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COVID-19 lesson: Global unity starts with relationships

Vivek Murthy

by Vivek Murthy

Filed under Coronavirus / Climate Emergency / Leadership case studies

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Dr Vivek Murthy co-chaired President Biden-elect’s COVID-19 Advisory Board. He is the nominee for US Surgeon General. He discusses the key lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. He says our welfare – and that of our planet - depends on building strong relationships. Then, we can work together at all levels to solve problems.

These remarks were made at the public web-conversation, Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation, hosted by Matthew Taylor, Chief executive of Royal Society of Arts on February 18 2021.

This pandemic has up ended so many of our lives. The entire world. It’s had profound impacts on the economy, and most of all, on our health, given how many of us have lost loved ones, to this disease.

Just two weeks ago, I lost an uncle to COVID-19, our sixth relative who passed away from COVID. I’m just one of many people who has lost people they care about.

I do think that there are some important lessons from COVID.

Many them have to do with our health care and public health system; how we need to be better prepared for pandemics, how we need to invest in a stronger public health infrastructure, how we need to build a health care system that is more integrated with public health that focuses on prevention and that makes affordable, accessible, high quality care available to everyone.

And some countries have done better at that than others. No question.

Interconnection and interdependence

I think there’s another deeper lesson from COVID. A lesson about our interconnection and our interdependence. It is very clear now that if you take the right measures on your own, if you wear a mask, if you wash your hands, if you keep distance from others, avoid small indoor gatherings, you may prevent yourself from getting COVID.

But unless we are working together to make those kind of decisions and choices easy for everyone, then schools aren’t going to re-open, workplaces aren’t going to get back up and running, our healthcare systems will continue to be overtaxed, and society essentially won’t heal.

And so, one of the lessons of COVID is we can’t respond alone. So, we have to be able to mount a unified, thoughtful response. And I mean, unity not just on a country basis, but even between countries. We need to be able to work together and put our common welfare ahead of individual choices.

Our welfare depends on one another

And to me, this really brings up the biggest point of all, which is when you look at the divisions, and the fissures, that have developed over decades in society, and that have deepened particularly our political divisions.

Those present a clear and present threat to our ability to respond not just to pandemics, but other threats we may face, whether that’s climate change, or whether it’s racism or other systemic inequalities that we’re dealing with.

And so, when I was writing my book on loneliness, I saw it is deeply connected to what was happening in the world. I see it as deeply connected to how we need to respond to COVID.

Because if we want to build a unified response to COVID, and future pandemics, we recognise that we are truly interconnected. And our welfare depends on one another.

That means that we have to strengthen our ability to act together, which means we have to be able to talk to one another. And right now, the truth is, it’s not easy for people to talk to one another, it’s much easier to get siloed.

In social media rooms where people have the exact same beliefs, you and hate the other side, whatever that other side may be. But that has real consequences on our ability to respond. And we’ve seen that as the pandemic has been politicised in many countries, especially in the United States.

So the way I come at this, though, is that you don’t build dialogue by throwing people in the same room who have different views and telling them to talk and find common ground.

Global unity starts with relationships

Rather, you build dialogue by building relationship first, because a relationship is the foundation for dialogue.

The reason we can have family members over during the holidays for a holiday dinner, and people who we may have, you know, significant disagreements with on political issues, faith issues, all kinds of issues.

But the reason we can do that, and still love them is because we have built a relationship with them. We know that they are more than their view on a single subject, we can see them and their broader humanity.

That’s what we have to come to do with one another now. Because if we want to build national and global unity that starts with the relationships, we build in our day to day lives. And as a society, we have to think about how we create more opportunities to do that.

This is actually why I think loneliness and building a more connected world is both a health issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s a national security issue. And it’s fundamentally connected to the happiness and well-being of our kids and future generations.

That’s why I think it deserves to be an area of national focus.

Vivek Murthy’s book Loneliness: Together What Happens When we Find Connection is available here.

The RSA (Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is a London-based membership organisation focussed since 1754 in finding practical solutions to social challenges. Details of their public events here.

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