Looking Forward At Last
There was another step along the road towards a more normal existence this week, when I was able to have the first discussion in months with my senior colleagues about our strategic planning for the future. Almost everything we have done since March has been short-term, with the need to close the school building and switch to remote learning, then the need to adjust the workings of the systems as we reflected on their strengths and weaknesses. Just as everything had settled down, there came the need to work out the logistics of reopening the building and to accommodate increasing numbers of pupils, while at the same time ensuring that those still at home were provided for. If ever there was a time when the urgent got in the way of the important, this was it.
There will be many wider lessons to learn from the pandemic, but an obvious one will surely be the need to maintain healthier lifestyles. The enquiries into what has happened, and why, are likely to drag on for years, but I would be willing to place a decent sized wager that one of the findings will be that we need to do more to educate people about the importance of diet, exercise and moderation, which is certainly an area where we can provide greater focus in school.
Not for the first time, I am reminded of Yuval Noah Harari’s observations in Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, when he wrote (in 2015) that after spending most of our existence on the planet battling the three great enemies of famine, plague and war, for the first time in history more people are dying from eating too much than from eating too little, from old age than from infectious diseases, from suicide than being killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.
Although it already looks out of date, like everything written before the start of 2020, he went on to say that in the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack. In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030. In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, while obesity killed 3 million.
He added that in ancient agricultural societies violence caused about 15 per cent of all deaths, but during the twentieth century violence caused only 5 per cent of deaths, and in the early twenty-first century it is responsible for about 1 per cent of global mortality. In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them due to human violence (1.1%), with war accounting for 120,000 people and crime 500,000. In contrast, 1.5 million died of diabetes, making the point that sugar is now more dangerous to us than gunpowder. The number of deaths from Covid-19 will undoubtedly rise further in the coming months, but at the time of writing this piece the figure is below half a million.
The causes of the so-called ‘underlying health conditions’ that we have heard so much about in recent weeks will be many and varied, with most of them likely to be beyond people’s control. It is all very well to talk about healthier lifestyles, but many people have limited choices in what is available to them, for example with regard to poverty. Just a quick glance at the statistics for deaths from Covid-19 in London tells a predictable story that the worst hit boroughs were Newham, Brent and Hackney. The table I looked at did not show the least affected borough, but you do not have to be a rocket scientist to guess it is Richmond.
I am currently reading Simon Sinek’s latest book, The Infinite Game, which is feeling a bit like an infinite read at the moment, with the author trying to make a reasonable but simple idea go a very long way. The blurb on the back cover probably tells you all you need to know: ‘We cannot choose the game. We cannot choose the rules. We can only choose how we play.’ Indeed. To cut a long story short, Sinek’s point is that we will all be better off if we take a long-term view and look to create something that endures rather than something to meet someone else’s short-term target. The creative musician Stephen Nachmanovitch put it rather better when he said, ‘If we operate with a belief in long sweeps of time, we build cathedrals; if we operate from fiscal quarter to fiscal quarter, we build ugly shopping malls.’
The best point that Sinek has made so far is about the American constitution, which he rightly highlights as an example of a lasting achievement, while still a work in progress. Most people may not know much about its details, but they will be aware of its spirit and some of its key sentiments, for example: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
Despite the progress over the years, for example with the abolition of slavery and progress towards greater equality for women, events in America since the death of George Floyd have shown once again how far their society remains from any genuine sense of equality. We have little to be proud about here either, but we may increasingly now be looking at a significant turning point on the road to a better world. We saw before the pandemic that there is at last, and hopefully not too late, genuine pressure to address climate change, and it looks like there is gathering momentum for real and lasting change with regard to racism.
There have been countless times over the years where history has reached a turning point and has not turned, so it will be interesting to see whether this is genuinely a point of inflection, as Joe Biden put it this week, or whether it is yet another opportunity that ends up being missed, particularly when the conditions for change created by the pandemic crisis pass, and when those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo are more able to exert an authority that is usually deployed to resist significant improvements in the lives of those sections of society beyond their own.