“Shared Societies” in the times of Covid-19

Clem McCartney

Covid-19 is not the first virus we have had to contend with.  But, we have experienced this pandemic in new ways, due to the changes we have been making in our world – ease of travel and communication; changing demographic patterns; increasing medical knowledge and resources; shifting political and social structures and relationships, in particular our expectations of political leaders and their roles. All these factors have increased the speed at which the virus spreads and also the immediacy with which we know about its impact.  The virus itself has characteristics, which made it more impactful.  As some have said, it is like the children’s story of Goldilocks, who liked porridge not too hot and not too cold.  It is quite infectious but not very infectious; it is quite virulent but not very virulent.  It can spread quickly and cause significant numbers of deaths but many people are not directly affected. 

We know enough to know the virus is serious and has significant consequences if it is ignored.  But we do not have a vaccine to stop its spread or a cure for the disease.  On the other hand, we have the capacity to restrict movement and human contact so as to limit the spread of the infection and, at least in the developed world, we have technologies and systems that can ameliorate the impact of social isolation – Zoom and other similar platforms for contact, and online systems to obtain essentials and leisure requirements and allow home working for some. 

The initial response to the pandemic

So, in mid-March our governments changed everything:  movement between countries was severely limited; existing national priorities were abandoned; all but essential services were suspended in many countries; provisions were made to mitigate the impact of these changes in some countries, but not all; the assumptions that had been used to justify economic policies were ignored; and what previously we had been told was impossible, became possible.  In responding to the virus, we had created an experiment in social, political and economic organization, which provides rich material for our understanding of the way our societies and the world as a whole can function under scenarios which are different to the conventional wisdom.  What can we learn for the future? 

The initial response to Covid 19 was based on a shared societal responsibility to deal with an unknown virus.

One of the most striking immediate effects was the way in which whole communities came together to make common cause.  People were willing to subordinate their own wishes to the needs of the whole community, as far as they understood them.  They were willing to accept the leadership offered by governments, which was the more remarkable because there was little objective evidence and information to go on and they accepted the advice and guidance of leaders on trust.  Governments on the whole introduced new mechanisms to engage with the public and provide them with information through, for example, daily press briefings.  The media and other influential people including the opponents of existing governments were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and support them.  To a lesser degree a similar coming together took place at the international level with most countries coming together to share knowledge and support.  None of this necessarily continues, depending on a variety of factors to which we will return.  But, at least for the short term, the pandemic had created bonds within the community and between the community and its leaders.  The people called upon the social capital in the society, to use Robert Putnam’s term, and in doing so enhanced and enlarged it.  They had been creating what I would call a Shared Society. 

The imperative for a “Shared Society”

From 2007 to 2019 I worked with the Club de Madrid, the network of over one hundred former presidents and prime ministers, on a project supported by the Alan B. Slifka Foundation, which focused on the dangers of social division and social exclusion and how to overcome them. 

We said that a Shared Society was needed to meet the challenges of social exclusion and many other issues that we face, never thinking that a pandemic would be one of those challenges.  We defined a Shared Society as one where everyone has a sense of belonging and being respected and, bound up with that, has a sense of responsibility and willingness to act for the good of the society as a whole and of every individual.  The dignity of everyone is respected and their human rights upheld; there is equal opportunity for everyone; and diversity is valued.  We used the term Shared Society as it indicates that the way of life, culture, values, customs, practices and benefits of the society are not owned by any one group but belong to all.  Such a community is ready to work together and take action to meet any challenges that it faces; it is resilient and effective. 

We did not need this pandemic to show us that societies can bridge their differences and coalesce in a common enterprise.  We know this from previous crises, including tsunamis, earthquakes or wars, even though we tend to forget it quickly after the event, or claim it does not happen in everyday life.  But we do know that some societies are to a greater or lesser degree “Shared.”  And we often try to reimagine past halcyon times in previous generations when societies worked for everyone. 

Our ability to create a “Shared Society” depends entirely on our societal will to look for collective solutions.

But we shouldn’t have to wait for crises to happen or to spend our time thinking wistfully of past eras when a Shared Society existed and worked for everyone.  We can make it happen or protect what we already have, if we understand the elements that are needed to translate the vision of cohesive, peaceful, and shared societies into effective political, social, and economic policies, strategies and structures, and have the political will to take the necessary steps. 

The Ten Commitments

In addressing this question we identified ten elements, and listed them as Ten Commitments that need to be made, some to do with the institutions and structures of the system, some to do with access to opportunities and the possibility of trying to achieve one’s aspirations; some related to public policies; and finally some connected to intergroup relations.  These Ten Commitments can be accessed at the Club de Madrid website[1] but to summarise them briefly: 

I.               Locate responsibility of social cohesion within government structures. 

II.              Create opportunities for minorities to be consulted. 

III.            Monitor structures and policies to ensure they are supportive of social cohesion. 

IV.            Ensure the legal framework protects the rights of the individual. 

V.              Deal with economic disadvantages faced by those discriminated against. 

VI.            Ensure that physical environments create opportunities for social interaction. 

VII.           Structure the education system so that it demonstrates a commitment to a Shared Society. 

VIII.         Initiate a process to encourage the creation of a shared vision of society. 

IX.            Promote respect, understanding and appreciation of diversity. 

X.              Take steps to reduce tensions and hostility between communities. 

Characteristics of a “Shared Society”

We were clear that a Shared Society is distinguished from other concepts of social inclusion and social cohesion by being dynamic, holistic, and participative.  It is dynamic because we envisage a society, which is energised to meet recurrently the needs and wellbeing of all.  There is no end point such as equality, eradication of poverty, co-existence or peace.  These are goals of a Shared Society, but not ends in themselves, and if they are achieved they contribute to the further advancement of the society and the wellbeing of the whole community. 

It is holistic because we recognised that all the Commitments must work in harmony.  What we are offering is a conceptual framework that captures the interlinkages between them.  For example, there is increasing interest in the idea of a Universal Basic Income, on the grounds that it will reduce deprivation (Commitment V) but also that it will give the recipients the economic security to pursue their aspirations and live fulfilling and productive lives.  In Finland, a pilot programme to provide Universal Basic Income was stopped because it was felt that most of those who received it did not use the opportunity in what was considered to be a purposeful way.  Financial support in itself may not be sufficient.  It requires a culture and values (Commitment VIII) that validates and encourages a sense of personal responsibility and purposeful pursuit of personal aspirations and personal fulfilment (Commitment IV). It also requires an education system (Commitment VII) that helps to develop these qualities and provides appropriate skills and understanding and the removal of obstacles (Commitments IV and V) to pursuing them. 

The youth would need to buy in to the idea of a “Shared Society” for the future to be better.

Collaborating for change

We believe that people will achieve more with the support of a collaborative network that encourages, mentors, and provides information and resources.  Enspiral (https://enspiral.com/), based in New Zealand, is one example of such a network/community, mainly of professionals, that “has supported hundreds of people to launch and build all sorts of initiatives, projects and world-changing ventures.”  Equally, action related to one commitment needs to be taken in a way, which enhances rather than undermines progress in others.  For example if dialogue to improve inter-community relations (in relation to Commitments VIII or IX) does not take account of power imbalance, they become more salient for those who feel their concerns in this regard are being ignored.  In 2017, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom adopted the term Shared Societies in a major speech, but reading closely it was apparent she was stressing the responsibilities of members of society.  That is indeed important, but the recognition of one’s responsibilities emerges alongside and as a consequence of all the other aspects of a Shared Society, including access to benefits and opportunities, pursuit of aspirations and expression of identity. 

Not only is a Shared Society dynamic and holistic but it must also be participative. Many of the changes in attitudes and behavior cannot be implemented by government or other influence leaders, such as the behaviors to minimize the impact of a pandemic, but the authorities, by their actions and attitudes, can enable civil society and individuals to play their part. Participation is also important to ensure that the views and concerns of all sections of society are taken into account.  Doing what is best for people is a dangerous approach and even the best intentions and the best proposals will prove to be inadequate at best, and damaging at worst, if they do not respond appropriately to the situation of those directly affected.  It is not surprising they can provoke a negative reaction, and break trust with those making the decisions on our behalf. 

We are all experts in relation to what we experience though we may need additional knowledge and expertise to put our own views into perspective.  Of course, often those in positions of power have no interest in taking into account the needs of those directly affected and see them as an inconvenience rather than a partner.  To break that power imbalance requires those without power to have a voice; to be able to participate and have proper consideration given to their views.  The International Labour Organisation Convention 169 (The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People 2007 (61/295) enshrine the right to free prior and informed consent for Indigenous Peoples and the same right should be available for other disadvantaged groups, not only for their own benefit, but also to ensure that the whole society benefits from their insights and wisdom.

Societal challenges and “Shared Societies”

The features of a Shared Society can be seen at their best in those societies that tackled the challenges of Covid-19 collaboratively and positively.  But, other responses to the virus also showed us the factors that make that collaboration fracture and disintegrate in hostility and polarisation.  Some states did not take the pandemic seriously or decided that it was not their priority.  They prioritized keeping the economy functioning, overlooking that the pandemic would have an impact on the economy, especially if the infection rate was high.  Others made sweeping changes, closing many parts of the economy but without considering how this would affect employees, especially poor casual workers.  Neither approach encouraged the growth of a Shared Society.  Some societies were already very polarised or were culturally very individualistic and their governments never found it easy to gain compliance with the measures they wished to introduce to avoid infections. 

We shouldn’t have to wait for a pandemic to start working towards a “Shared Society”.

We have already noted that in most countries we saw the initial coming together of the community and a general altruism and willingness to accept restrictions for the common good.  That sharing, though, was not always sustained and we can see how the behaviour of individual leaders contributed to the diminishing of a shared sense of purpose and trust in the leaders.  It is evident that consistency, fairness, clarity, openness and sensitivity engender confidence and allow mistakes to be acknowledged and managed, and dissent to be expressed and considered constructively.  But, too many leaders have been bombastic, self-justifying, confusing, hectoring, ignoring their own recommendations, looking for scapegoats to blame for mistakes, and it was not always clear if there were ulterior motives behind their action plans.  It is not surprising that support for their strategy was undermined and their own popularity also suffered, though to a lesser extent. But, most importantly, their countries were badly affected by the pandemic.  Mired in their conceit, the leaders did not seem to realize the negative consequences of their approaches, which is perhaps a sign that the society was not Shared, and the public were not encouraged to engage actively in the development and implementation of appropriate responses to the pandemic. 

Conclusion

Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to consider the way our societies and the world as a whole can function under different scenarios including those that run counter to the conventional wisdom.  We have seen the potential of a Shared Societies Approach in building more resilient and effective responses to the pandemic.  A Shared Societies Perspective can equally help us to understand other challenges we have, and identify the most effective responses to issues such as migration, climate change, environmental degradation, and rethinking the economy, to name but a few.  But these are topics for another day. 

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Clem McCartney has been an independent research consultant on conflict and community issues for the last 40 years, working in many parts of the world with organizations such as Conciliation Resources, Berghof Foundation and the World Leadership Alliance/Club de Madrid.

References:

[1] http://www.clubmadrid.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/SSP_Commitments_and_Approaches_for_Shared_Societies_260609.pdf

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