Viral Lessons

As a group facilitator, a very important skill is being able to summarise a complexity of narratives into something clear and useful. With lockdown here in Aotearoa New Zealand slowly easing off, I have been reflecting on what lessons I have learned so far from my Covid-19 experience. Here’s a summary of ten of them:

1/. Humans are not in control of nature, only of themselves.

A bit like the barnacles on the back of a whale thinking they control which way the whale turns next, our control of nature is a myth. We can respond to nature by controlling our own behaviour - but ultimately we don't control anything beyond that.

2/. Emergence is inevitable.

The evolution and emergence of novel systems of life is how all species on the planet today have survived, including humans. By its nature, we cannot predict emergence - we can only respond to it. Part of that is doing whatever we can to minimise the conditions for lethal threats to emerge when we are aware of them, like not destroying the wild ecosystems that keep new viruses from infecting human beings. Despite this, new threats will always emerge (see 1/. above).

3/. Human beings are capable of extra-ordinary things.

Clearly, entire nations of millions of people can be united to work together toward a common goal - in 24 hours. Equally, entire nations can disintegrate into conflict and confusion when presented with the exact same goal. The difference is down to culture, timeframes, quality of information and leadership.

4/. Authentic information is hard to find.

Most information has become meaningless. We must educate our children in the art of scrutiny and critical thinking as if there lives depend on it. Because they probably do.

5/. Nature doesn’t care who you are.

Humans are not special. We are not ‘more intelligent’ or ‘more advanced’ than other animals. We are intelligent in ways that are different to other animals - and other animals are intelligent in ways that are different from us. The acid-test is that we are the only species destroying our own habitat - how intelligent is that? We need to participate in nature with immense humility.

6/. How we respond to fear is the key to our future survival.

Fear can cause radically different behaviours. Research on survivors of events like plane crashes and ship wrecks, shows that those people who panic, try to maximise their own individual advantage or victimise others are the first to die. The group they are in also dies. Those that remain calm, act in the collective interest and show compassion are the most likely to survive - along with most of their group[mfn]See for example, Learmonth, E., & Tabakoff, J. (2014). No mercy: True stories Of disaster, survival and brutality. Text Publishing: Melbourne.[/mfn]. This is a political manifesto for an uncertain future.

7/. A strong state is essential.

In the context of Covid-19, the evidence is that where the state has been able to influence society effectively, less people have died. This may be for a wide variety of complex reasons including a nation’s culture, history, demographics, geography, media and its political system. When dealing with crisis situations however, the evidence is that a trustworthy state with a mandate to act gives the best outcomes. This is not to say that the state shouldn’t be rigorously scrutinised - it should. But with Covid-19 this general principle holds true.

8/. Women make the best world leaders.

Just look at the data (with the obvious exception of Margaret Thatcher).

9/. Neoliberal politics are obsolete.

The neoliberal project of the small state doesn’t stack up against the scale, speed and power of Pandemics - or other natural disasters. Neoliberal fiscal policy of low taxation and government spending, with minimum state intervention in social and health services, infrastructure and investment only benefits a tiny proportion of society. But even they can get infected with Covid-19, or be burnt out of their houses by the impacts of global warming, or find their drinking water polluted with nitrates.

Precisely no-one benefits from neoliberal policies in the long-term, because they are based on individualism. Reality is ecological - everything is connected to everything else. Individualism is an idea, not a fact. This leaves right-wing governments politically bankrupt and without a viable economic policy in the current context.

10/. Culture predicates behaviour.

Ultimately, the radically different ways various countries have responded to Covid-19 is probably about their respective cultures. Countries with similar cultures have done similar things. In the future we may see national alliances based on cultural, rather than economic or political similarities.


Obviously, these are just my own reflections of lessons that I have learned over the last couple of months. But really, I already knew most of them - which perhaps means I have simply used Covid-19 to confirm my own political and social bias (see 4/. above)!  None-the-less, I do think there is some compelling data and it will be interesting to see the patterns that emerge over coming weeks (see 2/. above).

I'd love to hear what you've learned from the Pandemic so far? Which of your own biases has Covid-19 confirmed or challenged?

Fear, courage, Covid and civil engineering


  1. Rory MacPhee18th June 2020

    The Survivor Syndrome. My reading of research additionally suggests that those who think independently, who reject herd pressure, will survive. Do what you know is right, not what others appear to be doing. That’s leadership, and wilderness education (Natural Change Project) a surefire way of engendering in our people. Lessons from Covid? Learn to go deep and narrow rather than wide and shallow

    1. David Key19th June 2020

      Yes, indeed – deep and narrow!

      I love the way the conversation around hard-edged survival stuff reveals profound philosophical insights… perhaps, ultimately, it’s that simple?

  2. Matt31st May 2020

    Some good points in the above Dave. Glad to see/hear the grey matter is still firing your end!

    Best regards.


    1. David Key2nd June 2020

      Thanks Matt!

      Good to hear from you!


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