30 March 2020

The COVID-19 crisis: are we daring to look beyond?

A message from Wolfgang Teubner, ICLEI Regional Director for Europe

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, we face extremely challenging situations in Europe and beyond. In countries like Italy, Spain and parts of France, where infection rates are rapidly growing, health systems and hospitals can no longer cope with the number of severely affected people, and death rates have reached dramatic dimensions. We do not yet know how the situation in other countries in Europe and the world will develop, and when we will see a shift back to “normal.” This level of insecurity is unusually high and hard to bear.

Following an initial phase of closing borders and national egoism concerning the supply of medical equipment, we now see increasing signs of European cross-border solidarity and mutual support. The same holds true within our local societies. As in any crisis, coronavirus has brought the best and worst of our societies to the surface. We have seen panic-shopping and hoarding of (seemingly) relevant goods, as well as ignoring advice and regulation, thereby risking infections and the lives of vulnerable people. With clear political messages and the implementation of highly restrictive measures, we increasingly see acceptance of necessary lifestyle changes and signs of solidarity and mutual support.

Local leaders and communities have been key to introducing early restrictive measures, as well as approaches to mitigate the impacts of the restrictions for people and to support those at highest risk. Local leaders have most direct contact with the individuals impacted by the pandemic, and are embracing their responsibility to serve and respond to hardship. Our colleagues from Eurocities have developed a special news section to share good ideas from cities, accessible here.

It is far too early to evaluate the coronavirus crisis and to draw major conclusions from it. No society and no government was really prepared for a crisis of this magnitude, nor were the virologists and medical experts. Therefore, many decisions had to be made on site, which has led to permanent changes causing further insecurity for people, particularly in times when insecurity seems to be a widespread underlying sentiment. Given the velocity and dramatic nature of the developments, some mistakes have been made. Once the worst is over, it will be the time for a deeper analysis, drawing lessons learnt and conclusions for future crises. Naming and blaming is certainly not helpful in this respect.

Although the focus has to be on solving the immediate crisis, the fact that the economy and businesses, as well as public culture and private life, are all slowing down and being reduced, might provide us with the time to think beyond the crisis. Governments and the public banking sector, particularly the European Central Bank, are now preparing massive expenditure programmes in order to safeguard the survival of companies and economic actors as much as possible, and economic revival will certainly become the dominating political topic when the coronavirus spread will be contained. However, it might not be the best idea to spread money fast in order to bring production and consumption to a pre-crisis level as soon as possible.

This situation may provide opportunities for socio-cultural, economic and technologic innovation in light of the more long-term climate, biodiversity and global resource crisis. This is certainly not about simple analogies between the immediate health crisis and more long-term and complex crises. It is also not about simple and readymade blueprints for recovery. It is about reflection and asking questions about critical issues.

During the crisis, we are all forced to reduce our consumption, and to focus on the satisfaction of basic needs. Could this help us to take a closer look at what we really need? Will we potentially shift our demand more towards our immediate society and people around us and away from material consumption beyond global boundaries? It might now be the time to think about whether we need – and can environmentally afford – the permanent growth model that is still the dominant paradigm of political economic discussions. This may provide room to introduce sufficiency and ideas of a stable economy in the mid-term.

Many more questions can be asked that could point us in a direction to make our societies more sustainable, resilient and fair. I hope that our societies manage to recognise the chances and positive aspects of the disruptive challenge the crisis is putting before us. This would require us to try to assume a positive outlook from a very challenging and sad situation that we are going through, while remaining well aware that developments could go in the wrong direction, bringing us more fear, xenophobia, and populism. Maybe it is not globalisation that needs revision, but the way it is implemented and used by the current form of capitalism.

I tend to think positively, and therefore would like to motivate people to take on a critical but positive reflection on the crises, and to think about opportunities for a sustainable future.