The Novel Coronavirus has disrupted our world and forced us to change in ways we could not have imagined even 30 days ago. Protecting the health of our families and frontline workers remains the most urgent priority, but vital and daunting new questions loom on the horizon. How will our post-COVID world look? Are we willing and able to step forward with new solutions for a post-COVID society?
The pandemic has roused us from our unconscious trance of separation, given us a glimpse of the resiliency of nature when relieved from human meddling, and disrupted our habitual patterns of consumption. From the ashes of our previous “normal” we can either return to our old ways or allow the crisis to catalyze an evolutionary leap forward – using it’s hardships and insights to re-imagine, re-inspire, and rewire a more sustainable, just, and prosperous future.
One of the most obvious beneficiaries of our hiatus from “normal” has been the environment. Last week the L.A. Times reported that Los Angeles’ air quality ranked first among the world’s cities. We’re seeing wild animals venture into our now quiet neighborhoods. As we withdraw into our homes, nature is experiencing a reprieve and detoxification from human activity and excess. Perhaps nature’s ability to rehabilitate herself can be admonition and inspiration to us all.
According to native American traditions, “Everything is medicine for something, even poison.” Along with the heartbreaking loss of life from the virus, this global pandemic has brought a healing crisis and metaphorical medicine for humanity. It is an opportunity for mankind to envision itself anew.
The first step has been to break the illusion of separation which has been a prevailing worldview and basis for untold human suffering — exploitation of nature, hoarding of resources, climate degradation, greed and income inequality, and perpetual wars. It has taken an impersonal virus (which knows no national, political, racial, or religious boundaries) to awaken us from this trance and reveal the interconnected whole.
Ironically, our physical isolation has highlighted our interconnectedness. We live in a real-time, 24/7, globally connected world. Each small action of one of us affects all of us. We see how simple acts such as standing six feet apart, wearing a mask, and washing our hands can save lives. We are responsible to one another. In his daily COVID-19 address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shared a quote from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edith Hamilton/Edward Gibbon, “When the freedom they wished for most was the freedom from responsibility, then [they] ceased to be free.” In an interconnected world of mutual dependency, our freedoms are linked to our responsibility to one another. The separation worldview is a dead end. Mutual responsibility is the only path forward. And we are all responsible for charting that new path.
Our post-COVID world will require envisioning and implementing pragmatic yet bold new solutions. And new solutions can only emerge from personal and collective transformation. As Albert Einstein wisely observed, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.” Our personal transformation will require staying present with the suffering endured under Coronavirus — our grief for loved ones, our loss of “normal” (despite how broken it was), our grim economic condition, and our rampant patterns of polarization and tribal/party identity, to name a few. In my many years of business leadership and entrepreneurial coaching, I have learned that you can’t change an organization without transforming the team members. Inner change and outer change go hand in hand. Innovative solutions arise from a new mindset. COVID is presenting us with the opportunity to up-level our personal dreams as well as our collective dream for humanity. It is a time to reinvent ourselves, in support of birthing a saner, more sustainable world.
While the Coronavirus is the most immediate threat, it is by no means the only one. Let’s look at a few examples where bold new solutions can emerge from our collective care and responsibility:
- Patterns of Work and Every-Day Life – As we survey our COVID world, it is less obscured by the smog of bumper-to-bumper traffic, less embroiled in needless consumption, less muffled by the noise of sports stadiums, air travel, shopping, and movie theaters. Our habitual frenzy, anxiety, and distraction have abated. We have been forced to slow down and notice: what is really needed? Can we right-size our consumption and our harried lifestyle to align more with the pace of the natural world? Can we accomplish productive work while working remotely? It appears possible. In the final accounting, I suspect the data will show that in many sectors we can thrive in blended workplace and home settings, leaving us more time with family and eliminating a sizable chunk of commute time and resultant air pollution. Can we take 25% of the cars off the road? 50%? Are the blue skies in L.A. and quiet streets in N.Y. enough to motivate a transition to electric vehicles and public transportation? We will need to grapple with these questions.
- Holistic Healthcare System Rather than a Sickcare System – The Coronavirus has put a spotlight on our healthcare system and the courageous frontline healthcare workers who risk their lives every day on our behalf. Historically, our medical system has placed outsized focus on disease diagnosis and symptom management, rather than on prevention and wellness. Now, due to the very real risk of overrunning our hospitals with COVID-19 cases, we are forced to emphasize prevention, acknowledging that nutrition, hygiene, exercise, supplements, sleep, mental and emotional attitudes, and social practices all matter. Shouldn’t that be a model for all health treatment? In addition, the pandemic underscores the opportunity for medical professionals and holistic healers to work side by side to ensure broad-based wellness. In California, for example, acupuncturists, functional medicine, and integrative healing practitioners have been deemed “non-essential.” Those with conditions from cancer to hypertension, anxiety to addiction, who were being treated by integrative practitioners before the crisis are left without support. We have an opportunity to evolve our healthcare systems to bring health security, affordability, and wellness to every American. Reduce the price and dependence on prescription drugs. Incentivize integrative medicine. Provide Medicare to all who want it. Transition from a system of disease diagnosis and sickcare to one that promotes prevention, healing, and wellness.
- Sustainable Food Systems – The pandemic has raised questions about food security and availability of healthy nutrition. For decades, the promotion of the Standard America Diet has been sickening people, causing obesity, heart disease, diabetes, various cancers and other chronic diseases that make exposure to the Coronavirus more deadly. Large-scale agribusiness depletes our soils of natural nutrients, GMOs irreparably harm our seed stock, and animal factories contribute billions of tons of environmental waste to our water and air every year, all while inflicting truly ghastly and heartbreaking conditions on animals and food workers. The choice to maximize agribusiness profits over sustainable, healthy food systems literally kills millions of people each year and COVID-19 will accelerate it. We need a refreshed vision for how clean, healthy food will be provided to all citizens. What is the path forward? Support organic, sustainable (and hopefully locally grown) food production. Implement strong restrictions and labeling requirements for GMOs. Require nutritional training for all board-certified physicians. Educate the public on the negative effects of certain foods (for example, that processed meats are a Class I carcinogen, similar to cigarettes). Set standards for sustainable farming practices; provide incentives and credit extension to those who follow them.
- Climate Action and a Cleaner, Greener Economy – While the environment has visibly benefited from our “human pause” during this pandemic, we still face impending climate disruption from which no one can self-isolate. Transitioning from our dependence on fossil fuels to more sustainable, low-impact energy sources is simultaneously an environmental imperative, a national security issue, and an urgent economic necessity. According to data recently released by the International Renewal Energy Agency, investing in sustainable energy could increase global G.D.P. by $98 trillion by 2050, 2.4% above current growth predictions. By aggressively shifting to renewable energy we lower the greenhouse gas levels contributing to global warming and environmental degradation, we lower dependence on nations that would do us harm, and we stimulate our long-term economic recovery from COVID-19 with sustainable, clean energy jobs. Ultimately that means a safer, cleaner America, along with hundreds of thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in energy savings for American families. How do we get there? Set national renewable energy and consumption standards. Incentivize building retrofits to reduce energy consumption and spur green-collar jobs. Extend the investment tax credit for renewable energy deployments. Invest in the next-generation smart electric grid. Require our military and local, state, and federal governments to become energy independent.
- Economically Resilient Families & Society – Sadly, 39% of Americans lack the savings to handle a $400 emergency expense according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households. The 36.5 million Americans who have applied for unemployment as of this writing (along with those who may still need to do so) are empirical proof of what social scientists have been warning. Our society is not structured to withstand even modest disruptions, especially for our most vulnerable. The ravages of COVID-19 on our economy underscore the fragility of our existing system. In order to create a truly resilient and sustainable economic system, we need to address the inherent inequities. Direct payments to citizens through the CARES Act are helping to cover the cost of rent or food for those who have lost jobs during the pandemic. What are the possible next steps? Approve additional stimulus to ensure ongoing basic income to cover shelter and food during this time. Put people back to work on critical infrastructure projects, industrial retrofits, waste clean-up, and clean energy deployments. Undertake large-scale workforce retraining initiatives. Raise the minimum wage. Pursue aggressive policies to close the widening wealth gap. Develop solutions for homelessness and affordable housing. End tax breaks for industries and corporations that are out of alignment with sustainable practices.
As we can see, many facets of society are ripe for creative rework – from trans-partisan politics and media, to societal and racial healing, criminal justice reform, and transformative education. The list goes on. Now is the time for us to come together, to draw upon the mutual responsibility and creativity of all people to address these pressing needs.
Humanity has been given the sacred opportunity to pause from the irrelevant, to turn down the noise of everyday life, and to see with piercing clarity the things that are no longer working in our society. Now is the opportunity to redesign a world that is more healthy, sustainable, and economically prosperous for all.
We can go backward, or we can move forward. I, for one, hope we will suppress the reflex to “get back to normal” and use this time as a powerful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take an evolutionary step forward toward a better future for humanity.
About the Author
IONS Board Member Stacey Lawson is an entrepreneur, business leader, and climate advocate. She is the Vice Chairman of Ygrene Energy Fund, co-founder of the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology at UC Berkeley, and a 20-year meditation practitioner and teacher.