Should we even take a look back at 2020?
Updated: Mar 8
The battlegrounds established during 2020, no one could have guessed. Among these, the public health crisis and pandemic with its enormous impact on livelihoods and on wealth and its creation, the deepening fissures in societies and neighbourhoods, the exhortations that we were all in something together when clearly we were not, the attack via closures on young people and their schooling, the virus' direct attack on the old and more vulnerable including those in care facilities, each highlighting the amplification of the unevenness and disadvantage that we must deal with and live through. All these coming together have created a near perfect storm! Simultaneously, it seems that the world is also living through culture wars against the institutions of liberal democracy — parliaments, the courts, the media, local governments, public and civil servants, and checks and balances of accountability. With one eye on the voters and the other on the consolidation of power and influence, governments with authoritarian tendencies are attacking these rival centres of power in our societies. The ongoing, active dialogues around the media that struggle to remain neutral, the attacks on political correctness, MeToo and Black Lives Matter, the uneven support of large sectors of the global economy by governments, our events and hospitality industry sectors in perilous states impacting both high and popular culture — these all seem to be fights about culture, religion, about right and left, about race, big or small government, single-minded ways-of-working. Few would have forecast such a culture war might break out. We are not in peaceful times.
With about two months to go for the end of the year, it is time for an honest reflection. It is a critical year to look at what has happened to our plans for 2020. There was January, where many of us were getting kick started on our new year resolutions. There was the half of February where things were still looking up with us being excited at the prospects for the year. Then cometh COVID, and all became a bit of a blur. I hope that you weren’t affected by COVID, but if you were the blur is just even foggier. I myself, barely even remember March. Since then we have navigated the pandemic, through global crisis, lockdown, not so much lockdown, prospects of opening, renewed spikes in cases, and things becoming shaky again. Herd immunity theory broken, ‘second wave’ no longer in the horizon, and whether we want to be the first ones to take the vaccines. Who can even remember all this happened? How does reflection on this year work when we can barely remember part of the year?
INDIVIDUALS: PIVOT FOR CHANGE
Individually, in times of crisis, it is easy to get dragged down by negative talk. However, amidst all crises, there are pockets of opportunity, growth, or just calm between the storm that you can identify and should identify. While crafting yourself as an individual, it is time to think big on how your individual, ‘micro’ actions can have a larger impact. Because they do. One of the core debates among those concerned about say, climate change is whether individual actions matter, given the size of the problem and the array of power and money propping up unsustainable systems. Often the choice is framed as a should and an either-or: we should focus either on big actors or on individual people lowering their carbon use. But of course this is a false dichotomy. As the COVID pandemic demonstrates, we need both. As Grunwald  writes in Politico, “while individual change alone can’t fix the climate, the climate can’t be fixed without it.”
“The virus is a vicious reminder that our actions have consequences beyond ourselves, and most of us are trying to avoid doing inadvertent harm to others. After so much climate commentary about the futility of trying to persuade individuals to change behaviour for the common good, the virus is making it happen.”
Large global problems that threaten our very existence are moments of acute pain, of tremendous grief. The changes they signify can inspire anger and anxiety, heartbreak and hopelessness. Some find meaning in asking what they can do to alleviate the crisis, others retreat, overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand. As we make sense of the COVID19 pandemic, we are slowly finding we all have a role to play – medical staff at the frontlines are saving lives, grocery store workers and delivery persons are keeping us fed, most of us are staying indoors, sacrificing personal freedoms for the collective good. These individual actions do not take away from the pressing need for systemic change – countries need better health infrastructure, more inclusive safety nets, and higher wages for frontline staff. But as we tread the line between individual action and systemic change, it is critical to understand that individual actions, contained in space and time, give us hope and help us make sense of the generational challenge we face. A physical distance maintained or a grocery run for an aging neighbour, make us feel like we’re contributing, in a small but significant way.
The efficacy of individual actions as measured in CO2 emissions reduced, can seem minuscule, laughably modest. Yes, individual action alone will not push the needle on climate change and the scientific evidence converges to highlight that unprecedented, cross-sectoral systemic change is imperative to meet a 1.5℃ target. But when we measure the true value of individual actions – how they can help us make sense of grave long-term challenges, how they can make the distant and intangible personal, how they make us feel part of a collective whole, and how they can help provide meaning in the face of seemingly unsurmountable targets, their importance becomes clearer.
Making sense of the grand challenges we face in highly personal, individualised ways; and believing that our actions, minute though they may be, will accrue in ways we may not always be able to quantify is critical. For problems like climate change that require collective action, hope acts as a “distinct motivator to support goal-consistent action, particularly when the odds of success are low”. And individual actions, modest as they might be, can become precursors of wider change; critical levers to incentivise climate action. There should be further amplification and visibility of individual actions for a virtuous cycle to be generated.
When we choose to maintain social distance, we tell each other, when faced with an unprecedented challenge, each of us will try to do our bit. When we self-organise to feed stranded migrants in our city we signal to one another that if the system fails, individuals will stand up to shoulder burdens, as best as we can. And so it is, when we fly less, we indicate our concern and the possibility of change. When we eat green, we inspire a few others to try. These gestures of what we value can shift the normative needles a society lives by. And that, though small, is a start.
A year that makes reflection, resilience and reawakening of paramount importance, for me, leadership, more women in leadership, respect for nature and exceptional moral and ethics in everyday life is absolutely critical. Better leadership, like peace, is a critical factor for human flourishing. With better leadership societies can begin to address many of the sources of human insecurity —but often, just as with peace, we remain more aware of its absence than its existence. A positive culture as an enabling environment is also elusive. A culture that promotes civic awareness and participation, social equity and the wellbeing of a community — hence peacefulness for families and neighbourhoods — can often be more difficult to observe than a malevolent culture that strengthens some groups to initiate and perpetuate exclusion and, at times, violent conflict. Moreover, as Melinda Gates put it, the way we can emerge in a robust manner from this pandemic is by
‘recognising that women are not just victims of a broken world; they can be architects of a better one’.
Despite systemic obstacles, innovative women "solutionaries" are architecting transformative futures not only in governments and governance, but also in public service, enterprise, in the climate movements and in business. It is past time to dismantle remaining obstacles to gender equality, for everybody's sake. This again, begins with a mindset change.
Let the learnings of 2020 not go in vain. Let us pause, look around, reflect on the rights and wrongs. A calm, thoughtful, compassionate and a logical mind-frame, is the first step on the ladder of good beginnings. Without it, one would fail to see the proverbial elephant in the room. Your thoughts become words, decisions and actions. In turn, this charts and paves the road for the life you choose. You owe it to yourself, to reflect and make correct mindful choices. Let us learn and imbibe from nature, the things we see around and often overlook in haste. It’s time to slow down and learn from the tiny ant, the art of survival in a structured society, where everyone has a role to play and where one individual’s actions benefit everyone. In contrast to this tiny ant, there’s much to imbibe from the magnificently huge Banyan tree which shelters and provides shade to all who pass under it, standing firm like a sentinel, weathering storms of all intensities. And all the while, it harbors within, a great, self-sufficient, and self-driven ecosystem.