Bridging social divides – can Covid-19 become a catalyst for societal transformations?

Published on 19 March 2021

Image of Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor

Director of Research

Mary McCarthy

Crystal Tremblay

Covid-19 is shining a spotlight, bringing into sharp relief a range of fissures, cracks and marginalisations in societies throughout the world.

As highlighted by Melissa Leach, Hayley MacGregor and Annie Wilkinson in a recent IDS opinion piece, the pandemic is frequently characterised as a health crisis, but it is in fact multi-dimensional, and is heightening fragilities, exacerbating inequalities, and deepening vulnerabilities in systems of all kinds. When it comes to knowledge and evidence, Covid-19 is going to require funders, researchers and practitioners alike to reposition themselves in response to the pandemic, focusing efforts on building the resilience of both systems and communities, if we are going to see genuinely transformational progress.

The November 2020 Victoria Forum brought many fabulous speakers and participants together to consider options and possibilities for radical action and change. One panel discussion – co-hosted by Peter Taylor of IDS and Crystal Tremblay of University of Victoria, and including Mary McCarthy of Irish Aid (in Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs), Sohela Nazneen and Rachel Sabates-Wheeler of IDS, and Manuel Balan of McGill University – had an ambitious aim to shine its own spotlight on the implications of Covid-19 for food systems, social protection, gender equality and governance of the economy and financial systems. This conversation was rooted in a collaboration between Irish Aid and IDS, which has focused particularly on issues relating to health, food, social protection, gender and governance in light of Covid-19.

We heard a range of ideas during the session for how we might build forward differently in regard to each of these issues, and this generated some really interesting conclusions. Many of these points are presented in a separate series of IDS and Irish Aid positioning papers, and will be discussed further in a forthcoming special issue of the IDS Bulletin – ‘Building a Better World: The Crisis and Opportunity of Covid-19’ – which launches on 29 March. Our panel discussant Khalil Shariff, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation Canada, highlighted how the pandemic is at times stalling or even reversing important progress made in recent years, for example gender equality and social protection provision. It is also accelerating significant inequities. For example,  those with power/means can draw on individual resources to ‘ride out’ the pandemic – in ways that vulnerable communities cannot. We are witnessing growing poverty, and inequalities fuelled by corruption and abuses of power. We are also seeing the rise of populism and authoritarianism which in some contexts is closing down civic space and placing constraints on deliberative democracy, and limiting access to Covid-19 vaccine roll-out through ‘vaccine nationalism’. These challenges are universal, felt everywhere, but those in low- and middle- income countries are suffering most, and also suffering differentially, whether because of gender, age, or poverty.

What actions are needed?

To close the conversation, Lord Jack McConnell helped us with an excellent summary and identified five key actions which could help us find a way forward.

  1. We need to respond, with urgency, to the crisis, tailoring our actions to meet the needs of those who are most vulnerable and in the greatest danger of being left behind.
  2. We need to take a multi-pronged approach to addressing challenges around food, social protection, gender equality and governance. We need to combine immediate responses to vulnerabilities, whilst also looking to the future, and investing in long-term transformations.
  3. We need to challenge complacency, and tackle tacit acceptance of inequalities, especially those that are less visible, and where voices of those who experience them remain unheard. We need a bold vision for fundamental, sustainable change. This is only possible within systems that embrace democracy, transparency, the independent rule of law, and fundamental equalities, including gender equality.
  4. We need to help people be better prepared for the future. To be able to address new and different shocks, which are almost inevitable, we must build slack into systems and institutions which can then be drawn in times of crisis. As the pandemic has revealed in multiple ways, ultra-lean systems will not serve us well – particularly if we are committed to putting equality, sustainability and resilience of systems and communities at the centre of our strategy to leave no-one behind. The SDGs provide a guiding star and a catalysing force to help us do this – as we are reminded by the UN Research Roadmap for the Covid-19 Recovery.
  5. We need to work together, joining up our efforts and collaborating to transform development, economies, communities and people’s lives. Although the pandemic has presented many challenges for those working remotely, creating greater disconnects, it is also providing useful opportunities for greater access to decision-makers and those who hold power/influence.

To do all of this, the panel reminded us of the need to transform ourselves as individuals, and the institutions that shape so much of our lives. Many are already stepping up to these challenges, as the coming IDS Bulletin special issue indicates through numerous examples. Building back a better world is a long-term mission. It will need commitment, energy, resources, and a truly joined-up, collaborative effort if aspirations are to become a reality.

This opinion was written by Peter Taylor, Director of Research, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Mary McCarthy, Nutrition Lead, Irish Aid and Crystal Tremblay, Assistant Professor, University of Victoria, Canada.


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