Crisis as a Catalyst for Change ( 1 )

By Dian Cohen

My head is spinning with the myriad opinions about where we are in the crisis, when we will have a vaccine, what will be the shape of the economic recovery, and when life will go back to “normal”.
Let’s start with basics: everything we read about the future is a guess. There may be a high or low probability of it happening, but it is a guess, nevertheless.
We know everything has changed, but we don’t yet know how – we’re still in the phase of processing it all. We’re making it up as we go along. And so are our leaders – even when they’re trying hard to be transparent.
In 1927 a German physicist Werner Heisenberg said that it’s not possible to determine the position and the speed of an object at the same time. With COVID-19, we know where we are, but we don’t know the speed at which we will reach the end of the ordeal. With the economy, we know we’ve taken a major hit, but we can’t yet unravel the unintended consequences.
We can however know the direction we’re going.
We’re tracking strategies for more than just the virus – we’re also tracking strategies for how we may live our post-pandemic lives. In this series, I’ll try to construct a light frame for you to follow the incredible array of ideas about the future of the virus. Most of us aren’t epidemiologists, but we’ve all seen the trajectory of that curve. I’ll also construct a frame for you to follow the equally incredible number of possibilities for how the not-yet-written future may play out.

Strategies for the virus
We currently have 3 strategies:
1. Flatten the curve, protect the herd.
2. Reduce the burden of infection.
3. Find a vaccine to eliminate disease.
We know more or less where we are with strategy 1, but can’t predict with any certainly if, when and how the second wave will come nor how bad it will be. Dr. Harry Rakowski, a clinical investigator with the University Health Network in Toronto says of strategy 2, ”Our projections of disease burden, curve predictions including mortality and the letter shape of the rate of economic recovery are fluid. We know the direction but not the velocity. We don’t know the true rate of disease and how many people are asymptomatic carriers.” As for strategy 3, there are more than 100 different vaccine trials underway in many countries with multiple partnerships and different approaches – despite sporadic encouraging news, best guesses for testing, ramping up production and distributing one or more COVID-19 vaccines is 18 months.

Strategies for “re-opening” our social and economic world.
On these pages last month, David Suzuki penned a thoughtful editorial. He wrote, ”The old systems haven’t been able to respond to our needs in meaningful ways, so governments have had to use unusual interventions to ensure the collective good. The old way of thinking about the economy … has been exposed as inadequate and flawed. But through this distress and disruption, we’re seeing glimmers of transformative potential. We’re witnessing the surfacing of tangible inspirations for the re-imaging of a Canadian economy — one explicitly designed to deliver the well-being and resilience people need to flourish.”
Crises have always been catalysts for change. In the next articles, I’ll look at the possibilities for the short, medium and longer-term future, and which areas of our lives have already changed (think online education and telehealth, how governments govern and regulate).
We need to start thinking NOW about what kind of society we want longer term for ourselves and our children. We have a unique opportunity because this crisis has shut down most of the toxicity in the old system, e.g. failure to care for the disadvantaged, intolerably high greenhouse gas emissions, wasteful private transportation and so on. Do we want “normal” to be the system we had before COVID-19? Or is there something we can press our politicians and policy makers to do now to make the future one that works for everyone?
Dian Cohen is an economist and a founding organizer of the Massawippi Valley Health Centre.

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