Remaking the world in the wake of COVID

April 29, 2020

In watching the COVID crisis unfold in the US, I keep thinking about earthquakes. 

Not because earthquakes are violent and destructive–though they are, as is the COVID pandemic. And not because earthquakes tell us a lot about the relative resilience of our communities, with some buildings reduced to rubble and others left standing. 

Both of those aspects of earthquakes are very relevant to the COVID pandemic, but not quite what’s been on my mind.

No, I’ve been pondering earthquakes as a way to think about narrative shift and how the current COVID pandemic is opening up opportunities to upend unhelpful narratives that have long stymied social change work in the U.S.

When an earthquake strikes, the destructive power of tectonic shifts deep beneath the earth’s crust causes stone and earth to move like liquid. Things that were immutable and solid one moment become fluid and dynamic the next. They flow and shift. The ground can collapse, or shoot up; rubble piles together, or gaping holes form. The scale and scope of change–and destruction–can be breathtaking. And then, after a matter of seconds, it’s over, and everything solidifies once again and we have a new seemingly immutable landscape. 

As communicators, we operate amidst narratives so entrenched they are hard to see – until, like the earth beneath our feet, they shift. Narratives like the power of the individual and importance of individual responsibility in determining one’s success in life. The notion that the private sector is more efficient and effective, and government means bureaucracy and waste. The idea that the pollution in our cities is inevitable–the price of progress and a modern economy. 

The COVID epidemic is giving these entrenched ways of seeing the world a violent shake. And as a result, we’re all seeing things a little differently–for now. 

Just like that, we’re all very aware that our lives are truly interdependent. The behaviors and actions of people in our own communities and around the globe can have profound impacts on our lives and the health and safety of the people we most care about. 

All of a sudden, facts, science, and expertise matter. We understand the importance of trained health professionals and seek out their guidance to keep our families and communities safe. 

We’re all seeing the role of thoughtful, dedicated government officials in providing guidance and making the tough decisions to prevent deaths and keep communities safe. 

From a narrative perspective, the earthquake still rages. The narrative landscape is still fluid–nothing has settled. 

Over the next weeks and months, we have an opportunity to ensure that when things do settle, we are telling different stories about the world: about our interdependence. About the importance of science and expertise and the role of government in keeping us safe. About our ability to do great things in the face of great challenges. 

That means telling stories about cooperation and collaboration to reinforce the benefits of these approaches (instead of economic competition and rugged individualism). It means illustrating the impacts of thoughtful leadership (versus the lack of leadership) to bolster calls for science-driven decisionmaking. It means highlighting the critical importance of expertise, science, and data to help us protect ourselves, our families, and our communities. 

Even as we endure the destruction of this moment, let’s recognize our collective opportunity to re-envision our shared future. Together, with the right stories, we can remake the world. 

Amy Frykman, Interim Executive Director