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Snap back or snap forward?

This is what history suggests could come from COVID-19


The history of Pandemics won’t tell us what is changing, but it does tell us what to look for!

The evidence suggests that while wars change things, pandemics accelerate them.

Wars take place in the public realm. They are dramatic and bring out the best and the worst of people in a very public way. Likewise, the lessons are public. We remember wars, their heroes and villains for millennia (Achilles, Julius Caesar, Napoleon).
Pandemics travel primarily through the private space. The suffering, and the learning, tends to happen in bedrooms and tenements. The discussions are private between spouses and neighbours, work colleagues and these days closed groups of the like-minded on social media.
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Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Here's how it works
Twenty to forty million people died in each of our most recent major wars  - the two World Wars. These conflicts fundamentally changed the political and social order of Europe, then the world. Empires collapsed, borders shifted, there were rapid and radical transfers of wealth and power.
However, the mortality of pandemics was much greater. The Black Death killed up to one third of the population in large parts of Europe. Can you imagine one person in three dying in your street or work-place?
One hundred years ago the Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million deaths, up to 2.5 and 5% of the global population. Some towns in the US lost 60% of their population. There are people alive today who remember it (including one man who got sick with and survived both, and the holocaust to boot!)
For all the suffering however, pandemics seem to have changed very little: no governments collapsed, no revolutions sprang up. People seem to have just ‘gotten on’ and picked up where they left off.
But that’s not the whole story. Pandemics led to much greater and deeper changes than wars and if we look around in our own lives right now as we go through one, we can see how.  
What Pandemics Did: The Economy
  After both pandemics the world economy, though bruised, rebounded to heights never before experienced

The Black Death (after contraction of 23 .5%!) probably catalysed the first ever real expansion of the European economy and the Spanish Flu was immediately followed by the world’s most famous bull-run: the Roaring Twenties.
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Josephine Baker performing the Charleston in the 1920’s New York

What Pandemics Did: Social Change
More fundamentally, the Black Death led to profound and permanent shift in the power of labour as the lower classes permanently claimed a stake in society. This process, started by a pandemic eventually spelled the death knell for selfdom and the feudal system itself and can even be traced as the source of the democratic revolutions that have led us to today.

How's that for impact!

Likewise, the Spanish Flu (which didn't originate in Spain: the first case was recorded on a military base in Kansas, US) accelerated the conditions for extremism that ultimately led to both Communal and National Socialism (shorthand: Communism and Nazism). 

Again, quite the impact!

In both cases it seemed that little outwardly changed with the pandemics, but under-the-surface the very foundations of the social and political system shifted.

Everything that was already in train sped up.
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Photo by cheng feng on Unsplash

So, what is Covid accelerating?
This is a question we can now start asking, both at a social level but also in our lives and work-places. 

Here’s a short-list of some high-level things we know Covid19 is accelerating but there will be many more around you:

  • Remote Working 
Some people are arguing that the rapid implementation of the remote working paradigm we’ve been toying with for two decades is the largest shift to work practices since… well, the Black Death. I have clients and friends who are looking at closing multi-million-dollar office-spaces across the world, permanently!
  • Political polarisation 
This has been a rising trend for years, both in Australia and across the world. We don’t know how this will play out but there are certainly new cleavages and pressures now than there were even six weeks ago.
  • Re-localisation and the ‘end of globalisation’
Since the 1970’s we have built a complex web of global supply-chains. While there has been talk of relocalisation, the last few months have brought the risks of out-sourcing home in a big way. This is a reality for big companies but also small regional and rural businesses and agencies who want to ‘buy local’ and reconnect with their communities.
  • Robotics
Robots don’t get sick. They also allow for localising production. Expect more of this!
  • Social surveillance
From the Australian Covid Tracking App to the Immunity Passports recently released by Chile, the scale of public and private intrusion in the domain of public well-being is set to accelerate.
  • Social Capital

One of the greatest academic contributions to the field of recovery was the concept of Social Capital coined by Robert Putnam in 1994 (HERE). These are the ties and relationships that bind people together. The drive for ‘rehumanising’ the workplace has been given a massive boost in the last few weeks - see HERE for a slide deck I've been using with clients this last two weeks. Click HERE if you want to schedule a quick chat about the role of social capital in organisational recovery.

“The mask has slipped… no-one expects you to be super-human anymore.”

We don’t yet know what is going to emerge from this pandemic. What we do know is that it is likely to be profound.