COVID-19: Lessons to be learned from the pandemic

Image supplied by Curtin University Dubai

About the Author: Dan Adkins is the CEO of Transnational Academic Group – Education Management Services Provider of Curtin University Dubai. He joined the Group in 2009, prior to which he was in the information technology industry providing services for companies including IBM, Dell, Clorox, Philips, Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, Merck, and VISA.


The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in modern times. Over the past 105 years, there have only been three to four incidents that have had nearly as severe and global an impact: the 1918 Flu Pandemic, World War One, the Great Depression, and World War Two. Events like these defined generations and inspired certain behaviours in those of that generation. Unfortunately, there are few alive who have first-hand memory of any of these events. Historically, coming out of such events, people have developed certain traits and lifestyles that reflect that hardship they have experienced and a desire to avoid such hardship in the future.

These events shared several traits; they were unexpected, unprecedented in their scope, and unpredictable in their impact and length. All of these traits cause uncertainty about the future, resulting in stress and fear which often lead to poor decisions being made that simply exacerbate the problems.

As these events were unexpected and very few people were, due to their situation and lifestyle, prepared for them. As humans, we generally live very much in the present and do not give a significant amount of thought to the future. Even when we do think of the future, it tends to be from a place of optimism, which is focused on our future goals and desires.  But, just as companies should have a disaster recovery and business continuity plan, so should we as individuals. This however goes against human nature. Rare is the person who has achieved the balance of being able to always consider, “what is the worst that could happen?” and yet maintain the realistic optimism needed to prepare for the future.

After these events, people had an idea of, “what is the worst that could happen?” and were determined to make sure that if it ever happened again, they would be ready for it so that they would never face the fear and suffering that they had just experienced.  It has been said that those who do not know history are destined to repeat it[1], therefore let us take some lessons from history so that we best know how to deal with the current pandemic, and how to be better prepared for the crises that we will surely face in the future.

Coming out of these events, most people had new priorities. First, they discovered what was really important in life. People had found that things were not nearly as important as people. Many people lost all that they owned during these events, and yet they survived.  They learned that losing family and friends hurt much more than losing things and that even when all material things were lost, it was the support of family and friends that made life bearable and provided both a motivation and pathway to eventually recover. This led to both putting greater value on the relationships with family and friends and to having less desire for material possessions, as well as valuing character over status.  

Second, they realized the value of having a reserve on which they could draw in the next crisis. These generations became generations of savers, who, as my grandmother would say, “set aside a little something for a rainy day”. While this goes against the natural desire to have pleasure in the present and to be less concerned about the future, the fear of suffering again was sufficient to overcome the desire for immediate gratification. Third, they came to understand the criticality of remaining employable. They understood that the social contract had changed and doing your job was not enough to ensure that you could stay with your company until retirement. This realisation led to an increase in enrolment in higher education that continues to this day. It led to a rapid growth in entrepreneurship that is still continuing. It also led to a culture of a strong work ethic, realising the importance of being seen as fully committed to ones work in maintaining job security.

Unfortunately, the seven decades that have intervened since these great times of struggle have changed the culture and the lessons of the past have been lost. Worldwide marketing efforts and the global media have glorified materialism, status and celebrity, leading to the death of the culture of character. The glorification of possessions and status have led to a consumerist culture that is far exceeding the ability of the Earth’s resources, and has led to less and less money being put aside for a rainy day. Over the decades, many of the social safety nets that had been established have been eliminated or weakened to the point of being ineffectual. As has been demonstrated in countries like Australia and New Zealand, proper actions when supported by effective healthcare and government systems, had the ability to stop the pandemic with both minimal loss of life and as little adverse economic impact as possible. Much of the damage that is being seen now in the world is directly attributable to the decades long destruction of the social safety net, especially the health care systems, and most importantly to the poor decisions of governments, with the United States, Brazil, and Sweden clearly serving as case studies.

As an individual, it may seem that there is little that can be done to improve the situation in this time of pandemic, but such defeatist attitudes serve no one well. There is much that can be done as an individual to make things better during the pandemic, and to make sure that both you and society are better prepared for the next crisis.

First, we must overcome the human desires to do whatever we want and instead take every possible action to limit the spread of the virus by staying home unless absolutely necessary, maintaining social distancing when in public, and consistently and correctly wearing personal protective equipment like masks and gloves. The 1918 flu pandemic demonstrated that those communities who followed good practices to limit the spread of the virus not only had better health outcomes, but also had substantially faster economic recovery. By controlling the virus, Australia and New Zealand have already been able to reopen their internal economies and are not facing a second wave of infections, while countries like the United States, which even according to the guidelines established by the United States government, is reopening too soon, will almost certainly face a more severe second wave similar to what was seen in the 1918 pandemic, which will cause even more economic damage.

Second, we would do well to personally take guidance from our ancestors who lived through the prior crises in understanding how to deal with this one. During prior times of crisis, communities worked together to help each other out. Those who had the financial ability, contributed to help others with material needs. A substantial informal economy formed based largely on barter, where people used what they had to help others and in turn received help themselves from others, much as my grandmother described trading vegetables from her garden for eggs from one neighbour and meat from another.  At that time, social class was largely irrelevant and the community stood strong together.

Third, as we come out of the pandemic, we should apply the lessons that we have learned and live our lives in a way that both prepares us for any future crisis and is sustainable.  Coming out of the crisis, we should realise how we have been manipulated by marketing, media, social media, and celebrity into valuing material things, often over people or character. The way that those in the most developed countries are living is absolutely not sustainable and would be catastrophic if adopted by the rest of the world. While absolute minimalism has its virtues, it may be too much for some people. However, everyone can adjust to living a life where they purchase only what they absolutely need, live in a residence no larger than is absolutely required, do not buy products for status or brand, do not waste perishable items, and use every product until it can no longer be used. This not only gets us off of the consumerism treadmill and stops us from comparing our real life to someone’s highlight reel on social media, but also allows us to save money to be better prepared for any future crisis and gets us much closer to living in a sustainable way so that Earth is still in good shape for our children and grandchildren.

Let us together pledge to take this global crisis and catastrophe and use it as the driver to make a lifelong commitment to living in a way that is sustainable and that prepares us for any crisis yet to come.


[1]George Santayana

Content and images supplied by Curtin University Dubai.

Sign up for free newsletters and get more CNBC delivered to your inbox