How Can Our COVID-19 Response Create a More Equitable and Collaborative Society?

As the world continues to dwell on the building blocks of a new normal, equitable participation and collaboration should be added to the mix.

Pandemics affect more than our health. They also entail an economic and social component — a fact that has been painfully evident during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Whereas the economic fallout is hotly debated, relatively less attention has been dedicated to social dialogue — to letting people have a say in the way forward. Despite global health guidelines stressing the importance of community participation in identifying solutions to crises, the current Covid-19 pandemic has largely involved governments telling communities what to do with minimal public input. Although drastic lockdown measures initially received public support, patience has turned into protest.

We, at Democratic Society, believe that in determining the ‘new normal’, attention needs to be paid to two points: structural inequalities and new collaboration processes, creating more just and participatory institutions and societies.

Imagining the new normal

Moments in history, like the one we are navigating through now, are also precious opportunities to ask and discuss bold “what if” questions: What if this was an opportunity to collectively tackle systemic barriers through more equitable participation? What if our democratic structures allowed for rapid and meaningful participation in rapidly evolving situations, such as times of pandemics and crises?

On the one hand, addressing these questions is a matter of envisioning a way forward, of collectively imagining and shaping the “new normal” whilst having a meaningful dialogue about priorities and trade-offs in a manner that can inform policies going forward. On the other hand, these questions also call for a radical rethinking of our approach to collective decision making and governance and the role of citizens in the process.This is where participation can play a unique and irreplaceable role as a tool to actively engage people, stakeholders, and other actors to shape a sustainable and just future and answer the question that is perhaps the most fundamental of all: What kind of a society do we want to rebuild after the crisis?

‘Success to the successful’

Think of the game Monopoly: as soon as you have a small advantage over other players, you are able to buy even more properties, putting you in a much better position to win the game. The same happens in the case of social dynamics: children from wealthy families have access to better, often private, schools and are more likely to end up with top jobs. Conversely, people without education, jobs, housing, or hope are driven by a seriously uneven playing field to commit crimes.

The unfolding of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought several structural inequalities to the fore. Three months ago, when policies of self-isolation were being put into place, they were based on two basic assumptions: first, that everyone had a safe and large enough home where they could isolate themselves and second, that they could afford to stay at and work from home. This was certainly not the case for gig workers, such as Uber drivers, who were forced to choose between continuing to work at the risk of getting infected, or self-isolating and becoming more financially vulnerable. In many cities across Europe, such as London, Paris, Milan and Madrid, the highest number of Covid-19 cases have been found in the poorest neighbourhoods, where most essential workers reside and where fewer opportunities or resources to properly self-isolate exist.

For a virus that is incapable of active discrimination, the financial fallout of the Covid-19 lockdown is affecting men and women differently. In the United Kingdom, women are about one-third more likely to work in a sector that has been affected by the pandemic, such as retail, with the gender pay gap compounding this inequality: “not only are women losing jobs at a higher rate, but they were also making less money to begin with”. In addition, women have also been bearing the brunt of the work during this lockdown both as essential workers and primary caregivers.

The above inequalities are not limited to the current pandemic. Patriarchal societal structures often mean that women have fewer rights, less money, and fewer freedoms and are therefore disproportionately affected by climate change. Similarly, it is well documented that ecological hazards and climate disasters have the harshest impacts on people of colour, indegenous tribes, and low-income groups who do not have access to the resources required for a healthier, safer lifestyle — a fact reflected during the Covid-19 pandemic as well. Climate gentrification is another emerging trend that is linked to larger structural forces, where investors start to shift capital to places that are deemed more resilient to climate change, raising the cost of living and pushing out lower income households due to increased property taxes, insurance, repairs, etc.

Even within participation, there are certain power relations that play out: Non-native speakers may not share the same confidence speaking up in a room dominated by native speakers, much like those who are less comfortable with technology may not contribute as fully to digital processes. In a similar vein, those who design a process may have more influence on its outcome. This heightens the risk of the final result not addressing the needs and perspectives of the missing voices and (inadvertently) supporting the invisible burden of some choices or policies, ultimately creating a “success to the successful” dynamic dictated by systemic barriers and forces. The ‘success to the successful’ archetype is at the centre of Western economics, where it is the structure itself that often determines who ‘wins’. If we are not conscious of being in this archetype, we become victims of its structure, often resorting to whatever has been successful in the past.

Equitable participation as an antidote

The ‘success to the successful’ dynamic is difficult to stop because of its many intersecting, reinforcing loops, as in the case of wealthy students who have access to better education and consequently better jobs, which in turn magnifies their wealth. Halting that process requires a concerted effort to challenge the assumptions or the processes that create the dynamic in the first place. What is needed is “a win-win environment where cooperation replaces competition”.

Participation is a means of creating this win-win environment, due to the inseparable link between participation and social justice. In the context of social justice, it means engaging people in the decisions that affect their lives and ensuring that they are able to fully contribute to political and social life. Moreover, participation is intrinsic to health equity and social justice in terms of achieving better distributive outcomes and strengthening democracy in the bargain.

Our more than a decade-long experience is consistent with the above finding: In listening to the broadest possible range of voices, integrating different perspectives, and taking into account the systemic consequences of a decision on different segments of the population, issues and problems can be confronted in a collaborative and conversational way. When it comes to emergency responses in particular, incorporating ideas and insights from the community, including vulnerable and marginalised groups, can also help identify solutions by providing insight into stigma and structural barriers and coming up with innovative, tailored solutions. However, as previously noted, if the design and results of participatory processes are mainly shaped by those who have more opportunities to participate, this can quickly spiral into a perverse dynamic in which the voices of those who might need more support are left out, accordingly making them even less prone to becoming involved in the next participatory process.

Diversity is unlikely to appear spontaneously in participatory processes. It must be actively incorporated by directly inviting marginalised groups, for example, or by selecting a demographically representative sample of the population to take part. It is important to be mindful of the risk of tokenism and decoration, where diversity of participants has a symbolic function instead of actively contributing to the processes and choices that will influence their own lives. The phrase popularised by disability justice activists “nothing about us without us” is a case in point. Without the active involvement of people in the decisions that affect their lives, symbolic participation can become a quick, short-term fix that can increase distrust in the long term. What is instead needed is a type of participatory process that truly responds to, is led by, and ultimately benefits not only groups that suffer most from intersectional structural inequality, but society as a whole.

Equitable participation and collaboration as the new normal

Governments everywhere are exploring new paths to recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic with varying levels of participation. The Victorian Government in south-east Australia has established a Crisis Council of Cabinet to be the state’s decision-making body on all matters related to Covid-19 response in a manner that allows public service to be as agile as possible. With an emphasis on a fairer recovery, the Mayor of New York City has announced a Fair Recovery Taskforce to build back in a way that confronts deep inequalities. This taskforce will comprise officials from across the city administration to engage hardest-hit communities and focus on the immediate needs of these communities, as well as shape a longer-term strategy to close the gaps that have been exacerbated during the crisis.

Closer to home, Scotland’s approach will be guided by its values, scientific advice, and the voices of its people. Transparency and engagement are deemed critical to this exercise. As an example of digital participation in times of physical distancing, the City of Milan has published their post-Covid-19 recovery strategy, open for comments and proposals, that will be part of the city’s evolving response.

The above examples are clearly noteworthy efforts on the part of governments to respond to people’s needs in an atmosphere of limited time, resources, and capacities. However, they only paint part of the picture.There is as much to be said about community organisation during this time — of neighbours, community associations, and volunteers rising to the challenge of caring for those most in need. The two responses — institutional and communal — have nonetheless been carried out in parallel, and there is an urgent need to connect people and power by shaping new ways of participation and dialogue in that “middle ground” that lies between the two ends of the spectrum.

We believe that it is important to start thinking in terms of “both… and…” instead of “us vs. them” — of collaboration instead of competition — to break the self-reinforcing ‘success to the successful’ loop. Top-down and bottom-up responses are both of vital importance in times of crises; at the same time, promoting collaboration requires overcoming the barriers that separate politicians, experts, and citizens, accordingly creating a collaborative space for communication and feedback. In doing so, efforts can be coordinated, responses adapted to the changing context, and (social) learning can happen.

To achieve this, it is crucial to invest in collaborative, flexible, and adaptive participatory structures beforehand that also help keep pace with real-time decision making of the kind that that is required in times of crises. This will, by extension, also be an investment in anti-fragility, wherein the system does not merely bounce back from disruptions, but becomes better by regenerating itself continuously. Implementing participatory approaches for this regeneration whilst a new normal is emerging out of the Covid-19 pandemic can serve as a building block for a more equitable and collaborative society.

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