As the Covid-19 virus passes amongst us, shaking our lives, I’ve been peering at it and wondering what it might reveal when we’re ready to look. Here are a few emerging thoughts that are not complete or well-expressed yet, but rather, are an attempt to follow American poet John Lynch's advice to "witness, and keep track".
Firstly, like Covid-19, we humans need to find a better relationship with our host. 16 years ago, I stopped studying medicine halfway through the degree. Through sixth form and university I worked as an NHS auxiliary nurse. I remember a few things about science and health. I remember that viruses are not 'alive'. They need a host; they rely on their environment to live. I remember that if you’re a virus, it’s not a good strategy to kill your host. A good virus keeps its host alive so that it can survive and replicate. And I've been thinking how better-adjusted humans would keep Earth, our host, alive. But we have not yet collectively reached an equilibrium with the rest of the natural world – we over-consume, burn too much energy, move too fast. It is making host and humans sick: soil health depletes; the oceans warm; forests die; mental and physical health worsens.
Secondly, we can make better choices as individuals for the sake of the whole. Many of us who get infected with Covid-19 will never realise we’ve had it (unless we take a test at some point). The virus might silently pass through us. We’ll unknowingly transmit it; we’ll know not what we do. So we’re told to mitigate this by keeping our distance from others, washing our hands, and staying at home. We’re asked to limit our personal choices and freedoms for the sake of our neighbours, our society and so our world. We face other crises right now, not least the climate crisis. But in that crisis, we do know what we do, and we knowingly make choices that worsen the crisis. But we could mitigate here, too. We could ‘stay at home’ by investing more of our time, curiosity and money locally, thereby increasing local resilience and reducing the need for global movement and resource consumption. We could ‘wash our hands’ of fossil fuel-based energy, mega-farms, bad leadership, and other destructive forces. We could ‘keep our distance’ from corrupted and corrupting media. Covid-19 and its impact on our world is a call to collaboration; to work together for the whole. And this call reaches far beyond the Covid-19 crisis.
Thirdly, leadership should ‘ripple out’ as well as ‘trickle down’. There are so many life-giving community initiatives that have emerged during the last few weeks that are feeding people and keeping them company. Local people with diverse skills and needs are self-organising and leading through conversation, connection and knowing their place. The myth of the heroic lone leader saving the day seems to have given way to something altogether more real: the compassionate local community. If we joined up all these communities, we’d see a network reaching around the world. We’d learn the best of us; we’d see that when one part of the network suffers, we all do. And perhaps we’d shift centralised leadership to better listen to and serve this network.
Fourthly, boundaries and limits can increase creativity. I don’t like being too tied by routine, walls or thinking. And yet the lockdown that we’re currently experiencing has offered me a way to get more creative – with food, work and connectivity. I’m writing more letters; we’re cooking more ‘interesting’ food with what we have; I feel like I have more focus for my plans and expressions of creativity. My dislike for routine has shifted to an appreciation of the way that it can enable creativity.
Lastly, political and other ideologies must seek a bigger vision. It feels no longer enough (if it ever did) to trust in one particular way of seeing the world. When the poet William Blake implored in a letter: “…May God us keep, From Single vision & Newtons sleep,” he referred to a single-minded vision of control and power; to a belief in a solely mechanical, rational, unconscious and unfeeling universe. He knew that a bigger vision “where contrarieties are equally true” was essential, because “without contraries is no progression”. Recent and current events – the Brexit referendum, prorogation of the UK parliament, the climate crisis – have prompted a call to move beyond a broken system; for a new kind of politics and economy. Covid-19 presents an opportunity to make this a reality. In the UK, we’ve recently seen our Conservative government redistributing finances, working with trade unions, and encouraging cross-party leadership. Our reality has demanded a new way to work. How to permanently move beyond tribes and ideologies and ‘single vision’, to a collaboration that brings contraries together and uses the best of everyone, must be our next project.
Boiling it down, I’ve been reminded that there are better ways to lead, work and collaborate than were the norm before the virus. We need to listen for, unpick, and then synthesise the lessons we’re learning in how to collaborate – with the non-human natural world, and with each other – so that when this virus passes, we evolve and don’t go backwards; just as the virus, and other complex crises, will keep doing.