The extraordinary benefits of COVID-19

**7 min read**

A dispassionate observer of Planet Earth from far away could well be pleased with this global crisis faced by all of humanity. The suffering of those hardest hit, in particular those individuals and societies already vulnerable or fragile, makes it hard for us who are part of it to think about the benefits of the pandemic. But we have to do so, even while sharing in the agony.

Covid19 BenefitsIt has been essential for humanity to halt its headlong rush towards utter destruction – not only of nature, but of the ability to live well.

As Osho, the famous Indian mystic noted some decades ago: “Modern [hu]man is the first [hu]man in history to have no idea of sacredness, to be living a very mundane life – interested in money, power, prestige – and thinks that is all. It is such a stupid notion.”

The pandemic will spur us all to action, to change – even to drastic change.

We saw how good it is when the Earth can breathe.

The skies cleared. Animals lingered in human territory. Our destruction of Earth’s biodiversity was reduced for a while. We became more aware of humanity’s ugly footprint on the planet. Many more started to appreciate nature – its beauty and the mental and physical benefits of connections with all living and non-living things in the natural world. And we really need to appreciate this beauty. As my favourite character Sabina said in one of my all-time favourite movies based on one of my all-time favourite books, Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’: “The only place you can find beauty is where its persecutors have overlooked it. The uglification of the world – it is a planetary process”.

We now know how interconnected and interdependent we are, how our destinies, and fragilities, are interlinked.

Disruption of our intertwined global supply chains and the mobility of both goods and masses of people mean that all countries and societies will suffer severely from the pandemic. Never before in the history of humanity have the interdependencies between people, societies and nature been shown so visibly, so rapidly and so simultaneously. It is highlighting that, in line with what we know from quantum physics, we should not think of the world as isolated building blocks, but as a complex web of relations between the parts of a unified whole.

We will succeed only if we fully appreciate this. As noted by David Nabarro and Joe Colombard: “If there is one lesson to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, [it] is that humanity and the planet are tightly linked in a sophisticated whole of interconnected systems, encompassing the biosphere and the constructs of our society, its politics and the economy. Life in every form is at the centre of such ‘system of systems’.” And, as they emphasise, with this also come fragility and vulnerability in systems that we take for granted.

The point is, as Seth Reynolds wrote in April, “COVID-19 means systems thinking is no longer optional”. This realisation is suddenly everywhere. “Systems thinking”, “systems change”, “complex adaptive systems” and “living systems leadership” are suddenly all the rage in efforts to accelerate the search for urgent responses to the wicked and super wicked problems humanity faces. Outdated and gone are the dominant mechanistic, linear Newtonian-Cartesian narratives about how change happens and what solutions are valid – taking with it much of what results-based management (RBM) has been promoting over the past two decades.

We are being forced to respect age-old wisdoms that we now desperately need.

We are starting to recognise the inherent wisdom in millennia-old insights about the one-ness of all humanity and nature, the systems nature of health and of alternative forms of healing, and the need for integration, balance and harmony in how we live and interact with both the living and non-living world.

These concepts have been long present in different forms among majority populations in Asia and Africa, and among minority indigenous societies around the world. They have been more instinctive systems and integrative thinkers, with a much better understanding of the intrinsic value of nature. In some this remains so, but in others it has been largely lost when their cultures were forced to blend with, or accept dominant others.

If only conquerors, colonisers and imperialists had not disrespected and dehumanised those with such wisdom – and still do, as we have seen from the Black Lives Matter movement, and in hot and cold wars – humanity could long ago have combined the strengths of modern science and millennia-old wisdoms. How much more civilised and advanced we would have been today!

We are all being forced to respect the Global South.

Many of these 140-odd countries – different from the Global North for socioeconomic, political and historical rather than geographic reasons – are doing better than Europe and North America in handling the pandemic, despite the odds against their doing so. And this after many of them – from Vietnam to China, from Ethiopia to Rwanda, from Costa Rica to Bolivia – have shown over the last few decades that they can develop at a rapid, in some cases even extraordinary pace without trampling on the rights of others or slavishly following enduring dominant narratives about ‘development’.

The global scientific enterprise demonstrated what can be done collectively.

I am a natural scientist who, before doing my PhD in an area that combined ecological and analytical chemistry, majored in disciplines related to medical science. It has been fascinating to follow the international scientific community throughout this year. The pandemic enabled collaboration on priority issues on a massive scale. Their efforts highlighted the importance of working around critical priorities without bias towards one or the other society, of inter- and transdisciplinarity, of planning actions and sharing data and insights as quickly as possible yet carefully, of communicating well for multiple specialist and layperson purposes. It also highlighted the importance of NOT working in silos (it happened), and the need to add social science insights to natural and health sciences with big, thick or rich and warm data (not well done).

The most important benefit of all: existing systems are becoming more unstable.

Over the past two decades new technologies and intensifying action around the climate crisis have done much to disrupt the global order. The pandemic has been a major perturbation in the global ‘system of systems’. This is accelerating the destabilisation of existing systems by triggering further perturbations and disruptions – political, economic, social and technological, as can be seen for example in the movements towards contactless financial transactions and cashless societies; in distance work (digital nomads) and video-communication; in social upheavals such as the accelerating Black Lives Matter movement, and increasing protests against unjust systems; in efforts to on-shore manufacturing and develop new social safety nets; and in the hope that ‘quantitative easing’ (printing money) and putting pressure on vulnerable debt-ridden countries will keep an economic depression at bay. Self-amplifying positive feedback loops are putting current systems at risk; they might not be able to adapt any more.

This is paving the way for drastic systemic change. With further nudges at the right time, such systems now have a better chance to transform in desired directions. Social innovations and evaluative practices have to help accelerate these dynamics. We know this will be a challenge; it is already clear that those who will lose power will do their utmost to work against shifts too far away from the current state.

Now is not the time to do only that which has been proven.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. Albert Einstein’s words have become a mantra around the world. Humanity now has a unique chance to become better stewards of ourselves and of all around us.

This is why evaluators now need to clarify the values and norms that shape our work; draw as much as possible from the diversity of worldviews and knowledge systems at our disposal; and embrace concepts in systems thinking and complexity theory that are the ‘first principles’ that should inform all our work. This will be essential if we are to help accelerate pathways towards the drastic positive changes that will make the world a better place for all living beings.

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Zenda Ofir

Zenda Ofir is an independent South African evaluator. Based near Geneva, she works across Africa and Asia. A former AfrEA President, IOCE Vice-President and AEA Board member, she is at present IDEAS Vice-President, Lead Steward of the SDG Transformations Forum Evaluation for Transformation Working Group, Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University, and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, Germany.

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