The Post-Pathogen Reset Button — Action Pointer #3
Viral growth of wishful thinking
The trickle has become a flood. At a time when few seem able to predict what will happen in the next few days, planning for the post-pandemic reconstruction may seem entirely pointless.
Such is the immediate concern for friends and family survival that next week seems like a very long-term forecast. Panicked minds lust for immediate practical advice. Doing nothing in splendid isolation seems not to answer.
But these Action Pointers are not concerned with home cooking, gardening, multi-user online games, dignity jumpers for video meeting modesty, or the joys of Spring cleaning. Even the most stir-crazed captives will eventually twig how to survive without their normal addictions.
Nor are these Action Pointers intended to soothe the furrowed brows of revenge seekers. Truths and reconciliations may, one day perhaps, be commissioned but today the accent is positive. The greatest, perhaps the only, blessing of our locked down state is the uninterrupted opportunity to quietly contemplate the future.
It is not surprising that the dreamers are out in force. Much like the pandemic, the exponential growth of predictions and remedies for our lives and endeavours will soon become overwhelming.
These Action Pointers seek to identify the threads that will eventually be woven into the new fabric. In today’s episode we consider three very different recent contributions; one from a writer (Michael Morpurgo, of War Horse fame), another from academia (Marianna Mazzucato, UCL’s champion of The Value of Everything) and finally, a Moral Maze panellist, Matthew Taylor of the RSA. Each of their contributions reflect perspectives and experiences in the communication of ideas.
First, listen (download it via BBC Sounds) to Michael Morpurgo’s A Point of View, Cause for Hope. Michael clearly values his isolated time for thinking. Even with a repeat broadcast on BBC Radio 4 just before Sunday midnight, few will have heard or fully absorbed his nine powerful minutes — nine minutes that should be downloaded and replayed repeatedly by every MP and student. They have, like all of us, “plenty of time for thinking”.
As Michael traces the sources of our anxiety, one can sense an undercurrent of anger but this serves a purpose. He needs first to leave the listener in no doubt about the division and alienation within a dis-United Kingdom — the fault lines in our tectonic plates — to then stress that, like climate change, this virus does not respect borders.
Michael reflects that in earlier crises we have manged to unite against a common enemy only to revert to type when the pressure has passed. This time however, and this is his cause for hope, we have a greater opportunity. This virus “is a great leveller”, not to level up or down but to seek a greater (flatter) equitable belonging.
Michael’s reflections partly echo those in Action Pointer #2 in the expectation (or wish) for a less-polarised society because now, undeniably, “we are all in the same boat”. He is equally certain that the politicians that divided us are ill-suited for our reunification which, inevitably, begs the question: If not Them, then Who?
Are Michael’s nine minutes of airtime a desperate plea to fresh younger minds to step forward into leadership roles or just a general call to all to take greater care of our communities — or perhaps both? If we had any A-Level students still studying, these nine minutes would surely be required listening.
Last Wednesday’s Guardian Op-Ed, ‘The Covid-19 crisis is a chance to do capitalism differently’ is classic Mariana. Not all readers will be familiar with Mariana’s work. Yes, I know that sounds unlikely, but the families crowding the UK’s beaches yesterday seemed not to have heard that there’s a highly infectious virus roaming amongst us. Even Guardian readers may have missed or avoided yet another piece of Covid coverage. Maybe some have given up Social Media for Lent.
COVID-19 provides, for Mariana, a pulpit from which to preach her unrelenting message that Public and Private endeavours are interwoven. All businesses have a vested interest in good governance and all citizens are invested in commerce. At the heart of Mariana’s concerns for your nation’s economic wellbeing is a debate around who shares the returns. The market-led ideology that diminishes the role of government to fixing market failures has clearly been found wanting and, Mariana argues, that with COVID-19 ‘governments have the upper hand for the first time in a generation’.
Mariana raises four key points. First, investment in Long Term Resilience is as key to economic wellbeing as it is to citizen’s health — and that demands a reversal of recent trends that have, for example, left the NHS severely underfunded. There was a flurry of city-based resilience projects after terrorist attacks and severe weather events, but these have been fragmented and not all sustained.
Secondly Mariana argues that governments need to better coordinate research and development activities — a need increasingly apparent after much of our publicly-owned capacity has been ditched or sold off. The current race to discover new vaccines is an excellent example but, more than that, Government needs to be clear about its responsibility to shape/direct the commercial forces towards delivering public good.
Thirdly, Mariana restates her long-held view that publicly-funded contracts should demand due return and respect — not profiteering. This links to a wish expressed elsewhere — that COVID-19 may shift the language, replacing the word ‘subsidy’ with ‘investment’.
Mariana’s final point demands that, unlike the 2008 crash, funding injections to stave off economic collapse must be designed with a higher purpose — fighting the greater existential threat of the climate crisis. We should, she says, not let this current crisis go to waste.
Matthew also observes that we all now have time on our hands and should use this resource to ‘chart a better future and organise for it.’ His approach asks us to understand three motivating forces: Authority, Connectedness and Individual Aspiration.
In brief, these three motivators are difficult to balance — a point amply evidenced by stockpiling and reluctant acceptance of social distancing. Trust in Authority has been weakened as has our sense of Connectedness in market-led regimes that reduce individuals to units of productivity and where solidarity is seen as an irrelevant impediment to progress.
But how can we organise in future to keep the three motivational forces in balance?
‘Many hoped that the response to the 2008 financial crash would take the form of progressive reform and social reconstruction. Instead, it has embedded inequality and fed the growth of public pessimism and political populism.’
Matthew offers a 3-point agenda: Democratic Reform, Renewed Solidarities and a greater focus on Personal Wellbeing. But inevitably, from an experienced communicator, his work is more nuanced than this summary suggests.
With all this ‘time on our hands’, dear reader, when gardening and Spring Cleaning palls, the links are there for you to savour the full flavour. Think about it.
We all wish that this voyage may soon be over. Navigation is not wishful thinking. Your hand is on the helm. Please keep your eye on the distant horizon and prepare for a safe arrival.