Pandemic and Social Change

by Jessica Delaney, Principal, Engagement + Strategic Communications

There are many realities the pandemic has created and there has been much suffering, but our planet has rejoiced. Air quality improvements are off the charts, with major cities showing shocking before and after images related to improved air quality. Wildlife has expanded into areas previously dominated by humans. So, the impact of our change in behaviour has been direct and immediate. It did not take years to see the impact of a change in our habits to see how they contribute to air quality improvements, for example. It was a few weeks.

So, while I can appreciate that many are excited to see social distancing measures relaxed and a keen desire to return to our “pre-pandemic” routine, I hope we do not lose the opportunity for social change. The pandemic created such a disruption that perhaps changes that were too difficult are now seen as possible. We know system wide behavioural change is needed to “solve” our shared climate crisis and typically behavioural change is hard, but as the CBC reported, wearing a mask in Canada changed drastically in just two weeks. So, we are able to change our behaviours very quickly with the right information and motivation.

My hope is that we do not rush back to the “normal” or the “pre-COVID-19” and lose our opportunity, willingness and ability for change. Because in valuing the comfortable or the normal, we lose the opportunity for something better.

That something better could be:

  • More time with family and less time commuting
  • Reducing travel and leveraging new technology
  • Buying less/saving more, or being innovative with what you have
  • Focussing on health, wellness and resilience, not just survival

I believe that one of the best ways to not slip back to where we were is engagement (no surprise). I believe policy makers and decision makers need to understand what changes people enjoyed (or at least could live with) and what they need to maintain the change over a period of time. For example, I have a client who makes it very challenging for staff to work remotely. This is no longer acceptable.

When we understand the upside in a very clear way (improved air quality, tackle climate emergency, improve health and wellness, reduce debt, etc…) we need to have engagement that asks three key questions.

  1. What supports do you need so you can primarily work from home (or reduce your footprint)?
  2. What barriers exist that make long-term social change difficult?
  3. What motivates you most to change your behaviour?

In our rush for “normal”, I believe it’s important to recognize that our normal wasn’t sustainable, for many of us, it didn’t make us happier, and it didn’t support an equitable quality of life for everyone in our community. Let’s pause, take a breath, and engage on how we support long-term, behavioural change for the better.