Post-COVID reimaginings

Scope for transformative change is vast

IN THIS GRIM TIME of a worldwide pandemic, while properly preoccupied by the present crisis, government leaders and leaders of major institutions must also look to the future. As we move to a post-COVID era with phases of relief, recovery, and rebuilding, there must be a parallel phase: reimagining.

The COVID crisis has dramatically reshaped our culture, society, and economy. Some of these changes present unique opportunities to dramatically improve the broader human condition. As the saying goes, a good crisis is a terrible thing to waste. In what is the darkest and most uncertain time in this pandemic, leaders must think boldly, creatively, and systemically about lessons learned, opportunities presented, and how we can bring transformative change to a post-COVID world that is more equitable, livable, responsible—and sustainable.

The scope for transformative change is vast and the opportunities for permanent, positive change are legion:

Accelerating progress on climate change and beyond We are now working, learning, consuming, and accessing medical care remotely. In a post-COVID world, if even a significant portion of this work and learning at home is sustained, the consequences for climate, transportation, education, medicine and families could be profound. We could reduce traffic and vehicle emissions; relieve crowded transit lines; allow businesses to offer flexible employee work modes resulting in savings on infrastructure, travel, and benefits; provide access to better paying jobs to those who cannot afford nearby housing or access to public transit; relieve stress on working parents struggling to find affordable daycare; and control the skyrocketing cost and accessibility of both health care and higher education. Can we assess and measure these changes, and where appropriate, make them permanent?

Strengthening community  The current crisis has put unprecedented strains on our social fabric, already torn by polarization and inequality. The reaction of most has been responsible, in many instances heroic. As with 9/11, Americans have risen to the challenge and demonstrated resiliency, responsibility, and courage. Just as 9/11 inspired us with first responders rushing into harm’s way, the current crisis inspires us with doctors, nurses, EMTs, public safety officers, and even grocery clerks and bus drivers, effectively running into harm’s way. As we recovered from 9/11, we were encouraged to get back to business and commerce. But we failed to seize upon the deep sense of national and international community that arose at that time and redesign our collective behavior around a sense of community obligation and mutuality. If we simply return to the status quo, we will have again missed the opportunity to build upon the sense of common good and community that the current crisis has summoned. Can we leverage this crisis to finally address issues of racial disparity and economic and social injustice? Can we leverage this renewed spirit to strengthen the fabric of what Rev. King described as the “beloved community?”

Resetting capitalism Beyond the need to recover from what is likely a severe recession, if not depression, the current crisis provides an opportunity to engage in fundamental rethinking about the nature of capitalism and the role of business in society. Efforts underway before the COVID crisis (such as the Business Roundtable statement on the responsibility of the corporation to a broader range of community stakeholders, or the Green Ribbon Commission’s focus on corporate leadership on climate) suggest a foundation on which to imagine and create a new social compact. The actions of many businesses in Boston and the region during the crisis illustrate the kind of responsible business leadership required not only to recover, but to reshape, the economy. Are they sustainable, replicable, and scalable?

Revitalizing democracy COVID laid bare the price we have paid for the growing crisis of trust in virtually every segment of our society. These trends have escalated since the 1970s and were at historic lows as the COVID crisis emerged. In a democracy, and in a capitalist economy, trust and confidence are the glue without which these larger systems can’t function—glue we have seen dissipate before our very eyes. We are now on a wartime footing, forcing us to think collaboratively; to share resources; to break down regional, political, and philosophic barriers; and to respect science. Can we reinvigorate our democracy and establish a new level of trust between government and the people, and between major institutions and society, driven by candor, accountability, transparency, and inclusion?

Rethinking federalism and globalization We have learned the inadequacy of the distribution of power among federal, state, and local governments. Can we reimagine the role of government and intergovernmental coordination, addressing not only urgent public health issues, but long-standing and persistent disparities in educational achievement, equitable economic opportunities, and sustainability?

From the beginning of this crisis, the world has ping-ponged back and forth between chauvinistic nationalism and internationalist collaboration. Not since the end of World War II, with the United Nations Conference on International Organization and Bretton Woods, have we had a better opportunity to think and act systematically about how we are organized to meet the future. Can we reimagine international relations that seize on the wounds and spirit left by this crisis to fashion a new set of emergency protocols and can lead to a more universal willingness to anticipate the next global crisis?

The current crisis reminds us of our interdependence, of the indispensable role of competent governance, and of the importance of innovation and collaboration among government, business, and civil society. If there were ever a time to imagine a future of new norms that emphasize not only individuality but mutuality, not only productivity but responsibility, not only progress but equity, not only growth but sustainability—this is that time.

We must lead. We live in Massachusetts, home to some of the most brilliant thinkers and academics; storied democratic institutions; distinguished, progressive business leaders; innovative, entrepreneurial nonprofits; powerful, creative foundations; a great newspaper; disruptive venture capital and world-class companies; and a passion for social and economic justice.

A first step locally would be to convene a group of our great thinkers and doers, political and business leaders, academics and civic leaders—to imagine first a manifesto and then a plan of action. And those leaders can surely convene like-minded regional and national organizations to move this agenda forward nationally.

As President Kennedy observed, we can either master change or let change be our master. We are paying a terrible price for COVID-19. If we fail to seize this moment to not only recover but to reinvent and reimagine, we will have squandered the best opportunity since the New Deal to fundamentally improve the prospects for our future–from racial and economic equity to civic responsibility, to climate and the environment. As Peter Drucker said, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

Meet the Author

Stephen Crosby

Founding dean, McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies
Meet the Author
Meet the Author
This is not merely the opportunity of a lifetime; it is a covenant with the people who have sacrificed for our survival during this pandemic, and a duty to future generations.

Stephen P. Crosby is the founding dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Ira Jackson is the former director of the Center for Business and Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and George Bachrach is the former president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. The three are co-founders of the Civic Action Project.