I’m hearing a lot about learning from COVID-times and making some course corrections in our society. Expectations for change run high in some communities. There is a long tradition of crises and tragedies leading to significant social change. In fact, advocates talk about not letting a tragedy go to waste. Turning bad into good is also a strong Biblical theme. Are the current expectations realistic? What will make a difference to achieve needed changes?
COVID-19 raised public awareness of many social justice issues. There is wide agreement on the need to show greater respect for essential workers – and adequate pay and sick leave. Fixing support systems and cracks in systems, such as nursing homes, education and child care, has higher public support as a result of COVID. Pandemics can be equalizers because all people face a common enemy.
But improvement is not inevitable. My experience with change after other tragedies, such as child deaths, makes me worry about a return to entrenched habits, harmful ones as well as hugs. A reality check reminds us that COVID also increased some social divides, which can be major barriers to change.
Lessons from history are mixed. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States is often cited as an example of crisis-inspired reform. His personal experience with polio helped to propel change and take advantage of that moment. President Biden seems to be trying a similar path, with many bumps ahead to achieve changes he introduced quickly. The response to World War I is widely seen as a missed opportunity to make changes – and that contributed to World War II. The bubonic plague widened gaps in the global world at that time. Polio, on the other hand, led to a high level of global solidarity to almost eradicate it.
The potential to go backward or forward is highlighted in a new book, Ten Lessons for a Post-pandemic World, by well-known columnist Fareed Zakaria. He predicts we could lose some recent gains in reduction of global poverty. Gaps between well-resourced and poorly-resourced households within Canada might grow wider, depending on next steps. While some big companies have benefited, local innovative businesses may not survive. There could be a new divide – between places with good health care systems and places with weak health care systems. Tourists, for example, are expected to favour places with good health care more than in the past.
The will to change
The evidence suggests that societies with less inequality can manage pandemics better than societies with a high level of inequality. One factor is higher levels of trust when people share many aspects of life. In highly monetized societies, life for the wealthy is so different from life for those with few resources that it is hard to maintain common purpose for a common good.
Outcomes are not inevitable or pre-determined. The most critical factor is human agency, the will to make change. Right now there is a high level of knowledge about what needs to change, but less certainty about the will to change. Those who read Scripture are not surprised that our moral resolve to make changes ourselves and work for changes in our society will determine if post-COVID Canada is a more or less just society where all creation can flourish.