The Best Response to COVID-19 Is to Exercise Our Collective Action Muscle
March 23, 2020

San Francisco's Union Square under shelter-in-place orders. Photo by Sergio Ruiz.

Like so many people across the globe, we at SPUR have been coping with the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.  We are sheltering in place, learning how to optimize virtual platforms and checking in with our community of members and supporters. We are gathering experts to speak to the questions of this moment, as seen through our urbanist lens: Does this change how we feel about density? How can transit survive this moment? How do we safeguard our electoral process? In what ways are Bay Area cities and counties providing desperately needed leadership, and what can that teach the nation and the world?

We are also individual people, and our individual responses are also the same as those of so many people around the world. We are learning to homeschool our children. We are calling our elderly relatives. We are making sure our neighbors have food. (And wipes. And toilet paper.) We are taking walks in the evening and waving across the street to people we don’t know and may never meet but with whom we are sharing this common experience — and for whom we suddenly have tremendous compassion and kinship. 

And we are managing our fear and our grief. Fear of the unknown. Fear of death and disruption. Fear of the economic consequences of life interrupted. Grief for those who are suffering and for those who have lost the big and little joys of life — for some, life itself. For others, a cancelled wedding, a long-planned but aborted reunion, the inability to be with a loved one during a difficult time. 

For many of us, there is grief that the systems we have built for ourselves don’t keep us protected and safe in a time of crisis and stress. Grief that our healthcare system is at risk, that our public health programs have been underfunded to the point that we cannot respond appropriately to a threat we had at least some forewarning of. Grief that millions of people have no safety net: no sick leave, no savings, no employer-provided health insurance, no lunch for the kids when they’re not in school. 

And yet, in the midst of our fear and grief and rapid response, this pandemic is teaching us something extraordinarily important: We are part of a collective whole and our individual actions – which stack up to our collective response – determine the health of that whole. And, equally important, the health of the collective drives our individual wellbeing. None of us is immune to COVID-19. None of us is safe from the impacts of the pandemic. We can only increase our safety if each of us individually elects to take the actions necessary to support all of us.

Recognizing this interdependence is powerful. It is also essential. Before the coronavirus, we were already failing to support the wellbeing of large swaths of our community. Before the coronavirus, people were being evicted and going hungry and living on the streets, right here in the Bay Area. We had already come to understand that we designed our collective systems to serve a few and not the whole. 

The Opportunity Before Us

The promise of this extraordinarily difficult and scary and challenging time is that we are — almost universally and almost simultaneously — experiencing collective action toward wholeness. We are watching the curve and we are trying, alone in our homes, to collectively bend it flatter. We may even be chatting from six feet away with our neighbors, cheering them on as they bend that curve down with us.

This experience, then, is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to develop our understanding of our interdependence and exercise our collective action muscle — to learn what we each need individually to be strong stewards of community wellbeing.

These are precisely the skills and capacities we are going to need when we — eventually but inevitably — emerge from this crisis. For many of us, the fear of economic disruption is as powerful as the fear of pandemic. To survive this time and its aftermath, we will need to take this same view — that community wellbeing is individual wellbeing and vice versa — and apply it to our economic policies and to each of our urban systems. We will need to find ways to support all of those who will lose their livelihoods through quarantine. We will need to fix the things that have long been broken in our economic system, and that are producing such unequal and inequitable results. We will need to build a social foundation to meet people’s basic needs in a much more robust manner than we have ever done before, whether that is through providing affordable housing, healthy food access or high-functioning transit.

To do this effectively, there are practices we can put in place right now, before we even begin post-pandemic rebuilding. 

Share resources.

As an immediate and practical way to practice sharing resources, we can stop hoarding food. (And wipes.  And toilet paper.) There is enough food so long as we each take what we need and resist the urge to overconsume. It is when we take too much that we create scarcity, which drives fear of scarcity, which drives overconsumption. We can break this cycle now if we are mindful and if we can trust the facts: that food is truly delivered to the stores again every single night. (And, if we were to allow it, there is room for all of us to live in homes here in the Bay Area, rather than on the street.)

Understand impacts on natural systems.

The restrictions placed on the movement of millions of people throughout the world have created a unique set of circumstances that allow us to better appreciate our collective impact on our planet and our natural systems. Air quality from China to the Bay Area has improved as millions have stopped commuting. Fish are reappearing in the canals in Venice as water quality improves. This stark expression of human impact on the environment gives a chance to consider: How can we do things differently post-pandemic to better support the planet — and thereby our own health?

Similarly, we can consider the impact that our normal, frenetic lives have on our own physical systems. What changes for each of us when we regain those commute hours, cook our own food, and interact with our children and families throughout the day and not just outside of work hours? What can we do moving forward to rethink our relationship to work, to reset professional expectations so that our own individual systems are better nourished — and thereby our overall community health.

Identify systemic obstacles.

Some organizations, like SPUR, have been able to quickly adapt to control measures such as sheltering in place. As a nonprofit, we are subject only to the rules we create for ourselves. As SPUR’s CEO, I have the latitude to decide that our No. 1 guiding principle is to ensure that each staff member is supported in caring for themselves and their communities. Other organizations — like government — are burdened with well-meaning but restrictive rules that make human-centered decision-making challenging in the best of times. This creates another important challenge: Government is often set up to keep bad things from happening, rather than to enable good things to happen. As we consider how to rebuild, we can identify the obstacles we have ourselves created and choose to dismantle them going forward.

Reframe leadership.

For so long, we have imagined that effective leaders are those who — alone and by themselves — can see the best path forward and dictate that path to their followers. We have thought of leaders who seek input or take a long time to deliberate as wishy-washy, insecure and probably not in the right position. And we have thought of leaders as the people sitting at the top. 

What we can see from the pandemic is that a clear path forward and clear guidance is absolutely essential. But the most profound expression of leadership is to provide for the well-being of those in the leader’s community, whether that is an organization, a city, a state or even the planet as a whole. In this moment, the most effective leaders are the ones who are putting people first and managing the whole human — feelings as well as functions. That requires input. It often requires deliberation. And it does not require being at the top. Many, many people are showing leadership at this time by figuring out how their communities are doing — their neighbors, their schools, their families — and organizing to respond to people’s needs.

As we consider our post-pandemic path, we can elevate this distributed form of leadership and we can each find our own way to lead, regardless of where we sit in any given hierarchy.

Putting Commitment at the Center

We are not at the end of the pandemic and by many accounts, things will get much worse before they get better. We have never been here before: a situation in which everyone across the globe is confronting a common threat. It is precisely this shared, acute experience that provides the opportunity to fundamentally reset how we think of ourselves and others, how we govern, how we design our systems and, ultimately, how we live. Let’s recognize our interdependence and our collective strength. Let’s show our commitment to our communities when it’s needed most. And let’s redesign our systems and communities so that that commitment is at the center of how we live going forward.

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