Practices for How COVID-19 Can Create Lasting, Positive Change
“As we find ourselves in the midst of various stages of reopening across the globe, our collective memory of this disaster can either fade away into history or become a drumbeat for a more just, equitable and sustainable society.”
“Studies have shown when disaster strikes, there is a period when communities are more communal and cooperative, more apt to transform themselves in lasting ways.”
“Stop COVID, be a hero, stay home” implores a highway traffic billboard on Chicago’s majestic Lake Shore Drive.
As we complete a second month of extreme social-distancing measures in the wake of a novel coronavirus, we are even more aware of how much our futures are bound up together. The reality there is no “returning to normal” is settling in.
The three authors of this article live in three different time zones, each juggling our own individual, familial, and professional responsibilities in the health and environmental sectors. Yet we have come together time and again with a wide-eyed optimism that, if we follow the principles of “help ever, hurt never,” and “love all, serve all,” we can imbue our lives with meaning. And, if we could succeed in transforming ourselves, we could also help humanity chart a different course—one that is more just, equitable, and ecologically sustainable.
If change is inevitable, the three of us have been pondering—as have leaders and laypeople alike—what it would take to move forward stronger ... to shift our social fabric to meet the challenges awaiting us as communities start to reopen.
Embedded in this question is the recognition of the fact that transitions are never easy and can stick for generations to come. But to arrive at an answer, we have to rewind. Disasters can provide the right conditions for wide-scale change. We saw it a decade ago in Haiti, and we recognize the potential again with this pandemic.
In 2010, we served in the post-earthquake relief efforts in Port au Prince, helping to provide short-term medical relief efforts and food, partnering with local youth translators, and much more. We were in the present—connecting with ourselves and those around us and strategizing on the next steps for our team and for the communities we served.
As we think back to Haiti and other natural disasters the world has since seen, a model for how to provide aid emerges—a playbook where outside help can be deployed to stabilize a geographically confined situation while residents put pieces back together for midterm and long-term recovery.
Past recovery efforts capture the positive transformative power of a disaster—be it at an individual (physical, emotional, spiritual) level or at the community level—for both those effected and for relief workers.
But in the case of this pandemic, there is no playbook. COVID-19 has disrupted the educational ecosystem, the medical system, and economic infrastructure in a matter of weeks. It has changed the rules of engagement and regulations of human governance and behavior in a record amount of time.
This pandemic has managed to redesign our personal and work spaces, creating a window in our colleagues’ and our patients’ lives as we mutually consent to opening our homes virtually through various connectivity platforms.
Seeing our work as physicians suddenly labeled as front line or essential is often hard to digest—as the nature of our work to heal never changed after taking the Hippocratic oath. Perhaps we practiced in obscurity in the pre-pandemic era, and, now, the world has opened a portal to view the work of a “masked warrior” donned with in PPE as the rest of the planet lay still.
This temporary halt has also given humanity an experience of cleaner air, a chance to look within, spend time with family members, and practice teamwork, as well as become creative with time, space, and technology. It has made us think of supply chains, consumerism at large, micro- and macroeconomics, and look at the shape of the healthcare architecture across the world.
In a nutshell, we realize how much we can truly live without if we were to put a ceiling on our endless desires and mitigate the invisible threads of connectivity that globalization has forged.
We are at a critical juncture. Do we cling to the idea that everything will go back to normal, where economic gain reigns supreme, measured in units of productivity and consumption? Or do we use this natural disruption and this deliberate pause to catapult society to what could be the golden era: where the wealth of a community is measured by the spiritual principle “may the wellbeing of all be protected.”
Studies have shown when disaster strikes, there is a period when communities are more communal and cooperative, more apt to transform themselves in lasting ways. However, there is a need for guidance and an opportunity for rebuilding the ecosystem to make it more inclusive and sustainable. It may be agricultural reform to prioritize tree cover and meeting subsistence needs or perhaps distributing the response to the need for food and shelter in a pandemic equitably between the civil society groups and the government.
The shaking may have stopped, but the impact has created waves of change and chaos.
Yet, just as any mode of transportation relies on radar and navigation to steer, we need tools to direct how we determine our path forward. We believe it is imperative that we need to seize this moment—to transcend our human suffering by recognizing our common humanity and exercising genuine compassion.
On the policy front, global leaders have developed alternative frameworks for development of this kind, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or the WealthWorks eight capitals: intellectual, financial, natural, cultural, built, political, individual, and social capitals. From a spiritual perspective we can draw additional insights, as well.
From our collective experience, here are 5 key elements necessary for lasting change.
Positive Leadership: The pandemic offers the world a chance to shift the paradigm with new forms of leadership ... ones that recognize humans as “beings,” who touch, feel and co-create our future, as opposed to human “doings” who only churn out economic output.
We need leaders who are reacquainted with the source of happiness and eternal truth—to act in concert with inner beliefs, ones who inspire and empower individuals to change themselves with the full-faced acknowledgement that each of us is an essential instrument in social transformation.
Ancient practices for boosting human potential that were budding trends in the U.S. pre-pandemic—such as yoga and mindfulness—are now in full bloom, with frequent mass virtual meditation events and prayer vigils seeking to fend off the virus. This is only the beginning.
Collective Action: The famous quote by Gandhi has never been more true: “The world has enough resources to meet everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed.”
Because billions (not just millions) of people who make up our globalized economy are simultaneously being confronted with a similar reality, we have the possibility of catalyzing systemic and institutional change to “be the change we want to see in the world.” With the support of changing social norms, individuals won’t have to rely solely on fickle willpower in day-to-day living to confront other major crises like climate change.
While economies struggle to figure out “how to keep the change,” both literally and figuratively, we can all work together to shift supply chains from global to local: Be more self-reliant even if it takes a bit longer or if we pay a little more up front. Or, we might consider how often we drive in single-occupancy vehicles (transportation is the largest greenhouse gas emitting sector). By doing so we can give the Earth’s atmosphere—and our precious lungs—a break.
Crucial Conversations: This disruption has indeed been healthy—for it has created space for having crucial conversations around the landscape of healthcare in general. To see healthcare fraternity beyond local, national and international borders rising as one to share ideas, protocols, workflows, workarounds for PPE and their vulnerabilities in the initial days of the crisis was beyond inspiring as front-liners, for it felt we were part of one large team serving humanity despite our unique local challenges.
This crisis also has opened our eyes to the creative and robust use of technology to access vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations beyond the traditional models of static clinics to serve primary care needs of a population; dissolving silos to build cross functional teams; and the need for a universal healthcare system that transcends borders, status, gender, race or economics. A more unified strategy is needed at the local and national levels guiding healthcare policy that accommodates for the most vulnerable in our society, including the elderly and the homeless.
Whatever we choose we must do for the planet as a whole—we must realize that nano-size elements truly know no boundaries. We must learn from this pandemic that the concept of everything being interconnected is not academic anymore.
It is as true as the grime and dust of the urban slums that act as reminders to our reality of social inequality; as relevant as the need for greater expenditure of effort by each individual toward wellness; and as practical as realizing that we must live in careful synchrony and symphony with all sorts of viruses and bacteria.
Refocus Inward: It can’t be an accident that we are being told to focus on the most personal unit of social organization during this pandemic: within the household. Mental health issues have long been on the rise in the U.S., with greater levels of anxiety, depression, and attention deficit. Most would rather escape from our own realities into the drama of TV, books, or gossip. Nowadays, we have no choice but to look at our family members—who may have become strangers—and get to know them. And, through them, we are forced to confront ourselves.
Connectivity: Telemedicine seems to have created a workaround for hard-to-reach community members who are open to picking up a phone to converse with a provider or logging into an app to make a video call rather than making a visit to the health center thereby decreasing no-show rates.
As a primary care provider (GG) in a community health center on the South Side of Chicago, telemedicine has afforded us a glimpse into their living conditions, improved our connection as a provider-patient team, and has changed the landscape of the practice of medicine.
As a pulmonary and critical care physician (SPH) dabbling in telemedicine for many years, the impact of telemedicine in this crisis has been beyond crucial. An elderly person with breathing difficulty came online on the hospital telemedicine platform for a consultation. One look on the screen showed this person and their family did not understand the gravity of the situation. He was breathing really fast, looking pale, and unable to speak in a full sentence—classic respiratory distress about to turn deadly (as we had seen in innumerable other situations). Fortunately, the family took the advice given to rush to a hospital and the patient ended up on a ventilator immediately, and he made it out a few days later. This situation brought to light the lack of health literacy for even emergent conditions, confirming the belief that remote care can be used to triage and save lives.
Put simply: Collaborative, transformative, and sustainable societies begin at home, one person at a time. Philosophers and mystics from the beginning of time have pointed to tools for developing mental resilience as a key to wellbeing.
The great Albert Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” As we find ourselves in the midst of various stages of reopening across the globe, our collective memory of this disaster can either fade away into history or become a drumbeat for a more just, equitable and sustainable society.
The currency of our lives is time, and it is always dwindling. We would like to be able to meet the next inevitable crisis—be it medical, environmental, or economic—prepared for victory so that no matter where one goes, a billboard could read: “Hero, Here You Are Home.”
Read about 5 shelter-in-place habits worth keeping.