Covid has exposed the cracks in our society. We need to do better.
When it comes to Covid-19, apparently “we’re all in this together”. Which is true – in so far as the extent that first and third-class passengers were in the Titanic disaster together. Although the journey for all classes was the same, the experience of it was wildly different, and so was the destination. With 76% of third-class passengers losing their lives, compared to 39% in first-class1, it’s clear that when you’re near the top, it’s much easier to reach the lifeboat.
In reality, the statement that “we’re all in this together” is a naive way to reflect on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and an insufficient driver for decisions we make in response. No-one is immune to the impact or effect of Covid-19, but for millions of people around the world, a combined legacy of loss and grief has changed lives forever. This is especially common in communities that are exposed to increased risk of infection and which face restricted access to the support they need on account of their socio-economic standing.
That’s not to suggest anyone who has not experienced the very worst effects of the pandemic should feel guilt or pity, but the broader social issues it has exposed should inspire us to act.
The last 12 months have exposed many of us to data stories and because of the universal threat of the pandemic we have all had a very clear reason to pay attention. As we’ve followed Covid stories, the news has made armchair data specialists of us all: we’ve had to grapple with spatial data and follow local and national rules as the picture has changed month by month, day by day. We’ve also seen that misinformation does sometimes drive agendas, even beyond the scope of the pandemic. Now, whatever conclusions we draw and however we feel about legislation and restriction, the common ground we share is that we need good data to drive effective strategies.
The challenge, however, is that for many business owners – and leaders of social change – is that engagement with spatial data is often passive: information is presented as an update and a conclusion or answer to a problem rather than as a tool to use for informed decision making. This is true in part because analytical tools that are available require a specialist skillset and years of training. Plan Spatial is a powerful data tool that has been engineered to change that and bring data to life in a new way by making the power of spatial data available to everyone, everywhere – a tool that can be used to guide decision making and collaboration when greater context is required.
Lessons from history
History shows that catastrophe is often the fulcrum for change. Our descent into the chaos of the Second World War gave rise to an age of unprecedented international cooperation and fast-tracked the birth of the NHS in the UK. The crushing poverty of children in the 1700s inspired William King to launch the first Sunday School, a movement which swept the nation and laid the foundations for modern universal education. Mandela’s discovery of forgiveness during his incarnation on Robben Island was a key factor in the ending of apartheid and laid the foundations for his office as South Africa’s first black president. And, more recently, the increasing number and magnitude of natural disasters has galvanised a generation of young people to hold governments around the world to account.
But first a catastrophe can feel like a flood. It brings chaos, amplifies loss and engages our resolve to do better. We need to accept that the waters will rage and be ready for when they recede. Our job during the global Covid-19 crisis is to ensure that the new landscape this catastrophe reveals, is one that reflects our practical endeavours to build a levelled playing field that better serves all people.
The phrase ‘when we return to normal’ is heard daily in relation to the pandemic, as if the way things were was some sort of promised land. For many, yesterday’s normal was a crushing and relentless experience – 2020 also exposed the extent to which fundamental racism is baked into our cultural norms. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, held up a mirror and forced us to confront some of the ugly parts of ourselves and our society.
The floodgates opened, and after one man said “I can’t breathe”, these three simple words captured the experience of millions who often go unheard. After weeks of global protest, where statues fell and historical figures were cast in a new light, we were left standing in a new landscape. Now, almost one year later, old realities need facing and hard work needs to be done. Our upward calling as a society is to engage with the reality that people live with, to learn from those who have experienced it, and explore together how to work in collaboration and ensure that we don’t return to normal – and instead, build back smarter.
Here in the UK, Covid-19 holds up a different mirror, and freshly exposes some difficult truths for our society. Within the wider context of the pandemic, the defensive play of lockdown has ripped away a wall, laying bare the reality of the foundations we’ve laid and the unequal society we’ve built upon them.
As Frank Cottrell Boyce’s provoking Guardian article highlights; The immediate food issue crystallised around school meals [is] because we have increasingly turned to teachers to plug more and more of the gaps in our degraded social sphere.
More broadly, the pandemic exposes that the wider limitations faced by low-income families, high-occupancy households and ethnically diverse communities in the UK are very real. And when the country is stretched, we clearly see the cracks: these households and people within these communities across the country are less likely to have access to education, more likely to be exposed to risk, have reduced access to appropriate healthcare and, tragically, are more likely to die. Put another way, it’s much harder for some to reach the lifeboat.
And like the Titanic epilogue, the data speaks for itself:
- Individuals from black and ethics minority groups are 4.2 times more likely to die from Covid than white people2.
- People with a serious underlying health condition are twice as likely to be living in a multi-generational household3.
- Those living in the poorest areas of the United Kingdom are twice as likely to die as a result of infection4.
Furthermore, you are far less likely to be able to work remotely and if you can’t return to work you will have little job security. As a practical example, for those with limited social mobility, self-isolating might be unrealistic, which incentivises work to resume whether you’re well enough or not.
On the global stage society faces a broader moral challenge. Vaccine hoarding by the world’s richest countries means that ‘14% of the world’s population have bought up 53% of the eight most promising vaccines’. The reality for billions of people will be on-going exposure to this deadly virus, whilst living within an economy and healthcare system unable to cope.
So what must we do? First, this doesn’t mean you, it means us. As a society we need an honest conversation with ourselves where collectively we respect the realities as revealed to us. And we need to be honest about how we got here and how best to move forward. Then we need to follow the data, not to build an argument or an agenda, but to show us where the real conversations are and where we can find the lived experience that can inform real change. Then we plan. Practical, transparent and scalable plans.
And finally we act -– testing, learning, measuring and adjusting. And by preparing for the long haul, we’re ready for a few floods along the way.
From struggle to resilience
There is an ancient story about a man who wrestles with God to receive a blessing, only to be blessed with a limp to bear throughout his life. This might sound bizarre, but recently I heard this story applied to a personal wrestle with mental health, where wrestling a blessing meant adjusting to a life where bringing better balance to their mental health was a long-term practice: Living with mental health struggles meant life still had a limp, but what was once a symbol of shame became one of resilience, and one that could bring hope to others.
Everyone needs to wrestle with challenging parts of themselves, and stay in the fight long enough to make it worthwhile. Being able to accept, learn from and manage something you live with, and accept past mistakes, is essential for personal transformation; and brings with it the ability to navigate life successfully despite limitations, not instead of them.
The same challenge is felt at scale as Covid exposes the cracks in our society. These problems don’t exist because of the pandemic, they are the fruit of our social investment. Our urgent and immediate labour is to face up to the fight we’re in, to wrestle and engage with it in a constructive way, so we can forge a new path. We must listen and learn from people with lived experiences and be ready to find new perspectives that challenge our own. And as we adjust, the scars we bear, or the limp we move with, can be a leading light of hope and change for others to follow – a story that doesn’t deny our past and our mistakes, but instead finds a way to embrace it for the betterment of others.
Our relationship with data can be complicated, and trust can be quickly eroded where we suspect that data has been manipulated to fit an agenda. But robust or ‘good’ data, when used well, can be a catalyst for tangible and lasting change. In simple terms, data can tell you where to pay attention and engage – it can help you find those with the lived experience that may inform policy. And when the map is at the centre of collaborative endeavours, the challenges become real: numbers become population centres and people not just points on a chart.
With the map at the centre, Plan Spatial uses uses open source data to scale insight-driven social impact by providing teams with tools and context to drive informed collaboration and better decision making. The software is powerful, not because of what it can do, but because of what it reveals – empowering policy makers, decision takers and community shapers to delivery high impact, insight-driven strategies and track both their impact and return on investment over time.
From catastrophe to restoration
Among the bad news we have also experienced some of the positive impacts of the pandemic – advances in science, the resilience of local communities and the rediscovery that the neighbours next door could become friends. But culturally we must wrestle with ourselves, because restoration must be brought to a legacy of brokenness. And in a world where quick fixes can’t resolve the entrenched problems freshly exposed by the pandemic, we need to forget about ‘normal’.
To recognise that ‘normal’ was a prison for many, is to acknowledge and wrestle with our own limitations. And in order to achieve something better, the focus must shift. Rather than seeing what lies ahead as a fight to overcome the pandemic, at Plan Spatial we see a fight to wrestle a blessing that will lay siege to inequality. One that will serve society for generations to come.
Dan Dowman – Brand Strategist for Plan Spatial
About Plan Spatial – Insight Driven Social Impact
Founded in 2018 by former British Army Officer, Dan Perkins and global systems developer, Nicholas Jory Plan Spatial is the perfect marriage of tactics and technology.
Built upon the decision support pedigree of post-conflict reconstruction Plan Spatial has been engineered to deliver insight-driven social impact and achieve transformation at scale. Using a common sense visual interface that anyone can use it brings data to life on the map, allowing the users to ‘see’ insights, drivers and impact, revealing what needs attention and where.
Engineered to enhance perspective, Plan Spatial exists to support the policy makers, decision takers and community shapers on the leading edge of transformation. See how it works.
Footnotes & resources
Titanic Facts – Titanic victims
Office for National Statistics – Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by ethnic group, England and Wales: 2 March 2020 to 10 April 2020
Office for National Statistics – Deaths involving COVID-19 by local area and socioeconomic deprivation: deaths occurring between 1 March and 31 May 2020
This article was researched and written in early 2021 before the phased easing of social restrictions had been made public by the UK Government.