The impact of 2020 on human values

©Arab News

As our world is changing, are our values changing too? (Shutterstock)
As our world is changing, are our values changing too? (Shutterstock)

2020 is a year that will feature heavily in future history books, and for many reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us, in one way or another. It has acted as an accelerator on issues that were already bubbling beneath the surface of our lives. As it emerged, an urgent question loomed large: As our world is changing, are our values changing too?

A seismic economic recession, worldwide protests for racial equality and justice, more extreme climate temperatures, a new virtual reality of working from home — we have had to adapt to all these in less than nine months. And so we have had to rethink fundamentally the way we live, the way we do things and our priorities. Through all of this, our values have also shifted.

If 2020 were a mirror, the forces acting on it have chipped, scratched and cracked its surface. Now, as we look into the mirror of 2020, we see a changed reflection staring back. When something as fundamental as who we are and what we are able to do has altered, it is natural that the value outcomes we strive for should also reflect our times.

But let’s make this explicit: COVID-19 did not do this to us. It simply made manifest what was previously latent. It is not unique in the history of pandemics. What is unique is how it has marked the dawn of a new world where technology and humanity are now more closely aligned and integrated than ever before. The real kicker for COVID-19 was its refusal to go away. Though it will, in time, come under control when a scientifically approved vaccine is widely available, by not “going away” it has exposed a largely unsustainable set of lifestyles that we were too accustomed to. Our shortfalls were exposed — as an international community and as individuals who had become dependent on so many interrelated pieces of a global jigsaw puzzle.

We believe that humans can do better if we find a way of harnessing our innovation, ingenuity and creativity

Dimah Al-Sheikh

We have been forced to re-examine ourselves, our lives and our systems at a deeper level. When we give more attention to things at a more analytical level, we are able to look past the things we think that we want. We are able to look beneath the surface and understand, on a more basic level, the beliefs, assumptions and behaviors that color our lives. At the bottom of this introspective dive, we can see more clearly our underlying values — collectively and individually.

During V20’s search for the “value of our values” it has been striking that 2020 has exposed a deep and unarticulated conflict between two values outcomes which we would all agree are universally desirable.

Take for instance the conflict that has been dubbed by economists as “the trade-off” — the conflict between lives and livelihoods. No one would argue that economic prosperity and public health are undesirable value outcomes, on any metric. Yet 2020 has set these two on a collision course. It’s not clear that either will come out of it well as we cannot have one without damaging to the other.

Yet we cannot accept this as a resolution. Herein lies a core motivation for the formation of the Values 20 Group. We believe in the potential of humanity. We believe that humans can do better if we find a way of harnessing our innovation, ingenuity and creativity to come up with solutions to our problems that don’t prefer one value outcome at the expense of another.

How do we do this? We must articulate a better understanding of why these values, among many others, have come into conflict now, why they existed in the first place, whether we need such an emphasis on them in the future, and how we can resolve conflicts in the systems that our growth and productivity has become reliant upon.

Is there a case for saying that economic prosperity at the expense of all else, including more human-centric value outcomes, is not what we should pursue when we get a chance to reboot the way we produce, manufacture and export goods? Or should we be focusing more on the human capital at the center of the world’s economic growth? What value outcomes are integral to making that a reality?

These are among the questions that the Values 20 non-official engagement group is tackling, debating, researching and molding into policy recommendations that we hope will be presented to the G20 leaders.

It aims at enshrining a new kind of thinking at the heart of policy-making in the years ahead — one that will endeavour to exalt and elevate a common humanity that, in times of crisis, we stick together. It has never been more important that we do so.

• Dimah Al-Sheikh is chair of the new Values 20 (V20) group.

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