The year 2020 will forever be associated with crises. First came the Covid-19 pandemic, a joint public health and economic emergency that spread around the world with unprecedented speed and scope. Next came a crisis of international cooperation, as countries struggled to coordinate their efforts in tackling a common viral foe. Then came a compounding social crisis – anchored in the United States but reverberating around the world – focused on issues of systemic racism and police brutality. Huge numbers of people have taken to the streets in calls for justice, despite the pandemic’s persistent risks.
We do not know what other crises might still arise during the rest of 2020, nor the consequences they might bring. If problems beget more problems, one staggers to think of how much worse things could get. As of early June, Covid-19 alone has generated extraordinary near-term costs. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. Tens if not hundreds of millions of people have been losing their jobs. More than a billion children have been shut out of schools. Trillions of dollars of economic activity have disappeared.
If we describe the current situation as a “moment of multidimensional crises,” then one of its toughest challenges lies in the uncertainty around how long the moment will last. But whatever further political tensions arise, the underpinning questions about Covid-19 remain fundamental. Will cascading waves of infection generate rolling shutdowns of schools, shops, and much of society? Will a vaccine be discovered and delivered to billions of people in short order, or might new treatment options provide imperfect solace in the meantime? Will today’s international institutions emerge renewed, worn down, or perhaps even broken from the cumulative strain?
Amid these heady concerns, there are reasons for hope too. Upheaval can yield new understanding and opportunity. Outdated or unjust norms can succumb to society’s pressing need for better approaches. For example, the need for massive and urgent government intervention has drawn fresh attention to social safety nets and the possibility of dramatic policy enhancements. Tragic consequences of racial discrimination have catapulted awareness of systemic problems and triggered prospects for much-needed social reforms. Rapid environmental improvements linked to economic shutdown have rekindled consciousness of the profound interconnections between ecosystems, economies, and societies.
All of this has prompted fresh calls for a broad-minded approach to the integrated challenges of policymaking. For their part, many policymakers have long been accustomed to incremental processes and solutions that push gradually against the boundaries of popular and political will. Today, many of these same people find themselves scrambling to manage rapid and radical shifts toward uncharted territory, in terms of both what’s possible and what’s expected.
- Response in the near term: where the main objective is to protect lives and livelihoods, especially among people who are most vulnerable. Under this category, there is widespread alignment around the core goals, even if strategies are debated.
- Recovery over the medium term: where the main objective is to restart and rebuild economic and social activity in a manner that protects public health, promotes societal healing, and preserves the environment. Here there might naturally be more debates around desired outcomes and greater complexity to finding solutions.
- Reset systems for the long-term: where the objective is to establish, wherever possible, a new equilibrium among political, economic, social, and environmental systems toward common goals. Ultimately, the only limit within this category is our collective imagination. As we emerge from a moment of great crisis, we can imagine a “great reset.”
In practice, these action horizons overlap. But the key point is to distinguish between the different functions and mindsets needed for the respective challenges at hand. It remains to be seen whether the next couple of years will unfold in a manner that makes it either easier or harder to achieve progress on the world’s economic, social, and environmental challenges. So rather than passively allowing norms to evolve through inertia or randomness, we can all pursue actions for Response and, soon enough, Recovery in a manner that improve the odds of a Reset toward better long-term outcomes.