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Could the coronavirus crisis lead to increased citizen empowerment?

Could the coronavirus crisis lead to increased citizen empowerment?

Written by Svetlana Ivanova

Created on: 21 Jun 2020 | Updated on: 22 Jun 2020

News category: "News from around the world"

The key to halting the spread of the virus is responsible behavior and citizen empowerment. But to achieve this, people must trust science, the government, and media. Could the crisis be an opportunity to rebuild this trust?

“As systems collapse, people rise” says the author of Theory U, Otto Scharmer, in his recent article, where he reflects on the changes brought about by the COVID 19 crisis. At the same time, the historian Yuval Noah Harari writes in his article about the world after coronavirus, “A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population”. These two articles complement each other: the first one talks about communities that have organized themselves from the bottom up, and the second one discusses how governments should encourage and guide the empowerment of citizens rather than using totalitarian surveillance methods. 

As Yuval Noah Harari points out, the latter brings the risk of a dangerous shift from “over the skin” to “under the skin” surveillance. In the first case, government surveillance traces people’s movements and activities, but in the second case, this surveillance goes much deeper, tracing parameters of the state of the body (temperature, blood pressure and heart-rate), which can then provide a snapshot of people’s emotional reactions. Introduced to protect people from the spread of the pandemic, there is a risk that these methods will continue to be used after the crisis is over, to control citizens and for other nefarious purposes.

Harsh measures with punishments are less effective in fighting the spread of the virus than empowering citizens. This can be done by increasing their awareness and scientific understanding, and asking them to take care of themselves and others, particularly more vulnerable groups, such as the elderly. To achieve this, citizens need to trust science, public authorities and the media. Since this trust has been significantly damaged in recent years, governments should devote all their efforts to rebuilding it. As Yuval Noah Harari has noted, normally this process would take years, but we are not living in ordinary times. 

The key is to build civic responsibility along with true citizen empowerment. Otto Scharmer underlines that collective action is a superpower that has the capacity to flatten the curve of COVID-19. While a response by public authorities is necessary, it is collective action that really changes the situation, supported by “a timely and proactive government response”. People have the power to flatten the curve by realizing that their behavior, such as social distancing or wearing a mask, “contributes to the flattening of the curve”. This is responsible behavior – when wearing the mask is not just about you, but about protecting the elderly lady that lives nearby. 

Responsible behavior and empowered citizens could also lead to a more sustainable society. Top-down approaches are not enough to make this transition; what we need is collective action, with citizens demanding sustainable and responsible behavior from the companies they buy from, leading to qualitative changes in the way these companies design and produce new products. We can encourage the development of sustainable, socially just, people-centered solutions by listening to citizens’ needs and re-establishing trust between citizens and the governments and companies that work for them. 

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