Covid19’s legacy: a once-in-a-century opportunity to change the world for the better

Sarah Joseph, writer and broadcaster, explores the pain and possibility that Covid-19 provides the chance for social justice and environmental wellbeing.

Covid-19 has plunged the world into deep uncertainty and, for so many, deep trauma. Loved ones, both old and young, have been lost to a virus over which we have no control, people are struggling financially, incomes are being slashed, jobs lost, people are struggling with food security.

I believe we must acknowledge all the pain that is being suffered and the deep scars that will be left on our families and communities. And as we acknowledge that pain, I believe that it is also important to acknowledge the possibility. We have the chance, perhaps a once-in-a-century chance, to redesign our future.

In a YouGov poll for the RSA, only nine per cent of respondents said that they wanted things to “go back to normal” after Covid-19. The vast majority of people polled saw some positive changes, despite the difficulties.

Participants described how they valued food and other essentials more, others noted cleaner air and increased wildlife — many said they had noticed more bird song. People spoke of feeling a stronger sense of community and welcomed time spent catching up with friends and family, even though it had to be online. At the same time, people spoke of spending less money.

Who knows how many of these changes will be sustained, but the poll shows that there is, at the bare minimum, a desire for change, that there are lessons to be learnt from the crisis. People are being given an opportunity to see the world differently and the vast majority don’t want things to simply slip back to how they used to be.

We have seen nitrogen dioxide levels over China and Italy decrease, the Himalayas can be seen from India for the first time in 30 years, the waterways of Venice are clean, there are dolphins in the Bosphorus, and wildlife is seen wandering the empty streets of our cities. But because of the way the world is set-up, we also see that the poor and the weak will be hit the hardest from Covid-19.

I cannot exult in a mantra of “nature has spoken”. but I can imagine a better future — potentially one where the health and wellbeing of humans is inseparably linked to the health and wellbeing of the planet. I believe people are seeing that environmental, social, political and economic change are all possible and that faith has a role in the discussions.

Growth of gross domestic product, the marker of a nation’s success since the 20th century, does not really tell us about the quality of people’s lives and indeed might be harmful for the planet, from an environmental perspective. We simply cannot have limitless growth on a limited planet.

The UK’s GDP looks set to contract radically in the wake of Covid-19. The Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK Treasury’s official forecaster, has warned that UK GDP could fall by 35 per cent in the coming months due to the coronavirus lockdown.

But even before Covid-19, people were questioning the obsession with growth. Last year, the New Zealand government of Jacinda Ardern ditched GDP as its main measure of economic success. Instead choosing to focus on maximising the wellbeing of its population.

From a fundamental faith perspective, GDP is not some sacred measure, given to us by revelation. It is a modern marker which economists came up with and many questioned at the time. We owe it no allegiance.

Our economies and our government should exist to be of service to its citizens. If they fail in that, then it is the obligation of citizens to call them to account, to ask why.

Sometimes we are too busy living life, keeping the normal, everyday, ticking over. There is no time to ask the big questions. When you are so exhausted from a one-hour commute to work, an eight-hour working day, and an hour commute back home, what time is there to rethink the whole machine?

Covid-19 is allowing many of us time to question the day-to-day norms we have grown accustomed to. We have cleaner air, more birdsong and the opportunity to ask questions about what is important.

If we decide that happiness doesn’t lie in the acquisition of things, maybe we will find space for what makes us feel fulfilled. As we spend less, maybe we can work less, too.

The Koran speaks of humanity’s desire to acquire things: “Rivalry for worldly gain will distract you until you go down to your graves.” But that passage continues: “You shall be questioned about your joys and comforts.” Faith gives us language and the impetus to talk about meaning in life. It can help us ask the difficult questions of society.

I cannot and will not say Covid-19 is a “blessing”, not even one in disguise. It has caused too much pain and suffering already, let alone what is to come. But I pray we can acknowledge and value the positive responses.

At the same time, I believe we must continue to probe social inequalities. There are some positive global responses:

Denmark is refusing to bail out companies that do not pay tax in Denmark. This is a huge decision because it is asking fundamental questions about taxation and the giant corporations.

Amsterdam is to embrace the “doughnut” model to mend its post-coronavirus economy. Doughnut economics is a model which seeks to fulfil the needs of people, without exceeding the earth’s ecological capacity.

The answers to humanity’s problems may come from unexpected places and we must be open to them. What is faith’s role, other than to bury the dead, and help the living grieve? Faith is incredibly well placed to help with “meaning-making” — a way of making sense of life’s great events, but more than that, faith has the means to inspire individuals to embrace change.

Covid-19 is a level of global crisis that comes around in a generation. I pray that it provides us with the impetus for genuine sustainable change that will help us value human life, help us value the planet, and allow us humans to see how dependent we are on nature. The planet can live without us, but we cannot live withou