Thoughts on Hope amidst the Covid-19 Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting our communities hard, causing much suffering and death. Doctors, epidemiologists, politicians, CEO’s, and ordinary citizens all try to deal with this pandemic in the best way possible. We, as Institute of Leadership and Social Ethics, want to contribute to this effort by means of modest, scholarly reflections. In what follows, I will formulate some insights in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly from two of our current research projects, namely the project ‘Driven by Hope’ and the project ‘Towards an Environmental Ethic of Fittingness’.

From the perspective of hope theory, it is noteworthy to see how dominant the use of ‘hope’-language is in the societal discourse about the Covid-19 pandemic. This is understandable, because hope is a crisis emotion par excellence – the experience of distress, incompleteness or lack is the starting point of human aspirations. In our research on hope, which we have been conducting since 2016, we have discovered a number of hope-mechanisms, which are pertinent in the context of this crisis.

First, aspirations vary: hope can either be passive (as in hoping that it won’t rain tomorrow), or active. While a passive form of hope can give rise to complacency, an active form of hope stirs us towards action, spurring us on to achieve our goals. We see this form of hope in the medical personnel who are giving their utmost efforts in caring for those infected by the virus, as well as in the scientists who are frantically working on the creation of a vaccine – these efforts are motivated by the hope to lose as few people as possible to this new infectious disease.

An important key to the success of active hope lies in the formulation of ambitious yet achievable goals, as well as in the ability to discern various ways to achieve these goals. In particular, it requires the ability to give up on taking a specific path to the goal, if that path doesn’t bring us to the goal, and the creativity to discern a new path. This creativity is on full display now, in very diverse and wide-ranging ways: we see it in restaurants quickly transforming themselves, temporarily offering take away or delivery services, as well as in music teachers offering classes to their students via videolinks. An important insight formulated in hope research is that for this creativity to thrive, it is vital for individuals to have agency/control. Put starkly, an entrepreneur whose livelihood is on the line if he doesn’t find a way to deal with the crisis will typically be more active than a shop manager employed by a large chain of shops, especially if that corporation is structured hierarchically. To act on this insight means choosing empowerment over control – for some organizations, this requires a fundamental rethink of their corporate values.

Hope is often treated as an individual motivation; yet a crucial insight in the research on hope theory is that hope is a deeply social phenomenon. By means of the hopebarometer, which we developed, we have advanced this insight. Our research shows that there is a correlation between social connectedness and hope: people who have more social relations are more hopeful than people with less social contacts. There are vicious circles here: the fewer friends you have, the less hopeful you are, which in turn makes you less likely to try to make new friends – whereas if you have more friends, the more hopeful you are, which in turn stimulates you to reach out for new friendships.

Seen in that light, the current Covid-19 pandemic is especially dangerous; we tend to see others – and ourselves as well – as sources of infections, rather than as full human beings. We are actively encouraged to limit our interactions with others, by keeping physical distance. While social distancing is a wise policy which we only neglect to our peril, a drop in physical closeness with others has a demonstrably negative side-effect on the strength of our immune system, both in us as individuals, as well as in our societies. While people are creatively finding all kinds of ways to connect and stay in touch, some people – most notably the most vulnerable and lonely people – run the risk of missing out. As measures of social distancing will continue to be with us for quite some time to come, it is important to nurture our ‘other-regard’, by keeping to look for ways to include the weakest in society in our circle of concern.

Last but not least, hope theory also teaches us the importance of taking a critical look at the goals of hope. Someone’s hope can be active and ambitious, as well as other-concerning, but still be unethical or unwise. In this pandemic, we see jingoistic forms of hope, translating in the hijacking of medical supplies, earmarked for export, by national governments. We also see nationalistic denouncements of international organizations such as the WHO. The ‘my country first’- kind of hope has an immediate appeal for many people and seems to deliver on its promises – especially initially. Over the long term, however, it is an unwise approach – this pandemic requires the whole global community to cooperate, working together for the common good.

This ‘common good’, however, shouldn’t be defined as getting back to things as they were – and that brings me to lessons to be drawn from our research project on ecological ethics. The quick and global spread of the Covid-19 virus has been aided by the hyper connectivity characteristic of our global village. Now that, as a consequence of this spread, we are forced to slow down, nature breathes a sigh of relief – almost literally, as the level of air pollution worldwide drops dramatically. People in India can see the peaks of the Himalaya for the first time in decades again, while deer and other wild animals appear in London suburbs. As we spend much more time at home, slowly detoxing from our often frantically busy lives, this crisis – however tragic – offers a great opportunity for a thorough rethink of our relationship to nature.

If we ever can get back to ‘normal’, do we want to go back to the way we lived before, pushing for more economic growth at the cost of putting ever more stress on the earth system? Should it be our goal to restart the fleet of jumbojets as soon as possible, or to get the oil flowing again, thereby continuing to overstep the creaturely limits that brought us this crisis in the first place? I would argue that we should use this crisis to find a more respectful attitude to nature, one that recognizes the fundamental interrelatedness of human and non-human concern and well-being.

The well-known economist Kate Raworth, in her book Doughnut Economics, makes the point that it is fundamentally unhealthy to keep striving for ever-increasing growth. Living tissue that grows continuously is recognized as being cancerous. Why, then, do we believe that our economies should only continue to grow? Our project on fittingness leads us to recognize that there should be limits to growth – rather than using nature, we should seek to ‘fit in’, to become more responsive to nature. This time of mandatory ‘social fasting’ can help us in reorienting ourselves to nature this way. ‘Never waste a good crisis’ – this adagium, attributed to Churchill, is an especially fit way to give voice to these and other unexpected opportunities which are opened up by this otherwise horrific pandemic.

[This blog post utilizes research conducted in the context of the project ‘Driven by Hope’, funded by the Goldschmeding Foundation, and the project ‘Towards an Environmental Ethic of Fittingness’, funded by the Issachar Fund.]

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