The COVID-19 epidemic is not just a public health emergency or economic threat. It is transforming our sense of being-in-the-world. The arrogant belief that we are outside of nature—that with our borders and money we are not a part of something much larger than ourselves—has been dismantled. As Venkatesh Rao argues, COVID-19 has provoked narrative collapse. The old stories we used to tell to make sense of the world have fallen away. We’ve been reduced to counting rolls of toilet paper. Time is out of joint. Life has become surreal.
But new narratives will emerge. They will arise from the tension between our desire for normalcy and our new understanding of the world as it is. As we reorganize our lives, we will reevaluate everything that came before, considering its role in the new stories we will tell.
We will build new relationships with others.
Our sense of community will change. We’ll be hungry for the casual social contact that we’ve sacrificed in our efforts to flatten the curve. Even as we connect with one another virtually, we’ll gain a new appreciation for local connections that can’t easily be replicated online—those very elements that make each community unique. We’ll be wary of intimacy, and suspicious of strangers. Yet we'll develop a new sense of obligation to one another.
We’ve seen how the personal and the public are intertwined. Hyper-individualism is a fallacy: no person is an island. The actions we each take do affect those around us. Nor are we outside of nature or its processes. We are subjects of a larger ecosystem.
These are not new ideas. But, COVID provides a new vocabulary to discuss what we owe one another in the name of a common cause. There will be repercussions. Privacy will become not just an ethical but a moral issue. Where is the fulcrum between health and safety and our personal information? How dare we weigh the cost of a human life against an economic imperative?
We will raise our expectations of government.
The crisis has revealed the faults of the “government-as-business” model. An effective government relies on networks of experts, able to speak with authority about their portfolio. We should never again accept public leadership who does not understand the limits of their expertise.
Nor should we accept unquestioningly the perspective of those who compare human lives with dollars and cents on a balance sheet. Our disinvestment in preparedness has cost us dearly. The lessons and planning of epidemics in the past were not taken seriously enough. We can never again rationalize a lack of protective equipment by pointing to a hospital’s bottom line. We must accept the health and vitality of our neighbours comes at a cost that is well worth paying.
We will renew our faith in expertise.
For nearly two decades we have been living in an age of “truthiness." A late-night joke presaged a world of “alternative facts,” where reality is bent and broken to meet the twisted needs of demagogues and their followers. A fact is correct insofar as it “feels” right. Confirmation bias runs wild. In this world, decisiveness is valued more than thoughtfulness. But this is the return of the real. It is more difficult (but sadly not impossible) to overlook the hard realities of disease and contagion, of death tolls and sick family members and friends.
Our experience should clarify the necessity of a strong public service comprising highly trained experts. Never again should we accept a political platform that is organized around preventing the government from doing its job. The value of effectual, qualified leadership has never been so apparent. Nor has the importance of accurate, reliable information.
We will change our understanding of our work.
Millions around the world are participating in work-from-home experiments. Employers who thought that flexible work arrangements weren’t feasible are finding that, if necessary, many employees are quite capable of working apart from their open floor plans or cubicles.
This opens up new opportunities for transforming our ways of working. Employers will reach an expanded pool of talent. Workers will find new markets for their services. Geography will cease to be the main governor of job searches. Instead, job seekers will ply their skills from anywhere and build lives in communities of choice rather than convenience. They'll no longer need to spend hours commuting to work. And they’ll sleep better.
Expectations placed on employers will change, too. People will remember who supported their communities and their employees through this crisis. Corporate missions will take centre stage. Job seekers will look for companies who align with their mission in the world. Our workplaces will be reimagined. We'll see more flexible, inclusive arrangements built around campuses, not offices. No longer will frat-house toys suffice as a hollow substitute for team culture. People will want meaning.
A new narrative
In this new world, we are vulnerable. We may not be able to control the arc of the story. But we are not powerless. We can control how we, as its protagonists respond. We can respond with fear and retreat inward. Or, we can respond with compassion and respect. We can build stronger ties with our loved ones. We can do more for those who are suffering. We can make sure that, if and when we face disaster again, we're prepared.
The new narrative won't materialize, fully formed, before us. It will be well wrought: hewn, shaped, and chiseled from the rawest of materials.
We all have a role to play. Let's make it a story we want to tell.