Let this be a lesson: What have we learned from 18 months of pandemic?

Boris Johnson urged G7 leaders to take some lessons from the pandemic but what exactly have we learned, asks Robert MacDonald

Jun 14, 2021, updated Jun 15, 2021
Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a press conference on the final day of the G7 summit in Cornwall.  Ben Stansall/PA Wire

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a press conference on the final day of the G7 summit in Cornwall. Ben Stansall/PA Wire

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson opened the just-finished G7 summit in Cornwall with a speech saying the world’s richest countries must learn lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to make sure we don’t repeat some of the errors that we have made in the course of the last 18 months or so,” he told the leaders of the world’s biggest economies.

He wasn’t more specific, which is fair enough – this was an opening address, not a business plan – but it raises the question, what lessons have we actually learned from the pandemic?

Not even specialists in the same field agree on lessons learned or errors made.

Take human resources.

One school of thought runs along the lines of cometh the pandemic cometh the human resources expert.

“Never has the role of an HR professional been so well respected and, indeed, highly sought after,” according to Ruth Cornish, co-founder and director of British-based, HRi, a membership organisation of independent HR consultants.

“For all the tragedy the pandemic has brought (and indeed continues to bring), the HR industry has grasped the opportunity to prove its worth and claim its long-deserved place at the leadership table,” Cornish wrote in the industry publication, The HR Director in January.

“HR has not just navigated businesses through to the calmer waters we can see ahead, but the industry has played a pivotal role in business transformation too.”

Others disagree, among them, Belinda Parmar, CEO of The Empathy Business, “a consultancy changing the world of work through the science of empathy”.

“While Human Resources has been on life support for years, COVID-19 has sounded its death knell,” she writes in an article published by the World Economic Forum.

“Less than 20 per cent of us want work to return to how it was. According to Gallup (polls), even prior to COVID-19, only one-in-10 of us were actually engaged in our jobs.”

“While not all occupational malaise can be laid at HR’s doorstep, one has to ask the question: what would employees miss if the HR department disappeared tomorrow? Sadly, the answer is not much.”

What we need, according to Parmar, is, naturally enough, more empathy and more focus on tracking and managing people’s emotions.

She also suggests we change HR’s name to the “Connections Team” because “language changes behaviour, and connections are vital to a people function, building connections and becoming the social glue of the team, whether virtual or physical.”

Whatever happened to the personnel department?

One area of relative agreement, among international commentors at least – from Forbes and The New York Times to business consultants McKinsey – is that Australia has plenty of lessons for the rest of the world when it comes to grappling with COVID-19.

Forbes contributor William A. Haseltine writing in March, praised Australia’s ability to “act quickly and decisively based on incoming data”.

He also highlighted the country’s success at bringing bipartisan unity to the development of a response to the pandemic and also the population’s underlying trust in government.

“There is always a baseline level of trust in the government due to the fundamental social support all citizens receive,” Haseltine wrote.

“Australians would never think twice about the price tag associated with a Covid-19 test or avoid the emergency room due to fear of bankruptcy.”

McKinsey, in a report published in December,. also highlighted Australia’s success in working collaboratively – across party lines and state boundaries and between the public and private sectors.

“Across the cabinet table and the boardroom, Australia saw new and pre-existing leadership teams and decision-making bodies come together in the same (virtual) room to discuss policy and procedures related to the COVID-19 crisis,” the report’s authors wrote.

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“This allowed for a single conversation, where disagreements or conflicting opinions could be resolved in real time.”

For its part, The New York Times found a lesson in that most hated of Australian responses to the pandemic – the snap lockdown.

“One case, total lockdown: Australia’s lessons for a pandemic world” ran the headline in a New York Times story from February this year about the latest shutdown, this one in Perth.

“The speed and severity of the response may be unthinkable to people in the United States or Europe, where far larger outbreaks have often been met with half measures, but to Australians it looks familiar,” the story said, before praising our stoicism.

“Ask Australians about the approach, and they might just shrug.

“Instead of loneliness and grief or outcries over impingements on their freedom, they’ve gotten used to a COVID routine of short-term pain for collective gain.”

And that’s perhaps the biggest  lesson on all so far from the pandemic, that in spite of the daily political argby bargy and point scoring, Australia’s social  fabric has held firm.








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