Strengthening Social Resilience after the Pandemic

By Al Etmanski

I keep thinking of the emergency room nurse profiled during the recent “Stronger Together/Tous Ensemble” benefit concert. Her specialty is the delicate and dangerous task of inserting a ventilation tube into her COVID-19 patient’s body. During the pandemic she must live in a hotel room to protect her family from infection.

Her story illuminates two types of caring essential to the safety and well-being of Canadians; one, professional and visible, the other voluntary, natural and largely invisible.

Imagine how hard it would be for that nurse to deal with the deadly virus if there was no one at home taking care of her children and her elderly mother.

The pandemic has shown that Canadians are really good at taking care of each other.

We do this on the frontlines providing healthcare, keeping our food safe, educating our children or making sure that government cheques are written and delivered in a timely fashion. And we do so as generous “care-mongers” accompanying a child with a disability into the hospital to assist with her medical needs, stepping in to support overworked staff at long-term care homes where an outbreak has occurred, sewing and distributing masks for those who are homeless, making sure an elderly neighbour gets groceries and is socially connected, and taking care of all matters great and small on the home and neighbourhood front.

This rich mixture of paid care and natural caring is getting us through the pandemic. It proves that social resilience is a balance of naturally supportive relationships and professional supports. Too much intervention undermines natural caring and increases dependency. Too little and individuals, families and communities are left on their own to deal with economic realities and changing life circumstances that are not their fault and beyond their control.

Getting that balance right after the pandemic will help us re-weave our social safety net. Its flaws have been exacerbated by the pandemic especially for people with disabilities, seniors, those who experience systemic racism, mental illness and who are poor, homeless or in an abusive relationship.

Promising responses from governments during the pandemic could lead people to conclude that reforms like Basic Income and cleaning up long-term care facilities are just around the corner.

Saying it is so doesn’t make it so.

How can we make sure this opportunity for real change doesn’t slip through our fingers?

After the pandemic, governments will have less money and more power. Power that is inclined to snap things back to the way things have always been done, privileging the economy and treating social resilience as an after-thought or burden. To prevent that from happening will take imagination, coordination and cooperation on a scale we haven’t experienced since the Second World War, the last time our social safety net was overhauled.

I write as a community organizer who has been part of three major attempts to reform the social care system. One shifted a government department funding services for disabled people to community governance. Another changed a centuries-old definition of legal capacity in order to support people with dementia and those with mental illness and developmental disabilities to make decisions. The third introduced the world’s only Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) to address the widespread poverty experienced by people with disability.

Despite their short-term success, all had limited impact, mainly because we were naive about the social, cultural, political and economic forces that conspire to keep doing things the same old way.

I recently co-chaired a federal Advisory Group on the impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities. I witnessed a high a level of political support and public service cooperation. Despite those stars being aligned, concrete support for people with disabilities and their families has been disappointingly slow in coming.

These experiences have given me a healthy respect for the power of government to resist profound change even when there is a receptive political environment. It has convinced me of the importance of sustained citizen action at all stages of the decision-making process, from conception to changing faulty assumptions, to gaining widespread popular support, to developing policy and monitoring implementation.

We must leave no stone unturned in responding to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

With that in mind, here are five ways civil society can preserve the best of the social innovations that have emerged during the pandemic and build a supportive apparatus around them.

Unify within and across movements

A unified, transparent and democratic movement of grassroots organizations, non-profits, coalitions, individuals and allies working in harmony enhances the power, authenticity and influence of civil society. Creating this network of networks is easier said than done. Many non-profits have lost touch with the people they serve. Or they see their role as service provider rather than a core participant in civic discourse. Bridges have been burned. Ego, territoriality and competition for scarce resources create mistrust. Differing views on strategy can lead to misunderstanding, animosity and resentment. And the time devoted to strengthening community cohesion and consensus can tempt some to make haste and go it alone.

In my experience, every hour of strategy, advocacy and policy must be matched by five hours of attention to group dynamics. Since there aren’t any admission criteria to belong to a movement, you will have to work with people you don’t like, don’t know and don’t trust, and who you think aren’t pulling their weight or are part of the problem.

That’s why the connectors, peacemakers and bridge builders in your midst are as important as the strategists and analysts. They nurture three bonds that strengthen collective action. The strongest bond is trust but shouldn’t be taken for granted. Respect is sufficient when trust doesn’t exist. Sometimes the only bond is acceptance that the problem can’t be solved by groups working on their own.

Privilege the imagination

A disciplined imagination is the key to monumental versus incremental reform. Designing social policy without an imaginative sense of your destination means your best efforts will land you toward the front of the status quo, but not ahead of it. Imagination helps you transcend the limits of what seems naturally possible and morally acceptable. It enlightens strategy, policy and programming and helps you break free of the institutional thinking that does not address incorrect assumptions and negative attitudes and beliefs.

The imaginative question isn’t, ‘what needs to be changed about our existing social safety net,’ but: ‘what kind of caring society do we want?’ Once the balance between professional intervention and naturally caring relationships is clarified, the policy details follow.

A focus on the imagination helps you assemble possible futures and proven innovations into a cohesive whole. It encourages you to incorporate the diverse ideas of people who were previously treated as helpless clients and ensures that solutions start with those who are most at risk, most marginalized and who face multiple social barriers.

Science, medicine, technology, the arts and other fields leap wildly over the status quo by privileging the power of imagination. They know it’s key to navigating the future. Civil society needs a similar combination of design thinking, scenario planning, dedicated funds, voices from the trenches, and social innovation labs to leap over the existing social care system and move the dial on justice, equity, inclusion and accessibility in Canada.

Engage with pop culture

Tommy Douglas, an early champion of universal healthcare in Canada, understood that popular support precedes political boldness. He observed that the job of a leader is to engage with the public so that when the change arrives, they ask, ‘what took you so long?’

Such preparation should not be a manipulative attempt to shift people’s views or to push a particular solution or program but a genuine effort to understand the daily challenges people experience, the language they use to describe them and the solutions that will help.

Team up with the artists in our midst. The inescapable truth of making the world a better place is that we must touch hearts as well as minds. Artists make feelings, hunches, fears, dreams and desires visible. They use their art to bridge the silos that divide us. They tell stories that matter to us. They bring beauty and joy into the conversation and create phrases, symbols and images that appeal to most people, that’s why troubadours are as important as specialists.

Support community problem solving. Our ingenuity in the face of adversity defines us as a species. So called ‘ordinary people’ are constantly inventing themselves out of their predicaments. The majority of social care advances that we now take for granted originated with these ‘passionate ordinaries’ – people motivated by necessity and inspired by love because someone or something they care about is vulnerable, under siege or in trouble.

Work with story tellers and solution-based journalists. While many mainstream outlets concentrate on what’s wrong and what divides or tantalizes us, a new breed of print and on-line journalists tell stories of community generosity, resilience and problem solving.

Path of politics

Canadian hockey fans know the importance of skating to where the puck is going. Similarly, it’s important to pay attention to the changing and evolving path of politics — not the large ‘P’ politics of partisan instincts, rather the small ‘p’ politics of citizens making concrete their ethical commitment to each other.

That commitment includes the personal measures individuals take to protect the health and safety of fellow citizens and their collective outrage when our social care institutions fail to do so.

Despite their imperfections, social institutions play a critical role in redistributing resources and making society more just and equitable. We now need to address their flaws and rewrite the social contract between civil society and government. This requires a politics that has people engaged inbetween trips to the voting booth, a politics that turns away from desperation and cynicism and that provides people with genuine opportunities to shape policies that affect their lives.

It’s also a politics that sorts out community consensus before talking to government.

That means taking advantage of consultation processes that are fair and inclusive and which make it possible to arrive at a position the majority of citizens will support. For example, e-democracy, civic lotteries and citizen reference panels enable you to capture the full texture of community deliberation and move beyond either-or positions. They offer a constructive alternative to the traditional advisory process that deposits solutions from multiple sources at government’s doorstep, leaving them as sole arbiter.

Analyze learning curve

The Corona curve may be flattening but the learning curve is spiking. It’s an exhilarating and fragile time. Fresh insights about the way the world could work are emerging.

Our commitment to take care of each other, and indeed the environment, is on display. Trust in science, medicine and political leadership is high. The impossible happens daily as government decision-making occurs at warp speed.

It would have been unimaginable six months ago for a recently laid off young mother to fill out an electronic form and receive income replacement (CERB) in her bank account a few days later. A new balance in favour of state intervention versus the role of the market has materialized. The social hierarchy is inverted as our collective vulnerability becomes a fact, not an assertion. And we realize how dependent we are on front line people and caring citizens to be safe and healthy.

Disaster response specialists advise that we base our recovery recommendations around those we relied upon during COVID-19. They urge us to document the learning curve, and to reflect and incorporate accompanying insights into our strategic decision making and policy recommendations. They suggest we make note of new found leaders, champions and accomplices including the strange bedfellows who have risen to the occasion; former allies who sat on their hands; managers who resisted change or tried to manage the unmanageable; celebrities and businesses whose interventions were genuine and not self-serving and the new ways that non-profit organizations are merging and cooperating.

It’s particularly important to chronicle the myriad examples of natural caring that happen every day, everywhere by just about everyone to ensure they never become invisible again.

Former Prime Minister Joe Clark once observed that government needs the imaginative power of civil society to set its direction. And civil society needs the mandate and authority of government to implement that vision.

Government will continue to exercise its power after the pandemic. Civil society, including its philanthropic supporters, must do so too. Emergencies remind us that people are caring, generous and selfless.

It’s time to erase the free market snare that individuals are solely responsible for their successes and failures. The pandemic has revealed that social resilience is a do-it-together not a do-it yourself project. And that government and civil society in partnership keeps it so.

Editor’s Note: The situation surrounding COVID-19 is changing steadily and the above conditions and regulations may have altered since the date of publication.