Thursday 31 December 2020

Building back better: a dose of humility

Covid has been a sobering experience, revealing the frailties of our social fabric and laying waste to the most vulnerable among us. Without engaging in a counsel of despair, I think one of the lessons for us is that to overly rely on the State to guide human behaviour simply won't work. It may also be the case that the social frameworks that were in place before, are perhaps not with us any longer. And that part of our building back better in the West might involve re-learning those aspects of social control that underpin our responsibilities to each other, and the resilience to respond to crisis, from parts of the World where they remain strong.

The problem

To share an anecdotal experience. This afternoon I stood in a supermarket and observed an elderly man standing with a basket of food, waiting for a checkout. Around him bustled shop workers, many without masks, and several shouting to their colleagues. Shoppers, including a young man with no mask, brushed physically past the elderly gentleman, rolling their eyes because he was in their way. And throughout the store, while the majority were wearing masks, many repeatedly removed them and showed no inclination to engage in distancing of any kind. Earlier today an intensive care consultant described such people as having “blood on their hands”. He’d seen the inevitable result of the behaviour I’d just witnessed in the ICU wards. 

So what’s going on? Thoughtlessness or a lack of something intangible, that might otherwise have altered behaviour?

I can’t help thinking of the stories I grew up with, of stoicism and communal support withstanding the onslaught of the Blitz. The images of St Pauls’ Cathedral, of newly homeless women making tea and others were echoed by my own grandparents in their own stories from that time. But I also think of some of the communities it’s been my privilege to work among during my own lifetime. In Turkana, Nepal, Afghanistan and elsewhere where communities have run their own affairs in the absence of a strong State and done so in a manner which would make the sort of behaviour I saw in the supermarket, and that we see in beach parties and other breaches highly unlikely. These are also places where the concept of 'positive deviance' often applies - where communities themselves have developed ways of dealing with challenges by innovating their own norms; be that cultivating land or looking after the elderly. No role for the State involved, nor for that matter international donors. Just ask Amina, from Dar es Salaam. 

Building back better?

It’s fair to say that the governance challenges witnessed in the West during the last few years undermine the idea that others should simply adopt our model of managing their affairs unquestioningly. There are other models out there and no doubt their relative merits will be hotly contested. But to me, that’s only part of the picture anyway.

We in the West will also do well to consider what we might want to learn from societies who have not relied on the State at all, be that either an authoritarian or liberal version, and have managed their affairs based on behaviours that do not encourage individualism, and the lack of empathy or responsibility that can entail, and which we have witnessed a great deal of throughout this pandemic with disastrous results. These are societies who have often managed to hang together in the face of challenges way greater than Covid, including armed conflict. Building back better will in my view need to involve a large helping of humility, and a willingness to learn from others. The vulnerable old man with his shopping basket deserved a great deal more care from those around him than he received. 

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