population, have caught Covid. Certainly, many more ailed but their symptoms were so mild or non-apparent they weren’t identified and counted. Of those who fell ill, 1,962 died, accounting for 0.04 percent of our population.
Globally, 609 million people have officially contracted Covid so far, 7.6 percent of the human population. And 6.52m have died, or just under 0.1 percent of people. But again, the full counting of both would be higher.
We Kiwis had low deaths because we protected each other when there was no vaccine. Later, we socialised the virus gradually, with the relatively widespread but benign infections giving us a little extra protection on top of the vaccine.
No, our government had not pre-planned that strategy. Nor had any other in the world. They and their citizens were utterly as unprepared as we were. We all had to scramble, in practical ways such as lockdown procedures and deeply scientific ones such as pioneering RNA vaccines.
How effectively each society responded reflected its social cohesion, adaptability and luck. We’ve fared better than most countries. The US is a prime example of one that didn’t. Adjusted for population parity, it would have suffered 15,909 deaths, eight times the number we did.
Along the way, we Kiwis learnt a lot about adaptability, so paid a low economic price. But despite that success we became in aggregate more fractious, more cynical and more distrustful, so we paid a high social price. That’s a crude summary, of course. We also earned a lot of social capital and mis-spent some economic capital.
Our post-pandemic to-do list is long and daunting. Ubiquitous social media show us how hard we find it to agree on even simple sets of basic facts. Chaotic and diverse protests show us how much more fractured our society has become. Attacks on individuals and communities show us how much harder it is for goodwill to prevail. Greater inequality of incomes and assets show us how more disadvantaged many in society have become.
If we want a healthy and well-functioning society, we’ll have to solve all of those within the next decade at the latest. Meeting those social and cultural demands require us to rise to many economic challenges. But up-skilling people, investing more, earning a bigger living in the global economy, becoming deeply sustainable and climate compatible and restoring nature’s ecosystems are all massive tasks. We’ll have to set ourselves bold new goals, be highly creative and pioneer new ways of working together.
Actually, we did that for the first six months or so of the pandemic. The intense crisis forced government, business and civil society to set aside traditional roles to work together to quickly innovate and implement pandemic responses.
During the first lockdown, I sought insights into the way businesses adapted by having long interviews with chief executives of 16 large organisations. Six main themes emerged:
► Acting with foresight;
► Making rapid, iterative decisions;
► Keeping a future-focus;
► Digitising their businesses;
► Making their cultures more inclusive; and
► Empowering leadership widely, deeply.
By necessity, they were practicing the art of working on what’s important now – while also working on their futures.
No doubt their gains in agility and confidence are still serving them well. But now it’s time for them to build on those significantly. Likewise, across society, we would all benefit from embracing those characteristics in ways appropriate to our own endeavours.
Quite simply we must, because our challenges are towering, as they are for all humanity. The common origin of many of them is our exploitation of nature. Now the world numbers 8 billion people, we are putting enormous pressures on the living Earth, our life support system. The three biggest are:
► Our deep encroachment on nature has made it a lot easier for viruses to leap from wild animals to humans. The Covid-19 is only the latest of many more zoonotic diseases to come. We’d be wise to devise and legislate for new pandemic measures, and update them often, so we’re ready for the next pandemic or for a virulent new strain of Covid-19.
► Our economies are excessively dependent on natural resources. Worse, we waste, degrade, pollute or in other ways render far too much of them lost or useless to us. The World Bank’s latest annual report reminds us that “the COVID-19 pandemic sent shock waves through the world economy and triggered the largest global economic crisis in more than a century”. In our continuing recovery from the crisis, we’ve seen how disrupted and fragile our supplies from nature are. Such as many key foods, energy sources and materials. These stresses have in turn dramatically shifted geopolitical relationships, as we’re seeing with the strengthening alliance between Russia and China and their increasing influence over a few developed countries and many developing ones.
► Our climate, thanks to our prodigious greenhouse gas emissions, is changing dramatically and ever-faster. Southern California and neighbouring states are experiencing their worst drought in 1,200 years; and Europe its worst in 500 years.
Our South Island recently suffered a ferocious shift in storm patterns. One Canterbury dairy farm I visited last month had only had two floods in 12 years from the neighbouring Ashburton River – but four in the prior four weeks.
These changes are deeply systemic. We’re now perilously close to five climate tipping points such as the collapse of Greenland’s ice cap, eventually producing a huge sea level rise, the collapse of a key current in the north Atlantic, disrupting rain upon which billions of people depend for food, and an abrupt melting of carbon-rich permafrost.
None of this should be a surprise. The IPCC laid out all the risks in a 2012 report.
But we ignored all the evidence. Because we believed we were in charge of the timetable. We could let vested interests exploit their lucrative status quo for a lot longer. Developed countries could keep ignoring the climate plights of developing countries. We could maintain our exploitive ways. We thought nature would wait for us to eventually get our act together.
Yet, nature always was more powerful than us. It always was in charge. But only now are we starting to realise we’ve pushed nature into ever faster changes, ever greater crises.
Covid made that reality clear to us. We responded with speed and agility, with creativity and co-operation, with understanding of nature’s power, with some sense of the consequences.
Now we must apply all those lessons, and myriad more we’ve still to learn, to heal our entire relationship with the living Earth, our life support system.