By Dr Ivana Milojević
Dr. Milojević shared this blog post with us, and gave us permission to post it on BI. It was originally posted on the Journal of Future Studies Blog .
Dr. Ivana Milojević is a researcher, writer and educator with a trans-disciplinary professional background in sociology, education, gender, peace and futures studies and Director of Metafuture. She has held professorships at several universities and is currently focused on conducting research, delivering speeches and facilitating workshops for governmental and academic institutions, international associations, and non-governmental organizations. Dr. Milojević can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org The author would like to thank Charmaine Sevil for her creativity on the images in this article. Charmaine Sevil is a futures designer and her website is www.sevilco.com.au
“The challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic is that …[a]t times such as these, our stress levels become higher and our difficult emotions seem to surface more readily. This not only leads to more conflicts, it leads to more unresolved conflicts.”[i]
“As a rise in family violence due to the coronavirus crisis is set to strain an already critically overstretched social support system, some abusers are reportedly using COVID-19 as a psychological weapon.”[ii]
“We could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months … the world is not only facing “a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe.”[iii]
“As the coronavirus sweeps the world, it hits the poor much harder than the better off. One consequence will be social unrest, even revolutions.”[vi]
“Covid-19 is fuelling conflict: New ways will be needed to make peace.”[vii]
The headlines above suggest the critical importance of enhancing our conflict resolution capacities. As COVID-19 races around the world, we can anticipate further increases in conflicts. Indeed, psychologists and humanitarian organizations (such as WHO, the Red Cross, Beyond Blue) have already posted some helpful guidelines as to how to defuse intra- and inter-personal conflicts. Developing mental resilience along these recommendations is critical because it is our response to the pandemic rather than the virus itself that will cause conflicts. And while, at this stage, we cannot fully control the virus’s spread and its impact on the economy, there are still actions we can do to minimize conflict. Even in situations of protracted social conflict, the outbreak is opening up a variety of ‘new and unexpected scenarios’, making a whole range of strategies, impossible before the pandemic, possible today (Garrigues, 2020).
Exploring our options for the futures of conflict is linked to how and why conflicts arise in the first place. However, the causes and mechanisms of conflict differ. There are several specific areas over which conflicts tend to arise. They include: information, resources, relationships, structures, and values. Furthermore, there is intrapersonal/inner conflict. Negative economic, social, and health impacts of the 2020 pandemic are already expected to be huge.[viii][ix] Fuelling existing and emerging conflicts will only make matters worse. Epidemics and pandemics have historically been known to change the course of history. At times, the change was positive, for example: improvement in hygiene practices, redistribution of wealth, improved individual and social relationships in the aftermath, and even “the end of chattel slavery” (Snowden, 2020) in some parts of the world. How damaged, or, alternatively, how well we come out of this one, will depend on many factors, including how we negotiate numerous conflicts ahead. Smart and workable strategies to minimise, manage and even transform the conflict for the better, will significantly influence our future lives and worlds.
To start with, conflicts often arise in relation to insufficient information. Addressing conflicts about information is one of the easiest ways to prevent and ease the conflict. Policy makers and government agencies, reputable media, ethical individuals, organisations, and various experts all have a role to play in providing timely, accurate, and transparent information. This should help with finding the right balance between underestimating (‘I/we will certainly not get it’) and overestimating (‘we are all doomed’) the threat from the virus. Gathering facts and clarifying confusion makes a significant contribution to the easing of rising tensions – tensions that commonly bring fear, superstition, magical thinking, and conspiracy ideation into the open. This is always important, but it is especially critical nowadays (i.e. with the prevalence of ‘false/fake news’ and the ‘doubling-down’ of ideological positions), to rely on scientific, evidence-based and reputable sources of information. Governments, social media, and all of us can make a positive contribution in that regard. It can also be helpful to have a guiding metaphor or tagline to enable a focused strategy. For example, a helpful saying to address conflict related to insufficient or false information could be: ‘Accurate information, timely shared’ or ‘Information Hygiene’.
Another common source of conflict is the scarcity of resources. We have seen ‘the battle over respirators’ increasingly becoming a source of international conflicts, corruption, and weakening previously friendly ties between nations (e.g. the US versus Germany or France and Germany versus Italy). At the community level, the police needed to intervene when ‘battles over toilet paper rolls’ in supermarkets manifested in physical violence.
Three key developments work in relation to conflicts over scarce resources. First, conflict decreases when the need for the resources dissipates, or individuals anticipate that there is no restriction, i.e. there are positive expectations of the future. This will likely happen if the need for respirators and other necessities – either due to virus containment or prevention/the invention of a cure or even fair rationing – diminishes. The race to find a workable vaccine and/or cure is already occurring and should be further encouraged and enabled. Fair rationing is currently ad-hoc, dependent on the goodwill of businesses and sporadic government measures. These measures should be made systemic, ongoing, and predictable. Uncertainty feeds into the existing and creates new conflicts. As much as possible, uncertainty should be reduced.
Another common strategy is to provide more of the resources that are currently scarce. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic that means producing more respirators and other necessities (i.e. products needed for hygiene and protection such as disinfectants, masks, and so on). As is already happening in some places (i.e. distillers producing hand sanitizers or clothing factories producing face masks) this means reevaluating current production priorities and/or repurposing existing production capacities. Local/national/global bodies coordinating such efforts could become invaluable.
The third strategy focuses on the fair sharing and allocation of resources. We usually deal with the lack of resources better than we do with uncertainty or (real or perceived) injustice in how resources are distributed. Clear and fair rules based on community needs and legal and ethical frameworks would go a long way in making this type of conflict dissipate. These rules and strategies should focus on people’s needs rather than wants; i.e. sharing what is needed, as opposed to free-market principles that enable panic buying.
A helpful guiding metaphor or saying for addressing conflicts related to the scarcity of resources could be: ‘There is enough for all – solidarity’ or ‘equitable/fair sharing’.
Yet another common source of conflict is over relationships. We are already witnessing considerable damage done to interpersonal relationships because of people’s tendency to overreact and/or become more selfish when fear and panic strike. Also dangerous is the ‘blame game’ – accusations as to who has or may contract the virus from whom, who is (ir)responsible and who is excessively cautious/‘over the top’, who has done something similarly irresponsible in the past, and so on. These tensions will introduce some destructive elements to the existing differences between people and communities which would otherwise not cause many problems. Alternatively, if problems do arise due to these differences, they would (in calmer times) find relatively easy solutions. So what we all need to watch for is the possibility of the breakdown of personal relationships, and do our best to avoid stereotyping and scapegoating – both are very common practices amongst humans, especially during times of stress. The best antidote here is to not ‘other’ individuals and communities, but to turn our thinking around – from judgment and exclusionary/excessive self-focus to a compassionate view and concern for others. That is, other people can be seen as very similar to me/us, with the same fears, concerns and needs. This mental practice helps avoid ‘the worse of humanity’ which often manifests during times of conflict.
A helpful guiding metaphor for addressing conflicts related to relationships could be: ‘Everyone is me’ or ‘We are all in this together’.
Conflicts about structure are related to access to power or resources, as well as to different amounts of respect and decision-making authority that are given to groups and individuals (Kraybill, 2001). We have created a very unequal world, where structural injustices determine that the well-being and even lives of certain groups of people are endangered. During crisis situations, the system ensures that those ‘on the top’ have higher chances of survival and a higher quality of life. Those at ‘the bottom’ face the opposite. For example, all over the world, the system of patriarchy ensures that women and children in situations of domestic violence will suffer violent conflict and abuse even more during the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, reports about the increased rate of domestic violence during lockdowns and other restrictive measures are multiplying (e.g. OHCHR, Graham-Harrison et al. 2020, Murray & Young, 2020, Kelly, 2020). As economically difficult and stressful situations are known to increase this type of violence, systemic countermeasures are absolutely necessary. Other protective measures are also needed for millions of people who are currently losing their jobs and incomes, those already unemployed and homeless, refugees and low-income foreign workers. Structural measures are needed to address the possibility of being evicted, deported or not being able to afford the basics – for this reason welfare payments, universal basic income or aid need to be enhanced. If these measures are not put in place, we could expect a rise in violent conflict, criminality and the number of preventable deaths. Ideally, the Covid-19 pandemic can provide an opportunity to address the world’s unequal systems and structures and create more equitable and fair societies. It is also an opportunity to provide much-needed support to the struggling health sector and health workers. In place of the ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘dog eats dog’ the guiding metaphor could be ‘global fairness’, ‘equitable societies – better for all’ or ‘flattening the inequity curve’.
Conflicts over relationships and structure can be difficult to resolve due to our common insular and myopic views based on short-term thinking. Even harder is resolving conflicts involving values. For example, the rush to create a workable vaccine may be motivated by values which focus on profit or national interest (such as the US president’s offer to purchase exclusive access to coronavirus vaccine being developed by a German company) versus those that focus on altruism and the long-term greater good. Yet another value position is based on certain religious beliefs (‘God decides what happens’) versus values based on rational/secular beliefs (‘Humans are in charge’). Values and beliefs are commonly formed based on certain previous life experiences or ideological and faith positions. We can expect a shift in personal values (i.e. ‘It is important to shake peoples’ hands when we first meet them’ towards ‘social-distancing’) based on new experiences, whereas others might solidify even further (i.e. various faith positions). For example, the anti-vaxxer position is unlikely to shift, even if a reliable vaccine becomes available and the illness caused by the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) becomes more visible in their community. Discourses about ‘Big Pharma’, ‘natural’ immunity and the ‘benefits’ of the virus eliminating the old or sick members of the community will most likely continue acting as a cognitive ‘shield’ that prevents personal values and beliefs from being undermined by external reality. The best strategy so far invented here is to allocate a separate sphere of influence for each set of values – rational/secular/evidence-based/scientific to the realm of the state and government and policy-making vis-à-vis religious beliefs to the realm of the spiritual and psychological. Moreover, there will be an ongoing discussion in relation to privacy issues and individual freedom vis-à-vis public safety. Individualistic and liberal communities and societies will struggle more with the coming restrictions than collectivist and rules-based authoritarian societies. The helpful guiding metaphor will thus depend on the context: i.e. ‘In Government/Our Leaders (or Scientists and Health Workers) We Trust’ or ‘Community Mobilizes’.
Certainly, the inner, intrapersonal conflict will also skyrocket. ‘Should I exercise in a closed area?’, ‘Should I go visit such and such?’, ‘Should I travel to XYZ?’, ‘How much food should I stock up on?’, ‘Do I have enough toilet paper?’, ‘How long will this last?’, ‘How will I make ends meet?, ‘Is XYZ financial decision smart or stupid?’, ‘What will happen to the others if I get sick’, ‘How will I cope if I get ill?’, etc. The main conflict will be between our ‘rational’ self and our ‘fearful/panicky’ one, as well as between our ‘inner extrovert’ and ‘inner introvert’. The best strategy so far invented in this regard is to practice ‘watching one’s own thoughts’ (i.e. mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, critical thinking) and to attempt to distance ourselves a bit from them. Once we gain that small distance, we can then try to investigate what each sub-personality has to offer. Perhaps some sort of balance between rationality and fear should inform our actions? For example, we can take some precautions such as washing our hands and channel our fearful self (subpersonality) into vigilance over that specific set of actions related to personal hygiene. Another specific set of actions we can take based on our fearful self is to be vigilant about sources of information and double-check whether they are coming from reputable sources – information hygiene. On the other hand, our rational self (sub-personality) can assist us in preventing overreactions and making rash decisions based on emotions. Striking a balance between the two will, once again, go a long way in addressing our inner conflicts. Thus, one may choose to see themselves as assets rather than imaging these selves as opposing sides in a battlefield.
Another common inner conflict is between ‘control’ and ‘letting go’. Once again, balancing insights from these different types of mental processes is critical. The key is to direct time and energy towards things we can control, such as how to qualitatively organize one’s time during self-isolation or which recommendations to follow and to let go of things we cannot, such as other people’s behavior or other external factors.
Indeed, refocusing our attention is critical to minimizing personal anxiety and interpersonal conflict. So instead of overly focusing on ‘I do not want to die,’ ‘I do not want [somebody close to me]to die’, or ‘I will not be able to cope if I [or somebody close to me]get sick’ (thoughts possibly at the back of most people’s minds), the focus could be on ‘How can I help?’, ‘What is and is not in my sphere of influence?’, ‘How can I best ‘let go’ of things I cannot control?’, or ‘What is the wisest way for me to contribute?’. Psychologists commonly recommend strengthening self-care in times of crisis. This includes both behavioral (i.e. sufficient sleep, good food, some safe exercise, relaxation, etc.) and psychological responses (i.e. being aware of one’s own thinking and behavior and adjusting these patterns if needed). Spiritual and religious practices have been shown to be beneficial in crises as well (i.e. ‘Let go and let God’), providing they do not cause the erroneous application of ‘faith-based solutions’ in the material world, where fact-based solutions are necessary. The best way forward is: 1. Choosing the thoughts and actions that minimize the possibility of violence arising now and in the future, and 2. Using existing conflicts to create something new, a better future.
The guiding metaphors could be: ‘The Kindness (to oneself and others) Pandemic’ or ‘Self-Others care’.
EMERGENCE: CREATING INNER AND OUTER BALANCE
Finally, conflict theorists also commonly mention that every conflict can become a golden opportunity to create something new. For example, perhaps we could use this time to pause and reevaluate some personal values and practices (i.e. from ‘big life questions’ such as: ‘how should I live my life knowing that I can die unexpectedly and suddenly’, to smaller questions such as: ‘how should I organize my daily activities during this forced pause’, or, ‘how could I best be of service to others’)?
We can also inquire into solutions that are needed to improve existing social structures, systems and institutions. Perhaps the coronavirus and other environmental changes could help us rethink the human-nature relationship so that this relationship is also improved? Indeed, there is an opportunity to generate a strong global response to the climate crisis, and out of the “ashes of the corona crisis [create]something new” (Watts, 2020). Or, given the difficulties nations and states face to solve global problems, perhaps we could investigate what type of global and, alternatively, communal/regional/local institutions we should create or enhance?
We are already seeing efforts to coordinate global health efforts, even transform existing economic and social structures as well as the worldview behind them. For example, a joint statement of the G20 leaders framed the Covid-19 pandemic as a ‘powerful reminder of our inter-connectedness and vulnerabilities’ (G20, 2020). Because ‘the virus respects no borders’ they committed to ‘presenting a united front against this common threat’ (ibid.). Their call for action should be replicated as a springboard for a host of other problems – from climate change to global inequality – conflicts around Covid-19 thus truly becoming an opportunity to create something substantially better for the future. In their words, what is needed is ‘a transparent, robust, coordinated, large-scale and science-based global response in the spirit of solidarity’ (ibid.). Beyond dealing with this pandemic, there is much work left to be done. In addition to addressing pandemics, a global campaign for ‘a new just world economic system, where all nations work for the benefit of the other in a win-win fashion’ is also needed – ‘we need to change our outlook, or we [humans]will perish’ (Askary, 2020). Indeed, countless individuals and organizations have already been working on workable solutions towards such a transition for decades.
And yet, we do live in an imbalanced nation-based geopolitical system. We are in the middle of numerous conflicts, inner and outer. Some entrenched values and worldviews are behind structures and systems that reward inequity and injustice. Alternatives are all around us, though they remain marginalized. Balancing acts are never easy. Yet, depending on how skilled we are or become in the process of minimizing versus enhancing thoughts and behavior that give rise to conflict, we can influence the development of more or less peaceful futures. Indeed, with each and every action we take these days, we already do so. Hope remains that we can all use this illness as a way to make ourselves, others, and the planet healthier. The new guiding metaphor could be: ‘A different, better world and the best possible selves are possible’.