“It was the best of times and the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the Spring of hope, it was the Winter of despair”
Charles Dickens, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’
“Winter of Despair” — The Box Set?
I don’t know about you, but it does rather feel like we are now bang in the middle of Season One, Episode Three, or maybe Four, of the ‘Covid_19 Pandemic’ Box Set.
When things started to grow arms and legs back in the first quarter of 2020, hardly anyone knew, or even suspected that the very act of living would become a fraught and fractured business, and our lives across the world and across every generation, would change so radically.
What we didn’t appreciate then was that Covid_19 is merely a wake-up call to scenarios that keep infectious disease experts up at night, and when back in the summer of 2020 I wrote that this was a three set-match, well I think I was being a tad optimistic, or rather naive?
This piece gets to grips with the consequences of a global pandemic, how it has affected so many of us, and some of the lessons we must learn, be they social, economic, political, ecological, emotional and intellectual.
It’s also about the traces, harder lines, and legacy we will now have to live with, and how all of this has coalesced around our imperfect selves. Molding, reshaping, redefining us.
In the play, ‘As You Like It’, William Shakespeare has the character Jacques deliver a monologue on the ‘7 Ages of Man’ — There are also the ‘7 layers of Identity’, or as the award-winning Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf, puts it, ‘Genes of the Soul’.
As we journey through life we are continually creating, recreating and co-creating ourselves, through our actions — Always with the potential to be in constant motion and commotion.
And the motion and commotion that we have experienced in the past 12 months has caused the levee to break and a multiplicity of emotions to flood the land.
“We destroyed the village to save it!”
In January 8, 1967, American forces launched a surprise assault kept secret even from their South Vietnamese allies. The plan was to envelop a village, to seal it off, to remove its inhabitants, to destroy its every physical trace, and to level the surrounding jungle.
This report was first published in “The New Yorker,” and following this the ‘Village of Ben Suc’ became the first book for the journalist Jonathan Schell.
We’re not quite at the point of a scorched-earth solution, yet the impact of measures to contain the spread of the virus have hit many sectors of the economy hard, and with little prospect of an upturn in sight as unemployment rates rise, livelihoods are destroyed, homes lost, and some families torn apart.
Up to just a few weeks ago we were experiencing an accordion like dynamic; a partial relaxation of lock-downs and an easing off in some areas with a corresponding re-tightening in others.
And whilst we have been assured it’s all following the science, the messaging throughout has at best been confused. Uncertainty continues to provide messaging challenges, but gainsayers where is the playbook for a protracted public health crisis?
Then in recent weeks we have had calls for even tighter restrictions, with some in the scientific and medical communities calling for ‘Full Lock-down Plus’’ (whatever that may mean beyond what we already have), as current restrictions and their observance might still not be enough to contain things as a new variant accelerates transmission rates. And there will likely be more variants popping up around the globe in the coming weeks and months; stickier, more transmittal and more concerning.
Of course, thousands of viral mutations have been recorded since COVID first appeared, yet most of them proved of no consequence. All that changed though with Britain’s discovery of a new Coronavirus variant, and the potential consequences of this new threat has become palpable. Throwing us back into emergency mode.
But we are not alone, at the time of writing this variant, or a close cousin, has now been identified in at least 33 other countries, including South Africa, Brazil, Japan — and that’s what viruses do — They mutate.
The bottom line is, COVID can be a nasty, life-threatening disease, albeit predominately for the elderly and those with underlying health issues.
In fact the first four priority categories to receive the new vaccines i.e. residents in a care home for older adults and their carers; those aged 80 and over, frontline health and social care workers; all those aged 75 and over; and all those aged 70 and over, as well as clinically extremely vulnerable individuals, currently account for 88% of all deaths from COVID.
The survival rate, however, remains consistent at around 99% for most of the population and that, thankfully, hasn’t changed. Many of us though will worry less that we become ill than our carelessness may infect the vulnerable.
And as a very sobering reality check if everyone in the world caught the virus a 1% mortality rate would still mean 78 million deaths. So, we mustn’t be complacent, and we should certainly not be cavalier.
So, fellow travellers, amid all this you could be forgiven if you felt, or feel, or have found that like one of Bunyan’s Pilgrims your progress has stalled in the “Slough of Despond”. That fictional bog where the pilgrim within us can become weighed down by their sins and sense of guilt. Or, in this modern world, besieged by so much motion and commotion we can’t see the wood for the trees.
In the Tunnel
We are in the tunnel, the darkness before the dawn, and with multiple vaccines now coming online, being strongly urged to hunker down and wait it out.
But it’s still going to be a “Long Haul” requiring supreme endurance as we do those additional hard yards, and even the most buoyant among us are struggling.
Gone is the camaraderie of March 2020. The focus has shifted to what we can’t do, accompanied by a dawning realization that if not for keeps, this situation might at the very least go on for a long time. And this has become compounded by a sense that when we do come out of this, many things which until recently we loved and enjoyed, may no longer be available to us.
So, we have become increasingly curmudgeonly, weary, resigned. Motivation is flat-lining, energy dwindling and purpose and resolve have packed their bags and left no forwarding address.
Against this backdrop though we must also recognise the tendency hard-wired into the human psyche towards a negativity bias.
A bias that means we react more viscerally to bad news and leads us to fundamentally misrepresent the world around us, believing it to be significantly worse than it really is.
And this tendency is further reinforced by a predisposition to interpret things through linguistic frames shaped by a language habit which makes implicit judgments about what is good and what is bad.
Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed it rather eloquently,
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. The limits of my language stand for the limits of my world. The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for”
Things however don’t always correlate with the facts, even if they are known, and this is a profound challenge and barrier to change and transformation, because it means we tend to notice and dwell on the bad stuff rather than the good.
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the late Yale Professor of Psychology, defined this compulsion to focus on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right as ‘Rumination’.
Perhaps though we would do well to take a moment and remind ourselves of how far we’ve travelled in the past 50 years or so, before we bemoan how far we now seem to be becoming undone:
- In 1960, 40% of the world’s population over the age of 15 was illiterate, in 2016 that figure was less than 14%.
- In 1990 — which maybe now is so long ago that it seems today like a foreign country where things are done differently — the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty was 1.9 billion. Today that figure stands at 650 million. Still too much, but would a person on the Clapham Omnibus if asked, have gone higher, or lower?
- A decade ago, more than 40% of the United Kingdom’s electricity came from coal. In May 2020 we achieved our first coal-free month since the advent of the power grid in 1882. Whilst in 2019 there was the biggest fall in global carbon-dioxide emissions since 1990 and during the first half of 2020, renewable energy sources (solar, wind, hydro and biomass) didn’t just generate more power on the European grid — they beat all fossil fuels put together.
- Between 1989 and 2020 the elephant population in Kenya doubled, and Blue whale populations are bouncing back in the waters around South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
- In 1996, Tigers, Pandas and Black Rhinos were all on the endangered species list, today none are.
- Again, as recently as 1990, 12 million children around the world died before their fifth birthday — And as tragic as that may be there is just-cause for some rejoicing, because that figure has now halved.
- Further cause to rejoice can also be found in the past 12 months. A universal flu vaccine has passed its first stage of human trials, which is a crucial step towards pandemic-proofing the planet. This is not specific to COVID_19 but has been designed to work against influenza even if the virus mutates, meaning it could replace the annual flu jab and protect against dangerous strains that have yet to appear, and if that can be achieved for the perennial flu, then just maybe it can for Coronavirus in all its iterations; & finally.
- Today parents in OCED countries spend twice as much time with their children as they did 50 years ago — Except in France, mai oui, mai pourquoi?
As F Scott Fitzgerald Wrote
“One should be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise”.
And we must not allow ourselves to forget such grand achievements in the sweep of an all-consuming global pandemic. However difficult that may be to do.
These things did not happen on another planet. They are not the product of otherness or of ‘We’ versus ‘They’ mindset. Far from it, they are in fact the progeny of common cause and purpose, and of the principle of charity. Worked at and worked through, nationally and internationally over time.
It is said until there’s a reason to look, you won’t find it.
Human sufferance and endurance though have been characterized by curiosity and finding the right language to describe our situation and intention, that in turn creates choice.
We are storytellers and mapmakers because of a need for permanence and certainty. What though are we supposed to feel and how should we choose to act now?
Humans are hard-wired to adapt, innovate, fail & innovate, learn, progress, and survive!
We cannot let this current crisis be the exception when this fails to happen!
What History Tells Us
Certainly, one thing. Pandemics Are Not The Exception, they Are The Rule!
- In 1918/19 Spanish Flu killed 3% of the world’s population
- In 1956–58 the Asian Flu Pandemic killed 2M people globally
- In 1968 there was an Influenza Pandemic
- The HIV/AIDs Pandemic is ongoing since it first broke cover in the late 1970’s and there’s still no definitive vaccine
- 2002 saw a SARS Pandemic (which has influenced and informed the preparedness and better handling of the current pandemic across some countries in the Far East)
- 2009 we had a Flu Pandemic with 60 million cases reported in the US alone, and with a pathology that saw younger people being the most seriously affected rather than the elderly and the infirm, making it a totally different beast to Covid_19
- In 2014 there was the latest Ebola epidemic, not a pandemic as it remained localised, but for that we should be very grateful as 39% of people who contracted the virus died — And to put that in some context the global mortality rate of Covid_19 is estimated to be around 1% whilst for flu this sits at 0.1%, &
- Then in 2020 and continuing on into 2021 & who really knows for how long now going forward, we are witness to a Coronavirus pandemic.
This pandemic has however, fast-tracked answers to questions that have long been asked by the scientific and medical establishments and the urgency of the response to the crisis will not only leave behind a range of positive long-term effects. It will also have a dramatic impact on the future of medicine, with a shortening of traditional timelines between research and treatment for patients. Just see what’s been achieved and in so short of time with the production of new vaccines.
If not cheerful then, there are reasons to be hopeful!
There’s a saying, “If you want to be Batman, be Batman”. But we can’t all take on the mantle, or cape of a super-hero.
Nor can we all be like John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, the actors in the movie Tenet bungee-jumping up and into a building.
Living has become a fraught and fractured business. Life is precious and it has always been fragile.
But these are undoubtedly big times, characterized by ordinary people doing their bit, not by the famous or the heroic.
Ordinary people, quiet on Twitter, but strong in spirit and firm of action, doing extra-ordinary things.
Everyday heroes. Digging deep then deeper still.
Bungee jumping into the unknown. Whilst not knowing if the flexible cord in which they put their metaphorical trust will do its job and recoil, then safely oscillate up and down until the kinetic energy is dissipated.
We will all know someone. You may be that someone?
And whether you are or you’re not, can you recognize that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.
And it is this spirit that defines us. Yet, and here’s the rub, we are also physical, corporeal, made flesh and we suppose, nay believe, that we are complete.
In fact, we are all perfectly imperfect. Perhaps even wilfully so.
The Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi is predicated on accepting the beauty of the imperfect, be that a wonky piece of pottery, or crumpled bedsheets, or the less than perfect You & Me!
We are most certainly not, nor ever where, a “concrete self”. Rendered without flaw. Finished. Complete.
The Harvard psychologist, Daniel Gilbert thinks, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished”.
Walt Whitman also seems to have anticipated this in his poem ‘Songs of Myself’ which was first published in 1892:
“Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes)”.
He also went on in what has been described as sprawling combination of biography, sermon, and poetic meditation (STOP PRESS — It’s still worth a read though!):
“I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth, I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself”.
Immortality aside, this is a cri de couer, speaking to a more pro-social and communitarian way to live and echoes to my mind the sentiments of John Donne.
Nearly 250 years before Whitman, Donne wrote of no person being an island entire of itself, but being:
“A piece of the continent, a part of the main”.
Which is something that has become easier and easier to ignore, as our world has become increasingly more interdependent and interconnected.
In 2020 we moved beyond the point where there are now 50 Billion connected devices globally. This connectedness however has not necessarily connected us beyond the techne’.
The world has become increasingly one of strangers.
A place where the plight of an adorable dog can take greater precedence on our social media feed, than the fate of our fellow humans.
Can We Have A Shared Human Experience?
As part of our human experience we will all be feeling visceral and similar emotions to this crisis, as we transverse back, forth, across and through these three psychological phases:
(Visual courtesy of Elizabeth Hawkins, PhD)
We are in the same storm, but not necessarily all in the same boat. Particularly, as we move in and out of different emotions at differing speeds and with different trajectories.
But a crisis can serve to unite, and we can have the ‘power of the collective’ if we chose.
So, when we emerge from this it needs to be with a belief in a shared identity and an acceptance that kindness counts for a great deal. We also need a new set of rules for living, working and getting on with each other better than before, predicated on inclusivity and solidarity.
And our mantra should be ‘We’ not ‘They’ — Characterized by a ‘Triple A’ approach of Anticipating, Accepting & Adapting .
Acting with tolerance, curiosity and a powerful intention. Leading our lives with emotional intelligence, renewing our social connections and finding purpose, because as the American writer and Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote:
“Purpose is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s needs”.
Oh, if such synergy were possible?
And lest we forget all learning begins with wonder, and collective resilience strengthens individual resilience!
So, in my piece from the summer of 2020 I did write that this was a three-set match, &, then went on to adjudicate that, “Covid_19 has taken the first set”.
I am not Captain Hindsight, but whether I was being a tad optimistic, or rather naïve back then, I do now think that Covid_19 has just about taken the second set too.
However, it’s no longer an emergency. Much like the friend or colleague who marks every email as “URGENT” — at some point, the word loses its meaning, or just means the sender is urgently anxious.
And there is no imminent return to a pre-pandemic normal. It’s now not uncommon to hear experts talk of things continuing in this vein for perhaps another two to four years. So, at the very least, COVID is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Whilst recovery seems an awful way off, and the new normal is, that this is now, well, normal!
I went on to say too in my summer piece, that whilst the second and third sets will be tough and long, they will require extreme resolve, resilience and fortitude, human connection, cooperation and collaboration.
I stand by that.
And I would add that they will also require that ordinary extra-ordinariness we are capable of and demonstrating what the 17th century author Daniel Defoe would describe as a:
“Curiosity of a very extraordinary nature”.
So, if you haven’t already, now’s the time to find the ordinary extra-ordinary in yourself for those coming hard yards, and maybe miles!
A Little About Me
Having written a million plus published words over the past couple of years on leadership excellence, navigating complexity, working with change, wellbeing, well doing and Mindfulness, I am all about making the complex less complex, the tough stuff not so tough and putting the unreachable within reach of everyone.
I am also a Trusted Adviser, Leadership Provocateur, Savvy Thinker, International Keynote Speaker, Best Selling Mindfulness Author, Global Well Being & Well Doing Influencer, & Co-Founder and Director of the Mudd Partnership