The Power of Pandemic Pause by David Werdiger

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a degree of change that we’ve never seen or even imagined before. Just a few months ago, few people would have believed that a virus would cause economies to shut down and cities and countries to go into lock-down. Quickly, we’ve needed to adapt to a new way of life.

But the change we are experiencing and now expecting goes far deeper, and this is evident in the language we’re seeing in the media from leaders and opinion-makers. Phrases like “[…] will never be the same again” and “we will inhabit a different world” are now common. This kind of language point to an unprecedented and radical change.

How can we make sense of change of this magnitude? One useful framework is ethnographer Arnold van Gennep’s concept of a “rite of passage”, which describes an individual’s change from one group to another. Van Gennep explains that such changes occur in three steps:

  1. separation from the previous state,
  2. a transition stage, and then
  3. re-entry into a new state.

The rapid onset of the virus has forced us very quickly to separate from our regular lives. Many people are stuck at home and/or working from home. Social activities which previously took so much of our lives have been curtailed, leaving a huge gap. In the interim, our lives are in limbo or transition as we await a new future. We carry much uncertainty about what the new state will look like. Our lives have been put on pause. We can view this as the second stage of a rite of passage.

This pause is a very important stage for individuals: a time when the most important action is no action. It is a time for contemplation and reflection on what is important so we can prepare for the next stage (however that might look). While the rite of passage model is usually applied to the development of an individual, the nature of the change we are all experiencing means we can broaden its application and consider three classes may experience this pause: the individual, the family/collective, and with a national/global viewpoint.

As explained, as individuals we are finding ourselves with more time on our hands, and our movements and activities have been constrained. A typical day looks very different than a few months ago. This pause is a time to look back at the things that were taking up our time in the past, and consider how important they really are. If we are getting by without them now, how much did we really need them after all?

What we prioritise in this time of crisis is a strong indicator of what is important in our lives. So it’s an opportunity to reassess what is truly important to us. In these weeks, people have found themselves spending more time calling on others to see how they are or how they can help. Many have become more thoughtful and kinder towards others.

During the pause, we can reassign the priorities of all the activities in our daily lives, and imagine a future where the current constraints have passed, but we are now living a life based on our actively chosen priorities. This would surely be better than doing things because that’s what we did yesterday, or last week.

Families are either spending more time together, or are separated by physical distance with plans to meet and spend time together cancelled. Time close together is a double-edged sword — for some families it will increase stress and bring latent conflict to the surface, and for others it’s a time when their bonds can become closer. For families unable to be close physically, it’s a time to find new ways to connect despite social distancing rules and travel restrictions.

In all three cases, there is significant #disruption to the family dynamic, and families should respond as proactively as possible. This pause is an opportunity for families to have discussions about their connection and the meaning of their family relationship. While some families may be focussed on their financial capital and how to preserve it in times of economic upheaval, this is also the perfect time to refocus on the other forms of family capital:

• Spiritual capital — the common vision and purpose of the family group
• Social capital — the family’s ability to make collective decisions and their system of governance for doing this
• Intellectual capital — the lifelong learning process both individual and collective
• Human capital — helping each family member thrive individually

These can be difficult conversations, and sometimes are best done through a facilitated process that ensures family members all have a voice. These conversations are also essential because at their core, they deal with the compact that binds families together, and any systems for managing family capital (in all its forms) are only as strong as the compact that underpins them.

While my focus is on families of means, the pause concept can also apply to collectives such as communities, and businesses. Community life has also been disrupted and leaders can use this pause to review the compact and values that underpin the community, and how that can be strengthen to prepare for what may come next.

Some businesses are in turmoil, having to adapt their business models or make cutbacks to ensure their survival. They may not have entered the pause stage of the rite of passage just yet. Other businesses have been forced to close their doors and are genuinely paused. In both cases, it’s a time in the business cycle to rethink strategically and hopefully come out more robust when this has passed.

Viewing the pandemic through a national & global lens raises some challenging ideas. Globalisation and our hyper-connected society has helped the virus to spread so rapidly, yet it needs global cooperation to share knowledge and develop the best response to this crisis. Some believe society has moved beyond the concept of nation states and we should have open borders, but containment measures necessitate the closure of borders and distinct responses by each country.

There is global concern about climate change, but as factories have closed, planes have disappeared from our skies and cars from our roads, pollution monitoring satellites have shown the positive impact to the air around us. To be sure, factories will reopen and economic activity will resume, but this does give a glimpse into how large scale change can make rapid improvements to our environment.

This pause is therefore also time for us to look at the biggest picture of all: our compact with the world in which we all live, our countries, and the cooperation between countries. While on one hand, governments are scrambling to implement containment measures and reallocate resources to deal with large number of sick, this pause is a unique opportunity to put some of the big discussions on the agenda.

We don’t know why this awful #pandemic has encircled the world. But we can view it as a rite of passage for all of us — as individuals, families & collectives, and human inhabitants of our planet. If “ordinary life” had continued, we would have been unlikely to step back and had the kinds of discussions I’ve mentioned. But our lives have been put into a pause, so now is a unique opportunity for reflection and discussion about what is important to us, to our families and collectives, and to the world around us. These discussions can help us push the metaphorical reset button on all three levels, and emerge stronger and better to face a world that may look very different once this passes.

David Werdiger is an experienced technology entrepreneur, strategic thinker, adviser, philanthropist, not-for-profit innovator, online speaker, trainer and author.

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