“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
- Marcel Proust
As many of us around the world experience a the strange and uncomfortable reality of lockdown to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we are looking around us to find that many of the narratives upon which we have built our world, our society, and our economy are crumbling. Facing seismic shifts in our daily schedules and routines, coupled with a complete lack of real-world social contact with other people, many of us have turned inwards in quiet reflection. We are looking at the world around us with new eyes.
Forced into what many of us would consider the most surreal, strange, and uncertain period of our lives, we are questioning what really matters, and whether the long-held assumptions we have about “how the world works” or “just the way things are” still ring true? Or if perhaps they haven’t rung true for a long time, and only now that a monumental jolt to normality is upon us, do we realise that we have always sensed there is a better way of doing things, and those stories are only now becoming accessible?
Our world is built upon stories and narratives. They are the vehicle by which we make sense of our societies and derive the meaning out of every-day situations. From a very young age, stories have informed how we act, what matters, what we value, and how we understand the world. Stories are the operating system of human consciousness.
Yet, it is not until we recognise and challenge the narratives that drive us and our behaviours, that we are able to start imagining new ones. And what more effective way to recognise those narratives than to have them smashed apart by forces outside of our control? As so many of the things we have taken for granted are rapidly changing all around us, the COVID crisis has granted us permission and afforded us the space and time to imagine what else might change. This pandemic has held a mirror up to humanity and the assumptions from which we operate. To our growing awareness, we are discovering that many of these narratives are not only unsustainable in the long term, they also do not serve the majority of us. It need not be this way.
In times of crisis, we are able to take a step back and begin re-writing the stories upon which our societies are built. Historically, the years following major crises have been transformative, for better or worse. We have seen people’s fear, uncertainty, disorientation, and state of shock exploited to push through unpopular neoliberal economic policies, as outlined in Naomi Klein’s seminal book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, serving to further entrench harmful power structures that drive inequality.
Yet equally we have seen feats of great human progress following times of disaster. In terms of access to paid work, the movement towards gender equality progressed at a rapid rate following World War II. Many women stayed in the new jobs that they had taken on out of necessity during wartime while all the men were away fighting — jobs which had traditionally been men’s roles. The greater number of options available to women who wanted to be in paid employment helped to further the advancement of women’s equality in general.
Between these two opposing models of societal transformation, there is of course also the option of retaining the pre-COVID status quo — a world in which despite our many technological and societal advances, we find ourselves in the midst of a sixth great extinction with a collapsing global climate system, upholding a global economic model that relies on infinite growth on a finite planet, and where many people have been feeling increasingly disconnected, lonely, anxious, and depressed.
So how do we harness the opportunity to write a new story of humanity and the ways in which we operate? How do we keep our eyes wide open, and ensure that we don’t slip back into the old harmful and limiting narratives of the pre-COVID status quo?
This is an invitation. This is permission. This is a call to explore and embrace new narratives upon which we can build a new “normal” — one that is more regenerative, fair, and equitable, and affords humans a fighting chance at not destroying ourselves, our sense of community, and our planet completely.
So what are the narratives that are shifting?
1. The Narrative of Productivity
On the first day of March, I began what I intended to be a 3-month writing sprint for the book that I’m working on. I had been doing really well at consistently getting up at 4.30am three days a week, to be at my desk in my co-working space by 5am and spend several hours writing before anyone else was even around. I was making great progress, and then on day 23 of my sprint, the lockdown was announced in New Zealand and all my plans went out the window.
It was an anticipated move, but regardless my priorities all changed. Suddenly pressing work and writing my book didn’t matter so much any more. What mattered most was getting my family into a position where we would have sufficient food stocks, be able to help our elderly and other vulnerable neighbours, and be prepared to spend god-knows-how-many weeks cooped up in a 2-bedroom apartment with two kids under 4.
For the past two and a half weeks I have watched a myriad of responses unfolding on social media, on how people are coping with lockdown. Despite the majority calling for kindness and understanding that people are not operating at full capacity, I have also seen calls for business-as-usual. I have seen accusations flying around that employees are seeing this as a popcorn and Netflix opportunity to slack off, while they’re supposed to be working at home.
Similarly, the lockdown has been framed by some as an opportunity to learn a new language, pick up a new hobby, paint the bathroom, and yes, write that book you’ve been meaning to write. The underlying message is that being holed up at home is no excuse to not be productive. It completely ignores the fact that for working parents with school age or younger children, suddenly they are expected to perform two roles — that of the worker, and that of the full time caregiver. You cannot reasonably be expected to do two jobs within the same amount of hours that you used to do one. The math simply does not add up. The situation is the similar for workers who have sick or disabled family members to look after, or those who are experiencing mental health issues exacerbated by this crisis.
The business-as-usual argument also highlights so many of the problematic aspects of our socially accepted narratives of what it means to be productive. Is delivering groceries to the woman across the street with two kids and a minimal income “productive”? Is spending time invested in play with my children “productive”? Is feeding them, changing nappies, bathing them, and making at least somewhat of an effort to ensure that they don’t sit in front of the television for 12 hours a day classed as “productive”? Jess Berenton-Shaw last week illustrated how this crisis is further exacerbating gender inequalities, and how the work of both paid and unpaid caring falls overwhelmingly upon women — work that is typically underpaid, undervalued, and much of which is not counted within official measures of productivity and workforce participation.
Even when I’ve had treasured “work time” while my partner devises one ten minute activity after another to keep the kids occupied, I’ve found myself paralysed by the bombardment of information, misinformation, and opinion about this virus coming at me from all angles. I have been too overwhelmed to write, and have found myself mindlessly jumping from tab to tab, reading things that I never intended to spend my precious work hours on.
Self-care has become so much more important. More than ever, I need to allocate time to doing less. This can be challenging to remember to do and allow myself to do, as someone who identifies as being usually self-motivated and driven to be a ‘productive’ member of the ‘recognised’ workforce.
This raises the question of whether exercise, meditation, or relaxing through Netflix and chill can be viewed as “productive” time, if it helps us to be mentally healthy and more resilient?
Perhaps the most productive thing we can do is sit with all of this, reflect, and build our strength for the monumental task that lies ahead, of rebuilding our societies, economies, and cultures.
I’m seeing more and more of these conversations coming up, and people querying what gets counted as “work”, what counts as productivity, and the methods by which we measure it. In the midst of an economic crisis, GDP tells us nothing about what’s really going on in neighbourhoods, who is doing the legwork of keeping society functioning, and the state of the natural environment upon which a country depends. Even before this pandemic swept the globe, some countries and public policy organisations recognised the limitations of GDP to provide a complete picture of a nation’s health, wealth and welfare, and they started exploring alternatives. New Zealand’s Living Standards Framework and the OECD’s Better Life Index are examples of alternative frameworks by which to measure progress. While these indicators don’t intend to replace GDP entirely, they represent a way to look beyond the myopic and detrimental focus on traditional economic measures alone. They reflect willingness to better account for the nuance and complexity of how different countries are faring in post-COVID times.
The current situation we find ourselves in is not business as usual by any stretch of the imagination, and we need to recognise this. With economies around the world in free fall and the effects expected to last decades, this crisis is an opportunity to reframe productivity to be so much more inclusive about what it takes to make our societies and economies culturally rich and enjoyable to live within, and our children prepared for the unpredictable world which they will inherit.
2. The Narrative of Valued Work
When we think of what sort of jobs, professions and careers we most valued pre-COVID-19, many would default to those sorts of high-powered, highly paid jobs that hold power and prestige. Lawyers, accountants, doctors, business executives, and the like.
With the exception of doctors, we have suddenly discovered that in a time of crisis, these highly paid professions are of little use to our immediate personal situations. They will play a role certainly in ensuring that business and government keep afloat, but when it comes to day to day survival, it is the low-wage, under-valued workers who are now at the frontline of this global situation, and who hold the mammoth responsibility of keeping our society functioning.
It is the people stocking grocery shelves and operating the checkouts, in the face of panic buying and irate customers. It is the nurses, midwives, orderlies, and other healthcare workers who are putting their own lives at risk, working within overloaded hospitals and makeshift clinics to treat not only COVID-19 patients, but all of the other usual hospital patients as well. It’s the cleaners meticulously wiping down grocery shelves, door handles and hospital wards. It is those caring for the elderly, the infirm, and the disabled who are doing their best to shield our society’s most vulnerable from a virus that is hitting those groups extra hard.
It’s the port workers, the freight handlers, the truck drivers, and logistics people working around the clock to ensure that our supply chains are not disrupted who hold civil order in the balance.
Looking at the low income brackets of these groups speaks volumes to what we value in our society, and perhaps more importantly what we take for granted. On those rare occasions when we need a lawyer, we are prepared to pay steeply for their services and deem the price “worth it”. Yet we assume there will always be food on the shelves of our grocery stores, and now that this assumption is being disrupted, we are forced to question what sort of jobs we actually rely on for basic societal functioning. It will be worth remembering this in the future next time low-wage essential workers are lobbying for a small pay raise.
3. The Narrative of Collectivism
The different ways that countries are responding to COVID-19 shines a light on the cultural narratives which underpin different societies, and how these narratives are informing response.
We have seen that in highly collectivist societies such as Taiwan and South Korea, the quick and decisive action by the government has flattened the curve and slowed infection rates dramatically. A widespread public health campaign, clear guidance from governments, and a policy of spending the money up front to test widely has paid off. It is no coincidence that these sorts of results are coming out of countries that have a strong collectivist narrative which can compromise on individual interests for the sake of the common good.
Contrast this to the individualistic narrative upon which the United States was founded, and which continues to dominate American policies and governance today. Favoured especially by the current President and Administration, the narratives of self-reliance, individual rights and freedoms, and autonomy are pervasive, and have firmly embedded themselves into America’s economy, healthcare system, social security, urban planning, societal attitudes, and yes, even crisis response.
Despite having a staggering number of cases with a current infection rate of 1.193 per 1,000 people, the US has yet to put in place a nationwide lockdown, instead encouraging people to stay home and allowing cities and states to put in place lockdowns if they choose. Contrast this with New Zealand, who announced a total nationwide lockdown when its infection rate was just 0.021%. Google has released mobility data that shows how effective different country’s responses have been at restricting individual mobility, which correspond with their ability to effectively flatten the curve.
A collectivist narrative and response is fitting for a collective crisis.
In what is the first time in living memory for many of us, a large proportion of the world is experiencing the visceral reality of indoor-confinement that is being shared by millions of other people in different cultures, societies, and settings. There are some suggestions that the US will emerge from the coronavirus crisis to be a less individualistic society. There is a sense that we are all in the same boat (although in reality they are very different boats). People are helping each other out, delivering groceries, and playing balcony concerts; not driven by a desire for personal gain but out a deep innate sense that we are all interconnected, and the other people need help to get through this.
Ironically, even the strict border controls are globally collectivist. While traditionally a country closing its borders to outsiders might be viewed as an individualistic, nationalistic move, in this case a collective shut down on the flows of people represents united global action. Now that this crisis has spread its tentacles into the far reaches of civilisation with almost every country in the world now reporting cases, co-ordinated, collective global action is the only way out of this.
4. The Narrative of the Local
Our family spent the Saturday before lockdown in the backyard of some dear friends, planting a substantial vegetable garden. It’s not an activity I’ve ever undertaken before with these friends; not something I would consider in the realm of a normal thing to do together. The following day, I planted seeds in trays that are now sitting on my sunny windowsill. The thought of a disrupted food supply was already top of mind for many, as we saw stores throughout the country selling out of seedlings completely.
The effects of COVID-19 are going to have a lasting impact on many aspects of our society, from the way we work and travel, to the goods we produce and foods we eat. In coming months and years, we will certainly see some consumer goods and services that we are used to being in limited supply or unavailable. The resulting new normal of what is available to us provides an opportunity for sober reflection on how much we rely on global markets to provide us with cheap goods. It is also a chance to consider the opportunity cost of what we lose when the cheapest price is our primary motivating factor for how we meet our needs: a loss of community connection, coherence, and knowledge; not knowing our neighbours, and understanding their individual skills, talents and passions; and perhaps most starkly, a loss of local resilience to deal with disruptions.
Since the lockdown I have come to realise just how many other families with children live in the houses surrounding us. Before, I had assumed that we were surrounded by young professionals and retired folks, as those were the only types of people I saw moving around during my predominant time patterns of moving around the neighbourhood. But suddenly there are whole families out walking together who I’ve never seen before.
Staying local and building systems to meet our own needs provides a new opportunity to reframe the narratives of our neighbourhoods, and how they fit into the overall narratives of our cities and countries.
5. The Narrative of our Relationship with the Natural World
Under the enforced decree of “staying local” when getting out and about for exercise, I have been out walking and running on Mount Victoria in Wellington. This giant patch of natural semi-wilderness has always been there for the eight years I have been living here, but it is only now that I am starting to gain a new awareness and knowledge of what is on my back doorstep. I am coming to more intricately know the geography of the land upon which I live. I’m noticing trees, plants, the subtle curve of a hill.
Already I’ve seen plants growing out of cracks in sidewalks, that wouldn’t be there if we had the usual amount of foot traffic. Plants that we would call “weeds” under normal circumstances, but really they are just the forms of life that would be there if we weren’t.
Around the world, we are seeing how quickly nature bounces back when humans get out of the way. The waters of the Venice canals are clear enough to see fish, due to the lack of sediment disturbance from boats. Leading climate change experts are predicting that we may see the largest drop in carbon emissions since World War II as result of the slowed economic activity due to COVID-19. On a night time walk of the central city this week, I was pleasantly surprised to see a lack of litter and cigarette butts, and instead witness piles of leaves gathering in front of darkened shop fronts.
When we see how remarkably quickly nature can recover, we can begin to realise that all the seemingly impossible problems surrounding climate change, ecological instability, biodiversity loss and pollution of the oceans are all completely achievable.
Yes, all this is coming at the cost of a blow to our local and global economies. But even that realisation in itself shines a light on how much our elevation of economic growth and “prosperity” serves to externalise costs at the expense of the environment. This realisation paves the way for us to develop a new narrative by which we rebuild our economies to work with nature, rather than seeking to exploit it for human gain. It should be noted that this is not a new narrative — it is a narrative of the interdependence of humans and the natural world that has held true for indigenous societies around the world. With the magnitude of other crises facing our natural world and our newfound realisation of our ability to overcome them, this is a story whose time has come.
6. The Narrative of Agency
Perhaps the most powerful new narrative that is emerging out of the anthropological effects of COVID-19, is one of agency.
Amidst the rush of our busy lives distracted by technologies, the drive to get ahead, and pop culture of the day, many of us have had that gnawing feeling that something is amiss with our lives. Now is the time to sit up and pay heed to that feeling.
While COVID-19 has landed us in a position where we are suffering from a loss of control, there are many things over which you can have influence in the coming months and years. For those of us that have the privilege to live within democratic societies, we can choose to frame ourselves not as passive consumers or spectators of our circumstances, but as participants who have agency over our lives. Many small actions amount to ripple effects that can turn the tide on some of our greatest challenges. A mindset of possibility is the antidote to fear.
We have a golden opportunity to reimagine our world and reframe many of the taken-for-granted narratives that inform the way we live. That which was previously thought to be impossible or at the very least in the “too hard/too busy” basket — community coherence, ecological equilibrium, a stable climate, gender equality, and a more equitable society in general — are suddenly a little bit more within our reach than we had previously realised.
The invitation is out there to re-author our world. What are you going to do with it?
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