Expert’s commentary: Moving ahead from COVID-19

András Volom, President of V4SDG – Visegrad for Sustainability, an organisation working on integrating sustainability cooperation in the V4.

The recent Coronavirus outbreak took all governments by surprise. No one was prepared for a crisis of this kind and scale. In Central Eastern Europe, we held our ground well by resisting the temptation of understating the challenge and taking crucial action in time. But next time this will not cut it.

 

 

 

In the era of climate change and unsustainability, the world is turning less predictable. COVID-19 was just a foretaste of what is coming. It can be another outbreak, a natural disaster that puts millions on the move or the spontaneous eruption of disenfranchisement rage breeding under the surface. One thing is certain, they will hit us quick and hard to leave us puzzled by their complexity.

Because these are not just environmental, economic or social matters. They are all three, intertwined, all the time.

We were confronted by this reality when we realised that lockdowns designed to protect citizens will severely hurt our economies, that the outbreak might have been a result of tampering with wildlife or that saving our economies may cost some their hard-earned livelihoods, others the European Green Deal. Trade-offs, zero-sum games and damage control. Those were the first things on our mind, not how we could rearrange the dots to turn this to our advantage. I am not claiming all losses could be prevented in crises, but we must do better when crises are becoming the norm not the exception.

What holds us back is our failure to understand that we can only tackle them through governance that embraces complexity and flexibility instead of the rigid compartmentalisation of issues. Setting up bodies that addressed the pandemic from multiple angles was a good start. But it must be acknowledged that we will continue to need the comprehensive approach of these bodies after the outbreak subsides, and not only at the highest level.

We should take sustainability governance as the blueprint, for it offers precisely what we need: a systems-based approach, promoting both vertical and horizontal integration, connecting environmental, economic and social considerations in a complex but coherent manner. Make officials and decision-makers understand and buy into this and we can start doing away with turf wars, isolated solutions and slow reaction time for good. If we succeed, we will see the horizon of ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions opening, which is exactly what we need when the world is entering a cycle of permanent turmoil.

Of course, the responsibility does not fall on the political sector exclusively. Business, civil society and academia must also start acknowledging that the only way we win is by sharing and working together closer than before. While short-term objectives may diverge, we are in the same boat for the long run. If we stay caught up in internal confrontation – in the blink of an eye – we could be put out of business by countries like China, which for all their other disadvantages do a better job at making their actors cooperate for common interests.

I would like to think that in Central Eastern Europe we understand that well. History taught us time and again that when we put individualistic opportunism behind us, we are capable of accomplishing great things. So, let us take this opportunity to rethink our structures and adopt sustainability governance. Embrace the complexity of dealing with environmental, social and economic aspects in fusion and integrate actors to enable their rise to the challenge. That is how we can keep rearranging the dots to meet arising crises with resilience.

If we will not, the next lesson we learn will be how it feels to fall when the top is within reach.

 

András Volom is the President of V4SDG – Visegrad for Sustainability, an organisation working on integrating sustainability cooperation in the V4. Recently, V4SDG launched an online series making connections between the environmental, social and economic challenges of COVID-19. (Link: https://www.facebook.com/events/289784938713037/)