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We can’t lose what we’ve learnt from Covid-19

Lockdown brought inevitable stress, but some pleasant surprises too. These silver linings are now part of our collective experience, and it would be unforgivable to let them slip, writes Sam McGlennon.

Other than the deep introverts, I don't think many of us were expecting to find joy in our lockdown confinement. Instead, so many of us have. The simplicity. The spaciousness. The presence. The quiet. What I don't yet see is anyone suggesting these silver linings might be fundamental – and not just incidental – to our well-being as individuals and as a society. 

I believe they are. (Anecdotally, everyone I've mentioned this to has agreed.) So here's what I think. Lockdown has pointed us to the qualities that truly matter in our lives. Now our opportunity – perhaps our obligation – is to redesign our economy and society to give these joys to us in abundance (and design out the other stuff).

Before diving into this idea, let's acknowledge that not everyone was equally able to find enjoyment in lockdown. Aside from the obvious heroes – our frontline and essential workers – who worked uninterrupted throughout, there are also many, many people for whom lockdown brought vastly increased stresses. These came in many forms – financial hardship, loneliness and depression, food insecurity and domestic violence.

Those who have borne these stresses are heroes too. Lockdown came at personal cost, which they endured for the good of the rest of us, and society at large. That's an incredible effort and also a reminder that our collective wellbeing is undermined by those our society leaves on the brink, or leaves behind. 

Yet equally, these silver linings are now part of our personal and collective experience. It seems unforgivable to let them slip. As a first step, let's get clear about what they were.

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Here are six silver linings from my own experience:

1. All the time in the world. Did you know that modern humans – the most materially rich of any moment in history – work harder than medieval peasants? Go figure. Lockdown has been the first time outside of our compressed holiday periods that some of us have had a truly 'out-of-busy' experience, allowing us to attend to many of the things we're always intending to get around to. Cooking and baking, spending time in the garden (so much that Kings temporarily sold out of seeds!), household projects. Presence and undivided attention for our families and kids.

Why is it so novel for people to be the dominant user of our roads? We've designed our suburbs to give primacy to the 'needs' of cars. That doesn't work for people.

It has to make you wonder – how and why did we let ourselves get so busy that these aspects of life were continually pushed into the future?

2. As far as the eye can see. It's been such a delight to see the streets reclaimed by people, safe from the tonnes of steel usually barrelling along them. I've seen parents walking and children riding down the middle of streets in complete safety, stopping for long, two-metres-removed chats with neighbours and friends. No cars in sight. 

Again that begs a question: why is it so novel for people to be the dominant user of our roads? We've designed our suburbs to give primacy to the 'needs' of cars. That doesn't work for people. For us.

3. It's oh so quiet. Just as a fish isn't familiar with the concept of water, we'd be forgiven for not noticing the continual noise that forms the backdrop to our days. Then it all stopped. No traffic on the roads or in the air, no rushing about. Back to the old modes of transport – walking, cycling, running, skating. And something else – a peace, a tranquility that, like dark skies, seems so natural and beneficial. Birds chirping. Wind puffing. Surf booming in the distance.

I wasn't expecting the quiet to have such a profound effect on me. Since it did, I've been wondering how to keep that alive, even as it quickly became one of the first casualties on our return to Level 3. 

4. Here I am. For five weeks during lockdown, there was literally nowhere else to be. There was absolutely nothing happening that you couldn't tune into on a livestream (and even that quickly got a bit tired). For perhaps the first time en masse since the arrival of smart phones, we each held a luxurious invitation to presence. We could hibernate without FOMO, we could indulge our inner introvert. We could delight in our immediate surrounds, the nature on our doorsteps. 

The wealthiest locations tend to have the best natural features and access. Shouldn't we work towards making that easy access and immediacy a right for all?

5. Nature calling. The incursions of the natural world into our human-dominated spaces has been one of the most notable features of lockdown globally. Compared with Asia's vast, sprawling cities, as an example, we can see how lucky we are in New Zealand to have such opportunity and access to 'nature', whether that's the beach, the bush, the mountains, a river or the ocean.

Yet our experience of lockdown was affected by differences in the quality of the nature in and around the suburbs we were pinned to. Suddenly it wasn't possible to drive to the beach, the hills or some bush. This inequality plays into others, of course, since the wealthiest locations tend to have the best natural features and access. Shouldn't we work towards making that easy access and immediacy a right for all?

6. I wanna hold your hand. Finally, look at the care and genuine concern that poured out of us as soon as we had the time and space to allow it. Neighbours, friends, strangers, family. Suddenly we couldn't take each other's health and well-being for granted. We asked each other how our experience had been. There was a giant opening into which empathy rode. Is this what community feels like – caring for strangers?

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This is my laundry list (and not even the full one). But now, so soon, it seems we're emerging from this strange and passing time. That leaves us with a simple choice: we could file these silver linings away as merely pleasant surprises that were fleetingly, accidentally part of our lives. We could go back to how things were, and tell our kids about them when they're grown. 

That would leave an obvious question unanswered: if the experience was so profound, why didn't anything more come of it?

Or alternatively, we could take a moment – this moment – to press pause. We could acknowledge the power of these silver linings to gratify us and bring deeper meaning to our days – and consequently our lives. We could begin to take steps to embed them into our lives, or richer still, into our society.

Just to be clear, that won't happen on an individual level. It's a collective opportunity, not a personal burden. You can't control the noise levels in my suburb, just like you can't walk safely down the middle of the road like you could a few weeks ago. 

We need to explore this opportunity at a more systemic level, as some are already doing, for example the Aotearoa (virtual) Town Hall discussion series led by young Wellington councillors, Tamatha Paul and Thomas Nash. Their contribution is part of the broader project of making our deep values – including those revealed by lockdown – politically active.

Along with others, I'm intending to get to work on that part of the conversation shortly. But the very first step is one that belongs to each of us: clarifying the experiences of lockdown we want to carry with us, before they vanish once again.

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