This is the fourth of what has become a series of articles about thinking about our personal and collective futures. As I write this in May 2020, the world is still in the middle of the Covid-19 epidemic. There aren’t yet any clear pathways forward or answers on how this will end. It doesn’t mean that we can’t forge some for ourselves.
Where is this all going? And how does it end?
Those are the questions we are all asking. And they are ones for which, at the time that I write this, many of us feel there aren’t clear answers. That shouldn’t surprise us, frustrating as that reality is. This has been a major upheaval, and there is a lot that we still don’t know about Covid-19 as a disease. We don’t know why it has very different impacts. We don’t know the rate of infection, and we don’t have enough testing in place to get better insights. We don’t know whether those that do get infected have any level of immunity, how long that immunity might last and whether or not herd immunity as a concept is even relevant.
We are learning more, but learning takes time. Scientists are building an understanding of how the virus spreads, and also how it mutates (there is a really great explanation of this in the New York Times). There is research underway to explore a vaccine. There is also a lot of work to explore and repurpose older medicationsthat may be promising.
We all want to move past social distancing, quarantine and isolation as a way of life. That probably isn’t changing any time soon, however, despite efforts by some politicians to open up parts of various economies. The consequences of doing so are likely to be severe, and prolong this experience for everyone.
This raises fundamental questions about the society we live in, the society we want to live in, and how we go about securing that. The good news is, we are not powerless. Many of us live in (mostly) functioning democracies, and we have a voice and a vote in who represents us. We also have a voice with our elected representatives in how decisions that affect us are made. Even more importantly, we have a role in society in how we interact, how we support each other and the ideas we advocate for (and those we call into question).
In other words, we have choice and we have agency. We get a say in where all of this goes. That doesn’t make the process easy. We need to continue finding a positive direction around what we want to see for our collective future. We need to promote and support the actions that will lead us there. We need to also call out and actively discourage the actions that will prevent us from getting there. And we need to build and sustain the overall will to move forward in times that are stressful and uncertain, and where short-term, reactive and defensive actions are natural, but also potentially distracting or disruptive.
Figuring out what we desire for our future is an interesting challenge. As is determining the actions that will lead us in that general direction. Partly, that is a product of the fact that there are some very divergent views of the world, and what a desirable future looks like. More significantly, there are some who are heavily invested in maintaining divisiveness as a way of being and operating. There is little opportunity within that for finding and sustaining common ground.
In good news, there is some evidence that divisiveness as a strategy may now be falling flat with the general populace (or at least enough of a majority as to start having an impact). This is positive evidence that if enough people contribute to making collective decisions about the future that we want, we could actually start to realize it.
Simply navigating the current pandemic, there are significant choices that we are confronted with. The tension between quarantining and staying at home to prevent the spread of the disease, and the economic impact of businesses being closed and people not being able to work, is huge. While there are those who have the luxury of moving their jobs into their spare bedroom and carrying on (if in a more socially isolated manner) many do not.
We need to decide whether, as societies and countries, we choose to compete or cooperate. The pandemic is global. It affects every country on the planet, although at different times and to different degrees. A competitive stance says that we need to hoard ventilators, equipment and supplies for ourselves first. A cooperative approach argues for getting them where they are most needed, when they are required, and shifting focus as the disease evolves. The logic of a competitive stance may seem appealing as a defensive, short-term strategy. The less other countries have to work with, though, the greater likelihood their systems become overwhelmed, and in the long term you are still dealing with many more cases at your doorstep.
A significant choice that we need to be aware of is how we deal with contact tracing. This is a term few have heard before the last month or so. It basically involves rigorously tracking down everyone who has come in contact with an infected person, as well as those who they have in turn associated with, so that they can all also be tested. This is traditional detective work with a healthcare spin. Many proposals have been made to let our phones do the work for us. This has limitations—not everyone has a smartphone—but the idea on the surface seems logical and efficient. The catch—and there is always a catch—is what we exchange in personal freedoms and privacy when our phones are tracking and tracing everyone we come into contact with, and that information is available to the government.
A fundamental trade-off that we all face is in how open and honest our governments are, and the degree that we trust them to make effective decisions on our behalf. There have been many instances where governments failed to act, and still are acting in a questionable manner. While I singled out many countries in last week’s post, the Swedish example is an interesting one.
The Swedish approach to the Covid-19 pandemic is a challenging example for two fundamental reasons. First, it’s one of the few countries worldwide that has adopted and stuck with the herd immunity strategy. That’s not been without its consequences, nor without questions as to its viability. But that’s what leads to the second factor at play: Swedes are in general trusting of their government, and have followed the lead that has been taken, despite it being contrary to that of every other European country.
The question of trust also influences and shapes the relationship that governments have with their citizens, and how it approaches and structures pandemic response strategies. Some, including China, took extensive, interventionist and relatively controversial approaches, including imposed lockdown of cities and extensive tracking through phones. Imposed lockdown and extensive restrictions on internal travel have been imposed in other countries, including Singapore, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Other countries have adopted a more voluntary and informed approach, educating its citizens and encouraging responsible behaviour, while falling short of policing it. In Canada, where I live, I can still go for a drive just to get out and clear my head, and I don’t expect to be stopped by the police and questioned about my purpose or destination. Businesses are still closed, states of emergency have been declared, and as a result some municipalities and police forces have the power to enforce lockdowns and other restrictions on civil liberties, to date, though, they have largely not been used.
The underlying tension in these approaches is whether jurisdictions educate and inform and adopt a policy of trust, or whether they impose and control. These are political choices, and they are governance choices, but they reflect very different stances in the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed.
While I have outlined a number of competing tensions, I don’t have answers to how they should be resolved. I’m not an epidemiologist, nor am I a political scientist. I’m a strategist. I can observe where the uncertainty lies. I can educate myself on each position, the relative merits and challenges of each, and how they are in tension. I have a good idea of the questions that need to be asked, but good answers to each question rely in large part on expertise and educated compromise.
As citizens broadly, though, we do have the opportunity and obligation to consider the perspectives, educate ourselves as much as possible, and make informed choices. Those choices about our personal actions, but they are also contribute to shaping our collective views. And they are fundamental to us having a voice in defining the kind of society we actually want to live with, and what we are prepared to accept and accommodate.
We also have opportunity and obligation to have our voices and our perspectives be heard. That’s not just something that happens every four years or so, as we exercise our electoral franchise. It exists in our daily interactions with friends, families and colleagues. It exists in opportunities to help and contribute to others, in our community and elsewhere. It is present in our ability to communicate with, question and lobby our elected representatives, and ensure our individual and collective voices register and have impact.
There are some wonderful people out there, doing generous things for selfless reasons. There are also questionable actions being taken by manipulative actors for largely selfish reasons. It is sad that this is inevitable, and it is unfortunate that it is a part of human nature. We all have our darker impulses, and we all make choices on whether to respond to situations with our vicious or our virtuous tendencies.
Where we collectively go from here is up to all of us. That is more immediately obvious to some. Circumstances and shared hardship bring people together in ways that they might not otherwise. I have come to know more of my immediate community since the start of the pandemic than I did before. It is a community of different voices and different views. I don’t share political viewpoints with everyone in my community. I differ with many in my circle on whether continued quarantine is appropriate, and how long this will go on (I think it’s essential, and I suspect it will be several months before it’s safe for everyone to go out again). I am in the fortunate position where while I am economically hurt by the current reality, I am not (yet) devastated.
All of those views need to be heard. They need to be understood. They need to be considered. And we need to make the best decision for all of us, so that we serve the common good, we protect the interests of the greatest number and we survive and strengthen as communities, cities, countries and civilization as a whole. There are difficult decisions in how we do that. We need to not shy away from that difficulty. We also need to not look away, abdicate responsibility to or blindly trust those who are charged with making them.