What we’ve learned from 2020

Even without the global pandemic, 2020 has been a tumultuous year. In the UK, we’ve stumbled our way out of the European Union. The worldwide Black Lives Matter movement has challenged the way we think about race and about our own colonial history. And we’ve become ever more aware of (although, sadly, not necessarily more inclined to do anything about) the damage that we’re inflicting on the world around us.

So as the year comes to a close, it seems timely to reflect on what we’ve learned from the last twelve months. It’s tempting, of course, to simply put our heads down and get the hell out of 2020 as quickly as possible. But it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to draw back the curtains tomorrow on a new world of pandemic-free sunlit uplands. And so we need to learn what we can, in the hope that it will help us better to deal with the year ahead.

Therefore, in the spirit of sharing a learning curve that has, at times, felt more like a game of snakes and ladders, and in no particular order, are some of the things that I’ve learned – or that I feel have gone underappreciated – while our planet has been making yet another lap around the sun.

Investment in strong and resilient public services is worth every penny. The skills, expertise, resources and infrastructure required to deliver effective public services – from housing and healthcare to education and social welfare – cost money. But the cost of not investing in our public services is even greater. Simply cutting funding to vital services without a broader plan hollows them out from the inside and makes them vulnerable to collapse.

Centralised decision making doesn’t necessarily result in better decisions. Many governments, including our own here in the UK, seem to abhor the idea of devolving power to anything below the national level. But the resulting one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always work. Local knowledge and expertise can easily be lost. And individuals, organisations and communities that could make a genuine difference are disempowered.

It’s better to take action when you don’t need to, than to not take action when you do. In times of uncertainty, it’s understandable that people, organisations and governments don’t always know what to do. But this doesn’t mean that the answer is to do nothing. When dealing with a deadly virus that has a ten-day time lag between people getting it and potentially becoming seriously ill, for example, failure to take prompt action costs lives.

Whatever contingency plans you or your organisation have in place, they’re probably not enough. While many organisations have plans for business disruption, I’m pretty sure that even the best of them will have been challenged by the last twelve months. But for all the talk of ‘black swan’ events that can’t be predicted, I don’t think we can classify COVID-19 as one of them. We knew it would happen. We just hoped it wouldn’t happen quite yet.

The world is smaller, and more interconnected, than we’d care to admit. It used to be that news of developments overseas would take weeks to make its way to us. We now not only learn about events in real time, but become affected by such events – politically, economically, financially, emotionally – just as quickly. We can no longer think about ourselves (whoever ‘we’ might be) in isolation. We’re now all nodes in a global network of people and ideas.

We humans are a social species. We’ve learned to respond to evolutionary pressures by working together and forming cooperative groups. We need social interaction. And if we didn’t know this at the beginning of the year, we certainly know it now. I’m not the most sociable person on the planet, but even I’m starting to miss travelling for work meetings and getting together with a few friends for a cup of coffee.

People can do more than we give them credit for. Behavioural psychologists said that we wouldn’t stick with an extended lockdown. But when asked to ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’, that’s exactly what we did. Sometimes at great personal cost. Essential workers, from teachers to nurses to supermarket workers, have – quite frankly – pulled a blinder. And we’ve all, with remarkably few exceptions, done our very best to do the right thing. When the chips were down, we all stepped up.

When we work together, we can achieve amazing things. From community groups set up to support those worst affected by the pandemic to international teams of researchers working to better understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus and to develop treatment protocols and vaccines, we’ve shown that collaboration is the way to get things done. Governments should seek to encourage this kind of collaborative innovation. (But they shouldn’t exploit it or use it as an excuse to cut public funding for essential services. Just saying.)

Black lives matter. Such is the entrenchment of racial discrimination – and, indeed, other forms of discrimination – in our society, from outright institutional racism to unconscious bias, that it’s not sufficient to simply not be racist. We need to be actively anti-racist if we’re to combat hatred, to make a positive difference and to create a better world for everyone. (If you want to learn more, read How to be an anti-racist by Ibram X Kendi.)

We should strive to act with compassion. Everyone is fighting their own battles, perhaps this year more so than before. Whether it’s poor mental health, a lost job, a sick relative or grief for plans that have had to be set aside (yes, it’s a thing), misfortune and despair can affect any one of us. We don’t know what others are going through. And being judgemental helps neither them nor us. So help where you can. And be kind.

Here’s hoping for brighter times ahead.

Stay safe, everyone.

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