Adapting after the tsunami of COVID-19

By Dr Jan Anderson, Principal Consultant

Yesterday at an informal ‘virtual café’ with some adaptive leadership practitioners globally, I heard Covid-19 likened to a tsunami wave. That metaphor has since flooded me with questions and inspiration. 

More specifically, the global pandemic wasn’t described as that part of the tsunami where a vast wave crashes to shore and subsumes everything in its path, although Covid-19 has done that. 

It was described as the initial ghostly silence when the tide is sucked out to sea, and the seabed is exposed for miles. People see incredible things that are normally hidden below the water, out of sight and out of mind. Beautiful corals and sea grass. Ugly detritus, deposits of litter and dying fish.  

We were invited to consider what Covid-19 might have exposed beneath the depths for each of us. What less sightly, more uncomfortable things have been surfaced, and what work needs to be done?

An American in the group spoke of his distress at what he saw as a vivid exposure of inequalities in his society, and the immediacy of its consequences for whether and how people live or die right now. For him, disparities in health and wellbeing, access to vital services, employment and shelter had all been brought into sharper relief.             

For me, questions also arise in Australia. Many of those shouldering the brunt of Covid-19 economic hardship are among the country’s most vulnerable people. What does our increasing shift toward casualisation of labour and a ‘gig’ economy mean, and what existing labour force tensions are being highlighted now? If unemployment benefits have been doubled now, and accommodation found for the nation’s homeless, what does this say about our previous (and future) ‘normal’? If domestic violence has been exacerbated, what was already there? Caught in the midst of a Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, what does a virus that threatens and further isolates elderly Australians reveal to us about their place in contemporary society and culture? What does a virus that disproportionately endangers the lives of residents of remote Indigenous communities, due to complex underlying health and wellbeing disadvantages, tell us? 

As a nation that prides itself on egalitarianism and a fair go, who are we, and who do we want to be in future?

It would be easy right now to blame the nation’s leadership, or to blame ‘someone else’. But we got here as a nation. Adaptive leadership tells us that systems – organisations, societies, individuals - function as they do for a reason. They may look broken, but they only stay the way they are because they are actually ‘working’ to serve certain purposes already. Everyone’s actions have consequences. Even doing or saying nothing at all has consequences.     

As I write this, I ask myself what my own contribution to all of this has been. What do I look past every day in my choices about the causes I support, and the ones that I don’t? What impact do I have in my choices of what to buy, from whom, and where? What are the ripples created by my life choices of how I prioritise my time and energy? What could be shifted? In an already busy life, in a society that values busy-ness, what would I have to admit about myself, and let go of, in order to make those shifts? What new possibilities to influence and shape might arise if that happened? 

I wonder, what questions arise for you?