• Martin Punaks

After Covid 19: how can we shape a new world?



In early March, as the enormity of the Covid 19 crisis became clear in the UK, I wrote an article about the abnormal becoming the new normal. One of the issues I touched on was how crises like this can clear away old problems and create opportunities for beneficial change. I gave World War II as an example of how, out of immense suffering, the United Nations, the European Union, human rights, the end of colonialism, the welfare state and women’s equality were born. It is now one month on, and in this this article I want to explore in more depth the question of what could come next.


Since the crisis unfolded I have been fascinated to read people’s ideas for solutions and scenarios of what the world might look like when the crisis is over. Some of my favourite ideas have included the need to develop a collective consciousness, how we can shape the story with a narrative of generosity, solidarity and empowerment, and how a coalition of the willing could cooperate to create a global Marshall plan.


Right now however we are still in the midst of the crisis in Europe and North America, and it has yet to peak in Sub-Saharan Africa where its effects are likely to be severe. So I am acutely aware of how talking about creating a better world could be conceived of as naïve, or even insensitive, to the suffering of so many. However, we need to remember that in some places like China and parts of South East Asia societies are already coming out of the crisis. Even our own leaders in Europe are beginning to talk about what comes next. So if we are to influence these debates then the time is now to conceive of what kind of world we want to live in. If we can sow these seeds now then some of them may take root, and some of them may grow into the ideologies which shape the next era of human evolution.


The street where I live is awash with pavement graffiti showing messages of hope.


Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining: Stories and Reflections


Each of us is having our own subjective experiences of the Covid 19 crisis, and each of us will have our own stories to tell afterwards. Fortunately for me my experiences have so far been fairly positive. In early March I had been about to leave home to work on a five-month UNICEF project in Kenya, but it was cancelled on the day I was meant to fly. Thankfully though I did not lose the contract for the work and instead I have been doing it remotely from the UK. In retrospect I am grateful I could stay in London with my family during this time. I am also lucky that I have a spacious house and a large garden, so social distancing has not been the challenge for me that it has for many others. Finally, I have previously had periods in my life when I have effectively self-isolated due to health-related mobility issues, so this last month has not be that strange for me, and in fact it has allowed me the space for self-reflection, as I am sure it has for many others too.


The overwhelming thought which has stayed with me throughout this time is the apparent paradox of how the crisis has made us focus on both the local and the global simultaneously. I cannot think of a time in human history when we have ever had this opportunity before.


On a purely physical level our worlds are now incredibly restricted; we have been limited to the most local of places, i.e. being by ourselves in our houses. Our contact with the outside world has similarly become localised through what we can get in the local shops, helping our elderly and vulnerable neighbours with the same, and our wonderful new-found national tradition of standing on our doorsteps every Thursday evening – face to face with neighbours whom we may normally never see – to clap and cheer our health and social carers. For me personally I have had more interaction with my local community during this last month than I have had during the whole eighteen months since I moved into the area. I have loved every single one of these small but significant interactions because I have felt a sense of community which I have never experienced before living in London.


At the same time, on a less-physical level, we are all experiencing an historically unprecedented global crisis where literally everyone in the entire world is being affected in a similar way simultaneously. Importantly, due to global communications we are all equally aware of this and can share our empathy for each other. I have been touched by messages from friends from all over the world checking in to see if I am okay, and sharing their news with me. These have come from people from all socio-economic backgrounds, from both low-income and high-income countries. For the first time ever in my lifetime we are all able to relate to each other on a more level playing field as we experience what it is like to be in a lockdown, what it is like not being able to access the foods we want, what it is like having our livelihoods threated, and what it is like being scared for the future. I know of course that this crisis does not affect everyone equally, and those with privilege like me will be better able to fair the storm, but we should not lose sight of the significant fact that on some level we have all been momentarily united in a shared experience.


When I went shopping recently in a local supermarket I managed to get perhaps 50% of what was on my shopping list due to the increasingly familiar phenomenon in the UK of half-empty shelves. When I went to pay I was struck by the words of the friendly cashier who told me: “This is making us all realise that what we think we need when we go shopping, we don’t always need, and we can actually make do with whatever we can get”. When I told my friend in Kenya about this experience, she quipped with me that she might start a charitable campaign to ask Kenyans to collect toilet rolls and canned food to send over to the English who have so little, thus reversing 70 years of patronising aid programmes to ‘save Africa’!


Meanwhile, in my day-job supporting the Kenyan Government with their care reform strategy, I have spent much of the last month absorbed in reading about the Kenyan child care context and the nuances of particular regions and social issues. I have spent hours on Zoom calls with Kenyan colleagues who are doing inspiring work leading their county’s child protection response to the Covid 19 crisis. Sometimes I am so absorbed in my virtual life in Kenya that when I leave my little study it takes me a second to remember that I am in fact still physically at home in London with my family. What amazes me about this is that when I first heard that my travel plans to Kenya had been cancelled, I was devastated. Being an old-fashioned type who always opts for face-to-face meetings over internet calls, I have surprised myself at my ability to be able to continue my work in Kenya from a distance. Similarly I have been impressed by my Kenyan colleagues’ abilities to adapt to using Zoom in such as short space of time (this has been a completely new experience for many of them). With more time at home to be with my family and local community, and the ability to simultaneously and meaningfully work in another continent, I am beginning to question how useful all these ‘essential’ business trips around the world, for me and for others, have really been.


Millions of children across the UK have drawn rainbows and put them up in their windows to brighten these difficult times.


Somewhere Over the Rainbow: What Comes Next?


These are nice stories, you may be thinking, but how do they relate to what comes after Covid 19?


As I sit in my garden with a cup of coffee, smelling the new clean London air and listening to the birds singing, whilst I stare up at the clear deep blue sky which is now free from the scarring of cloudy contrails from aeroplanes, these stories go around in my head, and I think about what we can take from these experiences.


How can we capture the kindness and warmth that has developed between strangers in our local communities? How can we continue the appreciation and value we now place in our key workers on the buses and the trains, the shop workers, the police, the volunteers, the social carers, and our doctors and nurses? How can preserve at least some of the peace and quiet of a lockdown, with less cars on the roads and space to walk around and cycle with our families? Can we continue to live with a little less choice in the supermarkets if it means a reduction in consumption and pollution overall, resulting in less exploitation in supply chains and a planet worth inheriting by our grandchildren? Can our businesses and work survive without non-essential travel, especially if it means less toxic aeroplane fumes and more time together with those we love? Can we only travel by air when we really need to? Instead, can we explore alternative options such as traveling by land and sea on extended holidays once every decade or so to Asia, Africa and South America, whilst for normal holidays we enjoy staycations in our local towns and countryside? Is it possible to maintain a sense of empathy and connection with each and every human being in the world with whom we are part of the same species and family?


I was talking with an old friend the other day – over Skype of course – whose views I very much respect. He shared with me his opinion that the elite will always be the best at adapting to new circumstances, and in the post-Covid 19 world they will find ways of staying in power so they can exploit and prosper, just as they have always done. Amidst my dreamy optimism, I had to admit that he may be right. I strongly suspect than when this is all over there will be many who want to return to how things were – the over-consumption, the pollution, the inequality, the polarization between peoples and nations, and the absence of love and care for each other and the vulnerable. This is why it is so very, very important that that we do not forego this once in a century opportunity to change the course of history. We have a window here to create a world where we can genuinely love and care for ourselves, for our friends and families, for our brothers and sisters across the human race, and for the planet itself. We have talked about this for decades – in our politics, our social values and our spiritual belief systems – but there have always been obstacles preventing it from happening. But now it is different. We are finally being given the chance to change, and it is up to us whether we decide to take it.

The sun sets over a London park where nature is beginning to re-wild.

Copyright: Martin Punaks 2019