The Coronavirus Pandemic Was Declared A Year Ago. Where Do We Go From Here?
It’s a grim milestone: one year since the coronavirus lockdowns first gripped the nation. It’s been twelve months marked by immense pain and loss. Now, the prospect of vaccine distribution could mark the beginning of the end of this global nightmare.
But then what? What will it take to build a better world than before?
Here’s one answer: think like a mother. If more of us could do this, we could create lasting solutions to seemingly intractable problems — solutions that meet the needs of many rather than the whims of a few.
To be clear, you don’t have to be a mother to think like one. This mindset is open to anyone, anywhere, of any age or gender, who is trying to make sense of our challenges and build a better world for the next generation.
In my work with women’s groups facing war and environmental disasters around the world, I see firsthand how thinking like a mother shapes the most effective community-led crisis responses and recoveries. And as a mother, I know how my own perspective has been shaped by the need to care for my children.
Here are four lessons that I’ve learned from all that, which can guide us all now:
First, think about now, and a generation from now. Mothers don’t get to choose between now or later. Raising two teenagers during a raging pandemic, my brain is always time traveling. In the present day, I strategize about how to protect their immediate health and safety. With an eye on the future, I ensure they remain on track at school and connected to friends and family to support their life-long wellbeing.
Everyone needs this dual perspective now. We must respond to crises today while laying the groundwork for a better future.
When hurricanes ravaged Central America in November, Indigenous women there sprang into action, distributing food and medical supplies to those who lost their homes in the storms. But they didn’t stop there. They used that process of aid delivery to strengthen the community for the long-term. Right now, they are leveraging their credibility as first responders to bring their communities’ demands to local governments.
That’s the approach to take here at home as we fight to recover from the pandemic. We must move quickly to save lives, especially among communities that have long been denied rights and resources and are bearing the brunt of the disease. But our responses must also confront the broken structures that made people so vulnerable to begin with — like economic exploitation and racial discrimination — and demand policy action to ensure everyone has what they need to thrive.
Second, crises transcend borders — and solutions must too. When we think like a mother, we tap into an almost limitless capacity to care for others and to put the needs of the most vulnerable first. But don’t confuse this approach with charity. In an interconnected world, standing with others is also how we protect ourselves.
Today’s biggest challenges spill across borders. Whether it’s the spread of disease, the spewing of greenhouse gases that trigger flooding and wildfires, or the unravelling of US democracy, what feels far away one day can endanger my child the next. As these crises spiral, I’m struck by the futility of each of us only taking care of our own. The true path to health and security weaves across communities and continents and is grounded in collaboration.
In a society like ours that prizes individualism, we sometimes have to look outside the mainstream for good examples of solidarity. The disabled peoples’ organizations and LGBTQIA groups that I work with offer models. They’ve cultivated tight-knit communities that center interdependence. The strongest of these networks reach across lines of identity and nationality to provide for people’s needs and protect human rights for all.
What would it look like if the next phase of our pandemic response reflected that reality of interconnection across borders? For one thing, policymakers would understand that we need to stick together. As the vaccine rollout gets underway, we would reject nationalistic impulses that hoard this medical breakthrough for the richest countries and insist on a truly international distribution to keep all people healthy, no matter where they live. Policymakers would center the voices of people who have been hardest hit by this pandemic and target relief efforts, here at home and globally, to meet those needs.
Third, value care — and caregivers. The fragile networks that so many mothers cobble together to provide essential care — including school, babysitters, daycare providers, and home healthcare aides — collapsed amid the successive waves of COVID-19. Mothering is essential to our survival, yet caregiving is marginalized and devalued.
Women, especially women of color and immigrant women, comprise the majority of nurses, teachers, child care workers, and domestic workers. Over the last year, here in the US and around the world, they were our frontline against COVID-19, sometimes the difference between life and death.
This is our moment to ensure that the caregivers so essential to our health and economy are fully valued and seen. Surviving the next pandemic means enacting long-needed policies now, like universal health care, child care, and parental leave here at home, along with robust resourcing for international aid and health systems worldwide.
And finally, understand and embrace that change is the one constant. When our children get frustrated with change, we do more than cheer them up in the moment. We help them build inner resources to gain perspective, adapt, and develop wisdom and grit to navigate the many unknowns they’ll face in the future.
For example, the smallholder women farmers I’ve met are experts at making ecosystems more resilient, even as they sustain communities using those natural resources. When these farmers face a poor harvest, they think systemically about how to nourish the soil and shore up the waterways. They know that if the land is fundamentally strong and healthy, it will be easier to bounce back from an unforeseen flood or an unexpectedly long dry season.
Similarly, we need to treat the pandemic not as a one-time emergency that will soon be over and done with, but as a valuable wake-up call about the resilience we need to build. Our country’s failed disaster response must be a rallying cry to build capacity, collective resolve, and more just policies so that the next major problem we face does not become a catastrophe, but rather an opportunity to prevail together
Let’s make sure “build back better” doesn’t become an empty slogan. The ultimate cure for COVID-19 and for so many of the obstacles we face is thinking like a mother.
Yifat Susskind is executive director of MADRE, a human rights organization that partners with women’s groups facing war and disaster worldwide.