2020: A year of pain, a year of revelation, a year of optimism


London, 21 December 2020 - 

As we draw to the end of 2020, COVID-19 rages on; hunger numbers are on the increase; and we are not on track to meet the 1.5C Paris target to limit global warming. According to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, 72 million people have been infected with the novel coronavirus and 1.7 million have died.  And counting. According to the IMF, the measures taken to combat the virus have led to GDP declines of around 4-10%, depending on the country. Public debt has ballooned and, depending on choices about how and how fast to reduce it, it is likely that the poorest will be hardest hit because they most depend on government services. 

It is a bleak picture.  And this is reflected in the various social media efforts out there to define 2020 in one word.  I have seen "lost", "alone", "unprecedented", “hellacious”, “apocalyptic”, and “tragic” and each resonates. 

But my own choice would be “revelatory”.  

This year has revealed a number of things to me that I should have been more aware of going into 2020. These revelations are sobering but they also give me hope because human agency is not to be underestimated and revelations offer the chance of course correction. 

Here are my main revelations and the course corrections I think they inspire. 

1. Nature is to be respected

Those of us that live in metro areas can easily forget this. Human activity affects the use of land and oceans and this in turn affects the habitats of wildlife in soil, sea, and air.  This can result in both a decrease in wildlife diversity and greater human proximity to wildlife which increases the risk of animal to human virus spillover. 

And as many politicians have had to reluctantly conclude, COVID-19 as a manifestation of nature has proved to be incredibly difficult to contain without wrecking economies and livelihoods. A relatively small number of countries have managed the virus well, due to a combination of experience, geography and decisive timely action, but the vast majority of countries have failed: closing the stable door after the horses have bolted. The successful countries are not the most powerful. Nature does not respect human power, but humans have to be more respectful of nature’s power. More thoughtful land and ocean use policies and a greater respect of policymakers for basic epidemiology are essential.  

Finally, the lack of respect of the virus for the wealth and power of nations is a reminder that we are in the SDG era: all countries have problems, and all countries have solutions. The global south does not have a monopoly on the former, nor does the global north have a monopoly on the latter. Everyone needs to work together. Collective action, multilateralism, and development cooperation: they are not dirty words, they are watchwords for the new era. 

2. Inequalities exposed and exacerbated

I have spent 2020 in suppressed comfort. Suppressed because I could not meet people, but comfortable because I live in a middle-class home and am able to work from home with a good internet connection. But most of the world’s population cannot do this. They have jobs which can’t be done from home, they do not have comfortable homes, and they do not have good internet connections. COVID-19 has exacerbated an existing can/cannot work from home divide.  

Those who work in the retail and hospitality sectors have been worst hit by lockdowns as their places of work are shut down. In the UK these workers are disproportionately young, female, disabled and non-white. Those in the health sector and essential food sectors have not been laid off but have been crushed by workloads, financial stress and of course the stress of greater exposure to infection. Programmes like GAIN’s Keeping Food Markets Working will help, but much more is needed.

I will be looking for new employment standards that protect and respect these essential frontline workers. These new standards should be one way to valorise the immense contributions of these frontline workers; contributions that many of us are belatedly waking up to. Clapping is nice, but legislation and improved pay is better. 

Another revelation of 2020 for those who are not routinely discriminated against, is that many other people are routinely and casually discriminated against. We at GAIN have done a lot of work on equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace in 2020 and we will do more in 2021. The work will continue beyond 2021 because creating a workplace where everyone feels welcome, everyone feels the rules-written and unwritten- are fair, and where everyone feels they have a voice, is a continuous struggle against the currents taking us away from the shores of what is just. Giving respect to others is the right thing to do, but it is also a foundation for mobilising everyone to fight COVID together. 

3. We can do amazing things when we are focused and work together

Necessity is the mother of invention, goes the saying. It has been borne out by 2020. Vaccines that normally take 10 years to develop have been developed in 10 months. Packages of trillions of dollars of employment relief have been put in place. The World Bank documents the explosion of social protection programmes throughout the world. New forms of unity are emerging to accelerate action: networks of scientists, businesses and civil society forming, focused on the challenge, setting aside much competitiveness.  

Unfortunately, bad things have also sped up: we are in danger of seeing undernutrition rates that have taken 10 years to drop reversing this drop in just 10 months. And yet this bad news was brought to the world by an example of new unity: the Standing Together for Nutrition coalition, bringing modelers together to connect economic, health, nutrition and finance models to generate evidence that can be quickly acted on. Together, we humans are stronger and better.

4. Those who have benefitted from the pandemic need to do more to give back

The first obvious target are the companies that won the COVID economic roulette: Zoom, Amazon and Netflix are the trifecta that many on the global north and beyond have relied on, but supermarkets, delivery services, sanitizer producers, and plastics manufacturers have all prospered. Set against the news that the food retail industry is falling woefully short of promoting healthy diets, this tells us that the private sector winners need to do more, more quickly.  

And we need businesses and governments to be bold, to transcend the accusations of greenwash or healthwash. For example, we hear from a recent report that only an extra $33 billion a year is needed until 2030 to end hunger. I say “only” because the US Congress is working on a $900 billion relief package to protect its own families. And the UK Treasury is spending over $250 billion to protect livelihoods here. Indeed, global corporate profits are about $5 trillion or $5000 billion. 0.2030% of that (2030 is the SDG end date) is $10 billion, or a third of what is needed to almost end world hunger. Businesses should seize the current spirit of “anything is possible” and get together and make that offer, conditional on governments and donors putting in equal amounts. The hunger numbers could get down from 690 million to below 200 million in 9 years.  

Billions and trillions aside, all of us in the fortunate working-from-home segment of society could, and should, do more to help others who are struggling, by volunteering, supporting NGOs and food banks and by intensifying our civic-minded actions. Those fortunate enough to have been in full-time jobs throughout, including many employees in government, public sector and business organisations, need to be ready to pay back a share of what we haven’t lost.

South African Children

South African Children © Standing Together for Nutrition 

5. We need to work much harder to construct more inclusive realities

Living in a bubble at home and relying on social media to help us connect to others really highlighted the bubble-reinforcing nature of these media. They are bridges, but short ones that take us on commutes to routine destinations, not new landscapes likely to broaden the mind. But like every technology, social media can be wielded for good or for bad and has unintended positive and negative impacts. One of the most negative impacts might well be the ease with which we can or intentionally unintentionally construct parallel universes. Increasingly we get our news, views and analyses only from people who think and act like us and share our values, politics and world view.  

This fragmentation of reality has real consequences: faith in evidence, law, government, the media, and science are all shaken by this emulsification of how we see the world and may well mean that fewer people will be immunized, will pay attention to climate change and will respect the rule of law. We all need to break out of our bubbles and read news feeds we normally would not, read books that our book clubs would frown on, listen to people we do not agree with, and talk to people we normally would not talk to. If we do not get out of our comfort zones, they will become increasingly small and uncomfortable. Respect for evidence and critical thinking, which have powered human progress over millennia, need to be protected and respected.

6. Think more about generations other than your own

The consequences of COVID-19 infection have an age profile, with mortality rates increasing rapidly as we go up one age decade to the next. But the consequences of the pandemic’s disruptions affect the very youngest the most severely. Disruptions to their food, care and health, if not reversed within the first 1000 days are scars they will carry with them throughout their lives. These scars can cascade across the generations like dark shadows, because undernourished children who grow up to be undernourished mothers are more likely to give birth to undernourished children themselves. And the whole violent cycle continues. Very young children cannot “build back better” if they pass the point of no return on their second birthday in a state of undernourishment.

Additionally, COVID-19 is something that youth are going to have to live with for longer than the rest of us, and this means they have a strong incentive to help control the rolling COVID hurricane and to mitigate its impacts. And they are doing it. Youth leaders are not waiting for permission. 

7.  Human proximity and contact are precious

I am one of the lucky ones to be able to work at home. But it is a life unleavened by visits of family, friends, colleagues, and by frequent chats with neighbours and acquaintances in the community. The return of our two children from college for the holidays seemed more joyous and overflowing than ever.  As for work, I was reminded of what I am missing by the wonderful 15-office GAIN pre-holiday staff meeting, for which every office produced a 2-minute video to share with the rest of us: dancing, singing, cute appearances by the kids of our colleagues, even live karaoke. Never again will I take human contact for granted. 

8. Human agency is not to be underestimated

My colleague and friend David Nabarro gave a talk to GAIN staff in September and to the GAIN Board in December. David is a WHO Envoy on COVID-19 and is full of both caution and optimism when it comes to the virus. Caution, in that we need to treat the virus as an enemy. It is new, unpredictable and not to be taken lightly. Complacency is the fuel it runs on. But, there is optimism too. As David says, if the enemy is the virus, then people are the solution. We have agency. We develop vaccines and medical therapies. We have innovated to find new financial tools to support citizens that were unthinkable a year ago. Most importantly, as individuals, we can wear masks, physically distance, wash hands, avoid crowds, get tested, get vaccinated, help friends and neighbours, be kind, be empathetic, be cooperative, be tolerant, be a rock for others, and be leaders from where we sit.  

This, the eighth observation underpins everything: humanity faces multiple challenges, but we have billions of people who can find their own way, separately and together, to create a more stable, fair and decent world in 2021.

So, I enter 2021 with more optimism than I entered 2020- even before I knew of the virus. 

This is perhaps the revelation of all revelations.

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