” The secret of the future is hidden in your daily routine.” – M. Murdc
There are COVID-19 lessons from the past. In earlier society we separated human health, the economy and the environment into neat boxes, each divorced from the other with separate ways of thinking, communicating and funding their solutions. Think of the many cycles of disease, which swept the European capitals of the last millennium.
In the wisdom of hindsight, we know that cholera epidemics were a function of pollution, human effluent running in the streets. Black death was spurred on by food waste, attracting vermin into cities and leading to the rapid spread of disease.
These scourges were not just problems of environmental degradation; it was the economic realities of the time, which had many poor members of society living in squalid city conditions. Healthcare had not yet evolved to realise that prevention was part of their sacred trust, not just treatment of disease, after environmental conditions had created a crisis.
How We Live, Where We Live and How We Make Our Living
Who would have predicted that a local public health challenge would result in a global pandemic. COVID-19 has resulted in over 372 million cases and over 3.7 million deaths, with an estimated 2.7 billion people – 80% of the global workforce affected by lockdowns and stay-at-home measures. In addition, reflect on the impact of new restrictive policies and rules governing leisure and recreational time, and sea, land, and air border crossings.
Each and every week we witness separate conversations about climate change, economy, and health. Convention dictates that there is something called healthcare, something called environmental protection and something else again called the economy. COVID-19 helped me to see how they were connected, and I came to the realisation that we will never fully optimise progress in any of these domains unless we begin to think of them holistically.
My hope is COVID-19 has reminded us all that how we live, where we live and how we make our living are so tightly integrated that it is impossible to think of one without the other two. If we continue to think of healthcare in isolation, we can easily focus on curing people of disease. Yet a reduction in infant mortality is of limited value if it means more children survive disease to die of poverty and starvation. If we continue to think of the environment in isolation, we can expend huge efforts to preserve the wilderness yet remain heedless of the human destitution just outside the borders of wildlife sanctuaries. If we continue to think of the economy in isolation, we will focus on growth as the only measure of human development but ignore its effects on resource depletion, pollution, an overindulgent lifestyle and even mental stress.
Ecologies, Systems, And Networks
Science has shown us again and again that our reality consists of ecologies, systems, and networks, yet our preference for compartmentalised thinking persists in isolating problems in ways that refuse to see larger interrelationships. Looking only at the domains that we’ve arranged neatly in siloes, we fall victim to the law of unintended consequences. We pull economic levers and are surprised by their unexpected effects on health or the environment. We pull healthcare levers and are shocked to find spiraling costs the economy simply cannot sustain.
Again, the global COVID-19 challenges we find ourselves in today has shown us the extent to which we live in a highly interdependent global world where boundaries matter less than the urgency with which we can devise trans-national solutions.
How We Frame the Challenge
Our real difficulty lies in how we frame the problem and our inability to think about complex challenges holistically. For example, think about the amount of industrial waste we send offshore to be out of sight and mind. We have compartmentalised our thinking about the economy so as to ignore its effects on health or the environment.
Today, because of COVID-19, awareness about how multiple systems connect and their impact is creating a new level of conversation. Given these commonalities, it seems intuitively obvious that the lessons learned in one area can inform understanding and accelerate progress in the other. All of this suggests that there are synergistic gains to be made from more closely associating and aligning the disciplines.
The challenge is how to benefit from a systems approach without it becoming disempowering. At a certain point, problems can seem too vast and complex to solve. With climate change, economy, and health, we have people and politicians feeling overwhelmed by the complexity and reality that it touches on so many different parts of our lives. For many, mobilising support for discrete quick fix actions is often more politically effective than broader comprehensive approaches. Sadly, we are a society that loves piecemeal approaches in many respects.
By synergising all the disciplines involved, we may minimise the plaque of the COVID-19 pandemic and create a model of synergy for future generations.
- Reflecting on your personal COVID-19 learning, how many different eco-systems interconnect with your system or area of responsibility? When there’s an issue in your system, why might it be valuable to consider it in the context of the larger system?
- Are you being captured by the system; immobilised by its multiplicity of tentacles and red tape?
- Are you comfortable with blurring boundaries, taking a holistic system view, and embracing fluidity over fixed plans? Which of these descriptions describes your approach to leadership? How are you shaping your thinking?
- Are you seeing leverage opportunity to coexist with others?