When news broke in February 2020 describing an unknown virus sweeping through Wuhan, China I remember the videos of eerily empty streets, pierced with the somber sound of singing residents on my social media feed. It was like a scene out of a film. It felt a million miles away from where I was in London. At the time it was impossible to imagine how quickly this invisible pathogen would race around the world, paralysing life as we knew it.
When a national lockdown was announced in the UK a month later, I spent the first couple of weeks in a deep state of anxiety. We had just watched those same scenes in Wuhan play out in the streets of Northern Italy and now the virus had arrived at our doorstep. It was everywhere and seemingly nowhere at the same time. The most visceral memories from those first months of lock-down were defined by grabbing a pot and pan from the kitchen once a week and stepping outside to bang them in an off-beat harmony with our neighbors. Loud enough, we hoped so the front-line NHS workers who were fighting to keep us alive could hear our gratitude.
A full year has now passed since the UK began its national lock-down and still, the majority of the population remain confined to their homes, exhausted by uncertainty, monotony, and grief. More than 2.73 million people across the world have lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the absence of daily routines, the empty streets of our cities have become the staging ground for demonstrations against racial inequality, environmental destruction, political corruption, and gender equality.
So on this bleakest of anniversaries, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned over the last twelve months. Particularly, since I spend a lot of time thinking about another crisis: Climate change and biodiversity loss. I’m curious what we can learn about how best to navigate uncertainty, change, and hardship.
Female Leadership in Crisis
Do you know what New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Taiwan all have in common? Female leadership. Do you know what else they have in common? Their speed and decisiveness in reacting to the spread of COVID-19. I’ve seen a couple of headlines over the last year on the effectiveness of female leadership during this crisis but it wasn’t until I came to writing this that I looked into the data.
One paper, reviewed a dataset from 194 countries, of which 19 were led by women, found ‘women to be more risk-averse than men’ and as a result, ‘women-led countries performed better in terms of the number of COVID-deaths experienced and number of cases’. While female-led countries like New Zealand and Germany have been in the press a lot, less reported is the success of Taiwan, led by Tsai Ing-wen. This island of 23 million people, practically a stone’s throw from the source of the virus, has had as little as 10 deaths and only 1000 cases reported since the start of the pandemic. In January 2020 before any political leader in the West was taking the virus seriously, Ing-wen rolled out more than 100 measures to protect Taiwan’s citizens from the risk of infection. It’s not just Asia and Europe where female leadership is thriving, similar results have been found in the U.S.
Another paper submitted to the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at the leadership of male and female U.S Governors during the crisis. It highlighted that ‘Women governors expressed more empathy and confidence in their briefings’ and as a result ‘states with women governors had fewer COVID-19 deaths than states with men governors,’. So, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the last couple of centuries have been shaped largely by male-led leadership. Since we now face multiple, intersecting crises, that at their most severe represent an existential threat to our future, it may be worth doubling down on our support of female leadership both in government and the private sector.
The Magic of Innovation
There are more than 79 vaccines for COVID-19 in trials across the world with at least 7 that have been approved for full use. We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of this achievement. There are more vaccine candidates in the pipeline than ever before for a single infectious disease. In fact, before this pandemic hit, the fastest ever vaccine developed was for mumps and it took four years! This speed of innovation and scale of global collaboration is very promising when we think about some of the other global challenges we’re facing.
Take greenhouse gas emissions for example. Although we know, quite clearly, that we must reduce our emissions to net-zero by the middle of the century; This requires breakthrough technologies in carbon sequestration and energy efficiency that don’t yet exist. At least not at a price point that makes them accessible to the global market. The IPCC who produce the annual reports on how policymakers can tackle climate change rely on the future roll out of technologies such as BECCS (Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage) in any scenario where we keep global temperatures below a safe limit of 2 degrees celsius (above pre-industrial levels).
In other words, our ability to work together as a global community and develop innovative technologies is essential over the coming decades. This pandemic shows us that that is possible! Seven fully approved vaccines developed in less than a year is a miracle. However it should also serve as a reminder of the grave consequences when we delay taking action. It is no secret that many thousands of lives could have been saved if we had taken the pandemic more seriously and treated it as the crisis it is. The same goes for climate change.
The Power of Now
The only way I have maintained my mental health during the last twelve months has been the daily practice of bringing my mind into the present moment. Allowing my thoughts to project too far forwards or backwards is my achilles heel to anxiety and depression. The past is a grim catastrophe of poor decisions that allowed the virus to spread as rapidly as it did and the future is one big mess of existential dread, of which COVID-19 is just one concern. This is best summed up by the brilliant cartoon below.
So the present is where we must reside. I’m no Buddhist monk but practicing mediation every day has kept me free of spiralling negative thought patterns. It can be as little as 10 minutes a day and often guided using apps like Headspace or Waking Up. The point is that it is accessible to everyone. By focussing on your breathing and observing the thoughts that float through your busy mind you can unlock a profound sense of calm and focus.
Someone once described this process to me like this: Imagine you’re floating in a stormy ocean. Waves, thunder, lighting are crashing around in a cacophony of noise. Then take a dive into the water, swim down, as deep as you can go until the light fades and there is nothing but quiet stillness. Sure, the odd fish swims past distracting your attention. Perhaps one of those strange ones with a bioluminescent light attached to its head, but the storm that’s raging above is out of sight and out of mind. This is a place where we can always go, it exists deep in the depths of our mind. It just takes a bit of discipline. Doing this practice helps you weather the storm when you emerge back on that surface. I know it has for me. As Eckhart Tolle will tell you: There is no past and there is no future. There is only now. However bad things get, if we close our eyes and quieten our mind, we can find something to be grateful for. Even if it is the simple act of taking a single breath.
Thanks for reading.
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