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COVID-19: The learning playground for climate change

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The COVID-19 pandemic response could be used as a model to combat climate change (Image via Pixabay)

It's possible to adapt the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic into other areas such as climate change, writes Claudia Perry-Beltrame.

IN FEBRUARY 2020, my husband and I spent three weeks in Hokkaido, Japan. For our activities, we travelled in remote and touristy areas. Before we went, the first cases of COVID-19 emerged in Australia and China went into lockdown.

While we were in Japan, the cruiser Diamond Princess became a quarantine station. At that time, Hokkaido only had one known case and we felt safe. Within one week of our return, Hokkaido declared a state of emergency. The virus had spread quickly in a town at the centre of the journey. On 28 February, we went into self-isolation for ten days. Our home time finished a few days before the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) declared a global pandemic.

Since then, the pandemic surfaces the fragility of our systems, the fragility of governance, the fragility of mind and leadership. Here we discuss these fragilities and look at them as a means to learn and assess opportunities. While COVID-19 lasts, I would like to encourage you to take note of the vulnerabilities you are witnessing and comment on them. I believe this could help us in making the systems better and help create momentum to address climate change.

Fragility of systems

Many systems are showing the strain. First awareness came after the full lockdown of Wuhan and Hubei province in China. Hubei is a manufacturing centre and Wuhan an important trade location. With the lockdown, manufacturers around the world suddenly could not access parts to make the products or retailers access goods. The medical profession was unable to receive face masks because some materials and components come from China. In Switzerland, medical supplies ordered well before the COVID-19 outbreak were stuck in Hamburg customs. Negotiations had to take place for the release and delivery of these supplies. It took weeks.

Many industries suffer from the reduced movement of people, social isolation and mass gatherings. These industries include travel, hospitality, conferences, entertainment and sports. On the other hand, technology companies experience a surge in demand for VPN and gateway routers. Technology enables many professional services staff to work from home and have access to the company's network. The NBN Co has already noted an increase in internet use. The situation is a test of our NBN network.

The need for social distance disrupts food distribution. Restaurants, a significant buyer of food products from wholesalers, are empty. People move from eating out to cooking and eating in. Grocery stores are more frequented. Just in time management for grocery stores worked fine with stable purchasing patterns. They fell apart as panic buying emptied shelves faster than they are filled. The production and transportation still need ramping up beyond the standard capacity.

On 17 March, ABC journalist Nick Rheinberger contacted a toilet paper distributor in Nowra to find out that five warehouses of toilet paper were now empty and supply had not arrived. People are hoarding. The door to the black market open wide.

As a result of these uncertainties, the stock markets collapsed to levels not seen since the Global Financial Crisis. The investors are in fear about the markets. There is talk about economic fallout, recession and businesses closing the door for good. The losers are those who rely on the production and distribution of non-essential goods. That is goods which do not need replacing immediately or in the short-term. Or those goods easily substituted. Current winners on the stock market are those companies providing necessities for living.

Learning to date:

In a global crisis, production and distribution suffer. What products are vital to managing diverse crises? Are the supply chains of these products sound to be self-sufficient for a lengthy period?

If our economy suffers due to a health crisis, how will it hurt with global resource scarcity due to global warming? While now it is a temporary situation, global warming will be a daily reality.

Our financial markets will collapse when the reality of global warming hits hard. Insurance companies will be unable to manage the payout of rising sea levels or increased storm damage.

Fragility of governance

The response to COVID-19 in China was, quick and furious. From one day to the next, Hubei province was in lockdown to avoid the spread of the virus. It was not fast enough to prevent it from spreading to other nations, though. There it is contained with variable success. The W.H.O. is concerned that the European response is slow.

In Federations, like Australia or Switzerland, the response occurs at the state/Canton level. The states/Cantons apply various methods depending on the perceived need for action. Australia needed two months to realise national coordination. Yet, it already had experience with the bushfires. COVID-19, like the bushfires, doesn't care about borders. David Nabarro, the special envoy to the W.H.O., is troubled by the fragmented global response to the pandemic. The Treaty of Westphalia makes it a challenge to take collective responsibility for a global crisis.

Learning to date:

A national crisis requires a nationally coordinated response for one source of truth and a unified approach. Hence, a global crisis requires global coordination for a unified response. Those who govern seem to struggle with this implication as we have seen with the Kyoto Agreement, the Paris Agreement or any United Nations climate change meeting since.

There is an opportunity to learn from COVID-19 to increase global cooperation and collaboration to global warming. Make plans now for migration, food production and more. Use scenario planning to create models this at the global and the national level.

Fragility of minds

During the Australian bushfires, people worked together to fight the fires and support each other. The bushfires were a visible threat. People could control their actions depending on the situation.

COVID-19 paints a very different and rather individualistic picture. On 7 March, the toilet paper fight of three Australian women emerged online. Then panic shopping started, globally. COVID-19 is invisible. The control of infection is less obvious. With mass shopping, people are exercising psychological control over a threat they cannot see. In a situation of uncertainty, body comforts are in an individual's control.

The reaction to the virus also shows the extent of people's self-control, self-regulation, comprehension and empathy in understanding social consequences, or the trust in government or the system to provide. For example, older people accessing necessities or attending mass gatherings before government restrictions. In Australia, there is a call for people to step up and be kind to each other, to assist the neighbour in self-isolation with shopping, to mind kids or help the health workers relieve their work burden.

Leaders show their state of mind, too, in how they articulate a response to COVID-19. China's reaction was government control and punishments for information flows. The population was anxious about the spread and lack of trust. Similar accusations, with variations, occur around the world.

In Australia, the Government's initial focus was stopping the downfall of the economy rather than on combating the health crisis. Yet, it is the health crisis that leads to the economic fall. It is only in the last week that the health crisis is being addressed. U.S. President Donald Trump's response on 26 February was denial and downplaying the severity of COVID-19 contrary to scientists' advice.

The U.S. administration continues on this track. President Trump's messaging is muddled and inaccurate; the response weak. As is typical with powerful leaders, the message is based on and presented through personal beliefs. Beliefs become facts. Spin doctors don't help in this situation. Their role is to make the leaders look good, not to aid the people.

Learning to date:

Any change manager will know the way a leader communicates and shows up either instils trust or creates and builds anxiety. Politicians show their values and consciousness through their response to the crisis. Some deny, some dictate, some look at materialistic matters and others look at humanity.

I sincerely hope they all learn from each other to what works best. Because the current situation has not. Unlike COVID-19, global warming will not stop because we close the borders, institutions or stop mass gatherings. It needs other interventions that cover all values systems. And as Einstein said, current problems need resolving with a different consciousness to the one that created them.  

The populations show their consciousness present in their community. Is it individualistic or collective? A collective society will be more successful in its response to the virus and global warming.

The opportunity is great to work towards more communal and values-based systems that are remote from the Government. There is also the potential for psychologists, coaches and communication specialists to be part of crisis management.

These are the observations made to date. As COVID-19 continues, many more fragilities will emerge. We need to capture them, document them and learn from them. Collectively we can raise the consciousness in how to deal with uncertainty and global crisis. Thanks for your input and comments.

Claudia Perry-Beltrame is a systemic thinker, strategist and change practitioner with a passion for better connections between systems and people. She is currently writing a book on building change leadership and driving culture transformation through governance. You can connect with her via LinkedIn or Twitter @CPerryBeltrame

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