Covid Considerations: Who is at the edges of your map?

| Alex Barker

In the space of a few short weeks, the coronavirus has turned the world inside out. We know that times of crisis can also be fertile breeding ground for radical change, but what happens next will be determined by the stories and the truths we choose to tell. A door has opened, and there is a chance to reimagine how we relate to one another. This blog series ‘Covid Considerations’ explores what those opportunities for change might be, told from the personal perspectives of people working alongside communities, no holds barred. 

This blog is written by Alex Barker. Alex works alongside Sam Conniff, author of the bestselling book Be More Pirate. She leads their growing network of modern ‘pirates’ and is currently writing a follow up book ‘How to: Be More Pirate’ that explores the most interesting and inspiring stories from the movement. Previously, Alex worked as communications manager at the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) and has many years experience supporting social entrepreneurs, building networks and doing research into social change.

In the summer of last year, I was unexpectedly invited to sit on a university panel discussion about pandemics, as part of a global citizenship programme. My scientific understanding of infectious diseases was non-existent then (and only slightly improved now), but an old friend and collaborator who is a global health expert asked whether I would come and be the rogue ‘pirate’ voice in the room. This, I can never resist. 

For the first hour of the session we watched The Unseen Enemy, an excellent but frankly, terrifying documentary. The film ends with panoramic cityscape scenes showing us all as tiny helpless, scurrying ants, coupled with a dramatic voiceover that promises two things: we’re well overdue for a pandemic, and when it does come, we will all be on the frontline. 

Well, we know that now. 

As the credits faded and the lights came up, the audience sat in a sort of stunned silence. They were mainly pharmacy students, or joining from other scientific disciplines. A Q&A commenced and some of the scientists on the panel kicked off with their thoughts. Then, after about 20 minutes, a girl near the back raised her hand and tentatively asked what I felt was the elephant in the room. 

‘But what can we actually do to help?’ 

It takes a brave soul to stick their neck out and say what everyone else is thinking, especially in university environments where no one wants to be the one who didn’t get it. It was the same question that was running through my mind. Unless you’re an ‘expert’ what should you be doing to prepare for a pandemic? The film impressed the seriousness but it made us feel like sitting ducks. Is it not irresponsible to tell people they will have to fight something, but not even suggest how? It felt like a flaw I’d seen play out in these kind of settings again and again; big global challenges are framed in such an abstract way that there’s no way to make a connection to our day to day lives… until it’s too late. 

I know by now that being the rogue voice also means I’m there to try and answer the more unexpected questions, and in this case I was happy to try. The documentary made something clear to me – understanding the science is critical but the buck always stops with humans; our value judgements and behaviours. 

There were several examples from smallpox to ebola to Zika, that showed how human relationships, and critically, the level of trust between people who are different, makes or breaks pandemic strategy. 

Pandemics don’t just highlight our interdependence, they spotlight our silos. 

From the discussion that ensued with the audience it became clear that we need to shift focus from having the right information available, to how it’s packaged and who is delivering it. Distribution of leaflets about Zika virus in a poor Miami neighborhood (which was the example someone raised) are more likely to be effective when they’re delivered by people from within that community. This means establishing strong ties between community ‘leaders’ and the healthcare industry, long before a crisis. 

But crossing social and economic boundaries for the purpose of ensuring global health outcomes, has not been happening on the scale needed. It wasn’t until 2018 that the World Health Organization began offering paid internships to students from low and middle income countries. They were otherwise having to figure out how to fund themselves for 6 months at the WHO headquarters in Geneva – one of the world’s most expensive places to live.

Leaving aside any moral questions, this is a baffling and frankly pathetic oversight of the importance of cross cultural relationships. My frustration is that we’ve been talking about diversity for decades now, but it’s been clear in every workshop I’ve ever done inside an organisation, that the value of diverse teams is not fully understood.  

To support all citizens properly in a pandemic, we actually need to know each other.  

And this does boil down to individual action. We each need to become less afraid of difference and start crossing boundaries to build less comfortable relationships, whether it’s with our neighbours, or our hiring policy. I don’t think that bigger systemic changes will happen until we each take personal responsibility to change our own actions, habits, behaviours, and the norms and rules they uphold. 

So I thought, what is something that anyone could do to turn the tide? What small (perhaps, bold) action could you take tomorrow? 

To put it into pirate terminology, my suggestion was to investigate the edges of your map. Who is there? Find them, reach out, have a conversation. Join an (online) meetup with a group of people you’d never usually interact with. You don’t even need to speak if that feels like too much – just listen to the perspectives. Ask for an introduction to someone living in a different country. What is the view from their ship?  

In a recent chat with a colleague she mentioned being in a meeting with a group of landscape gardeners who were obviously no longer able to work. Until that point, she hadn’t fully appreciated how much their mental health was suffering as a result of no longer working in the outdoors.

 This new website has created space for first hand accounts of people’s coronavirus experiences, many of whom, for various reasons, are having a more difficult time. I found it useful since I keep trying to remind myself that everyone is experiencing this differently. Much is now being said about what post-corona world will look like, what ‘new normal’ we might have. But I’d also encourage asking that question to someone in an entirely different position. 

‘Unprecedented’ is no doubt the most overused word this year; but I often wonder what are we really talking about – physical distancing? The collapse of our financial stability? The virus itself? The hellish blend of all three? And from who’s perspective? 

The dictionary definition of unprecedented is this: ​that has never happened, been done or been known before.

The experience of speaking on the panel last year showed me very clearly that pandemics at least are known, and have happened before. The documentary was unequivocal: this was expected, and that we ought to have been preparing. 

It seems as though we have largely learnt the scientific lessons – understanding mutations and viral load – but did we learn the human ones? 

More importantly, are we willing to learn them this time around? 

Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexandraBarke1

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