Leading a Way Past/Post-COVID-19?

Cornelia C. Walther, PhD (Law), is affiliated with Deakin University, UNICEF, and the POZE Network. She combines both praxis and research. As a humanitarian practitioner, she worked for nearly two decades with UNICEF and the World Food Program in large scale emergencies in West Africa, Afghanistan and Haiti, mostly operating as head of communication. In 2020 three of her books are being published by Palgrave/Springer: ‘Development, humanitarian action and social welfare, followed by ‘Humanitarian work, social change and human behavior’ and ‘Development and Connection in times of COVID.’

Her recent books can be accessed here:

New York, U.S. | May 27, 2020 | Opinion Article

2020 came with a gigantic challenge. The pandemic is the “greatest test” for the UN since it has been created after World War II, according to a “call to action” issued in May 2020 by UN Secretary-General António Guterres (UN 2020). The organization must at the same time review and redo its internal setting, and help the world move out of the Gordian knot that was created by COVID. What will be Germany’s role in dissolving that knot?

Millions of people around the World are affected both by the Virus and the measures taken to contain it. Individually and collectively we are trying to grasp a situation that none of us has any baseline for. We are left without reference points for the short- or medium-term future.  Germany dealt fast and efficiently with the Virus; but the game is not over yet; and it is underway at full speed around the World while Germany is returning to normality. But what does normal mean?

COVID-19 illustrated that we are all the same. Our existence is the result of the interaction among body, mind, heart, and soul. We are all at risk of getting sick. And yet, the Pandemic pulled the curtain on a systemic social paradox that has been in the making for decades. Inequity has grown quietly in our midst, despite efforts made by many to combat it. Both the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the opportunity of treatment depend significantly on our socio-economic circumstances. It hinges on the country we live in, the job we occupy, etc. Being sick in a slum in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which also struggles with the Ebola crisis, civil war, measles, chronic poverty, and political instability, is possibly one of the worst places to get COVID-19. But, there is a wide range in between that and the situation of a well-off German who is working behind his laptop and complains about the impact of physical distancing. The situation that became our new normal in the Spring of 2020 is challenging for everyone; but not in the same way.

Even though in Germany the worst seems to be over (for now), around the world thousands of people are getting sick every day or die; hundreds of thousands suffer from a desperate lack of money – having lost the little income that allowed them to get by before. Millions have no choice but putting themselves at risk by engaging in work due to pure economic necessity, despite lockdowns and containment. COVID-19 has revealed the class conundrum which has grown under the radar. Inequity is staring us in the face everywhere.

A radical shift is needed for the society that emerges post-COVID-19. Germany should play a role in designing it.

Everything is connected. Though we do not have control over the whole game, the way in which we choose to move our tokens impacts the experience and behavior of other players, which has an outcome on the overall match. At this stage we do not know whether and when a vaccine will be found, how long it will be effective, and how long it takes to vaccinate how many people. We are unsure when international travel will be possible again, and how strictly physical distancing regulations will be maintained in the future. The future has never been as uncertain as it feels now because “we can no longer predict what will be allowed and what will not a week, a month, or 12 months hence.” (Lichfield 2020).

The Pandemic has major consequences on solid economies such as Germany, but it suffocates those that are fragile. As people lose jobs and incomes, without reserves to fall back on, they drop into a void, due to the lack of public safety nets or systemic social protection schemes to support them. Many countries seek to put these social support systems in place; yet those that have been successful are few. The combination of supply shocks and large-scale demand upsets global value chains and hereby the main income source of countries that rely on the export of raw materials. Furthermore, the financial panic that followed the declaration of the Pandemic resulted in global declines of stock and bond markets exacerbating an already unstable international context. However dire, post-shock scenarios are not inevitable.  Countries undergo different experiences because the structural resilience of their economies absorb shocks differently; as is the capacity of their leaders, researchers and citizens to respond in innovative ways to an unprecedented challenge.

It is not surprising that a catastrophe like COVID-19 happened now. It is surprising that it did not happen earlier.

In 2015, Microsoft Founder Bill Gates predicted a pandemic that is eerily like the one we live through presently (TED 2015). His message was echoed by national simulations conducted in 2018 and 2019 in the UK and the US. And still, neither the international community nor the countries that constitute it were mentally and materially prepared to weather a major crisis. The world was walking open eyed in an abyss that was sure to happen sooner rather than later.

Human nature is inclined to inertia (Gal 2006). We naturally follow the path of least resistance, even if we know that it is not conducive to positive outcomes. Biases are inbuilt features, short-cuts, of our brain that allow us to make quick decisions without too much intellectual effort. However, they often lead us astray. The aim of POZE is to understand the operating model that underpins our decision-making in order to optimize it; and hereby change what we do, when, and how. (Walther 2020). But it goes further by investing in the individual resiliency to withstand and overcome distress and trauma; which is a side of our personality that has never been as essential as during and after COVID-19.

COVID-19 engulfs all sectors. A sense of doomsday lingers at the back of everyone’s mind, mixed with a sense of uncertainty and unease. We want our life back, but the society that we left behind is gone. (Roy 2020). The pre-COVID reality is no longer; and there is no point trying to resuscitate it. Because the past months also illustrated that the system that was in place left many to fall in between the cracks.

The ongoing crisis is a tragedy, and an amazing opportunity. COVID-19 unraveled our routines. Never had millions of people around the World an experience that was the same at the same time. Furthermore, while for millions the Pandemic has further aggravated an already harsh struggle for economic survival, for others, lockdowns and physical distancing resulted in empty time. Shaking up our habits, COVID-19 pushed us into a virgin space to contemplate and react to the unfolding situation with acute awareness, rather than acquired routines. It offered an opening for Germany to step up and share.  

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