How to Tackle Coronavirus in Slums

Western governments, following the example of China, have adopted broadly similar approaches to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. After initial hesitation, and once infection rates and deaths have reached sufficiently alarming levels, they have enforced country-wide lockdowns.

Lower-income countries are beginning to copy this model. Rwanda, South Africa, and India are on full lockdown; Kenya and Sudan on partial lockdown. Measures implemented by other low-income countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America grow stricter by the day.

A one-size-fits-all approach, however, risks overlooking the enormous differences between rich and poor countries with regard to living conditions, social mores, and the availability of resources and services.

In particular, the large number of low-income country residents who live in informal settlements, or slums, will be ill-served by measures that rely on the stockpiling of food, the availability of savings, the ability to work from home, and the need to keep your distance even from close relatives.

In these environments, staying at home can itself be a risk. Cramped, often poorly-ventilated dwellings housing large numbers of people are potential petri dishes for COVID-19. Queuing to use shared toilets or draw water from wells or boreholes, using crowded public transport, or simply walking past others in narrow lanes heighten the risk of exposure.

If informal settlements are locked down and their inhabitants lose access to work, food, and other essentials, there will be a risk not only of the coronavirus ravaging communities that contain large numbers of individuals who are vulnerable to its most serious effects, but of exacerbating malnutrition, increasing the risk of other diseases and plunging millions of people into – or further into – long-term poverty.

Policymakers need tailored rather than uniform approaches to tackling COVID-19 in informal settlements. Here are eight ideas for doing it differently:

1. Adapt to the context: Just as measures that work to combat COVID-19 in high-income countries will not necessarily be suitable for the developing world, so will blanket measures covering all informal settlements likely be ineffective. A Brazilian favela is very different to a slum in rural Tanzania. An informal settlement in Ouagadougou is different to a Turkish gecekondu or refugee camp.

In rural areas, for example, residents of informal settlements will be better able to implement social distancing measures to contain COVID-19 than their urban counterparts. They will be better able to grow their own food in the event of a prolonged lockdown. Residents of urban slums, on the other hand, may be protected from the virus to some extent by their relative youthfulness and their higher education levels, although vulnerable elderly residents of urban settlements may be more likely to live alone and have weaker support networks than their rural cousins.

There are many other differences between informal settlements that will affect the response to the virus. These relate to the physical environment, the climate, population size, cultural and linguistic factors, crime rates and the presence of gangs, the relationship with the state, intergenerational relationships, and so on. Policies including resource provision, educational messaging, and training and support for community leaders will only be effective if they are adapted to the characteristics of each settlement.

2. Test and tailor education messages: Educating the residents of informal settlements on how to avoid infection, what to do if infected, and how to care for the sick are critical tasks in environments where state-provided healthcare is largely or completely absent.

Education messages must be appropriate to their audience. They need to speak their language (in urban slums in particular, residents often hail from a number of different ethnic groups or countries and speak many different languages), respond to their concerns, take account of available resources, use media that slum residents use, and counter false information. To transmit messages effectively, moreover, trusted messengers must be deployed, and their buy-in secured.

While some messages – such as the value of regular handwashing – are universally appropriate (at least where people can access soap) and can be delivered immediately, others will need testing and refining over time.

For example, early messages on HIV/AIDS in Africa so alarmed people that they created enormous stigma around those suspected of having the virus. This made people more reluctant to present for testing and helped the disease to spread more quickly. During Sierra Leone’s Ebola epidemic, researchers discovered that government health workers, who in the early days had been charged with delivering prevention education, were not trusted in many informal settlements. In Sudan, myths around the coronavirus include the protective effect of mangoes, ice-cream, and previous use of chloroquine for malaria treatment, while Donald Trump’s claim that the virus was a hoax has persuaded many that they have nothing to fear.

Only research can show educators the level of existing knowledge in different populations and help them develop culturally-appropriate messages that will help combat rather than aggravate the virus. And only research can show them who is best placed to deliver resonant messages in each context and to different population groups within each context.

3. Don’t expect to eliminate risk: People living in informal settlements have much more contact with others than those who live in formal settlements – research in Delhi found they have 50% greater contact duration per day than non-slum residents. Policies that aim to eliminate COVID-19 transmission will therefore need to be so draconian that all other activities must cease, and for households that only bring in enough income each day to buy a day’s supply of food, the risks of such confinement will be impossible to bear for long.

But while mass self-isolation may be undesirable, more limited containment measures can help reduce transmission. Banning large gatherings at weddings and funerals; persuading religious leaders to postpone services, or at least to hold them outdoors or stagger them to reduce attendance; closing video halls and bars (perhaps allowing the latter to sell take-outs only); and educating people to stand as far as possible apart while queuing are obvious first steps.

Temporary measures to isolate cohorts of people – whereby individuals group themselves into the smallest possible unit that can provide each member with essential provisions and services – can also slow transmission. In Europe, the predominant cohort unit is the household, but in informal settlements it might encompass a house, a compound, a street, a block or even a district or village.

Such cohort units could assign specific dwellings for those at high risk of COVID-19 infection (a measure known as targeted quarantining), those who are infected and in need of care, and those who have to leave the unit to work. They could also develop rota systems to reduce the number of members who go out to the market or to fetch water, dispose of sewage, collect mobile payments, or use public transport.

The number of entry points to these units should be minimised – in Brazil, gangs have placed soap by public water fountains at the entrance to favelas, with signs urging those who enter to wash their hands – while outdoor areas can be assigned for limited numbers of outsiders to visit relatives inside the unit, as well as for unit meetings to be held. With larger units, such as whole villages, travel between them should be prohibited except in emergencies, while mobile food distribution points can serve those that struggle to sustain themselves. In both cases, when a member falls sick the entire unit should self-isolate for 14 days, with food, water, and sewage services provided from outside.

4. Focus resources on the vulnerable: The governments of countries that have large slum populations are generally strapped for resources. Targeting education messages, regular testing, treatment, and isolation strategies at pregnant women, the elderly (in slums, those aged over 60), and those with known or suspected chronic underlying conditions is a more realistic approach than aiming to protect the whole community from the disease.

Families with more than one room or house, too, could be encouraged to allocate a living area to high-risk household members before the virus hits, and taught to use infection control methods to prevent the entry into that area of the virus.

5. Enlist and support community leaders: Community leaders are best placed to advise on the appropriate isolation units and on the measures and constraints that might be accepted by the inhabitants of each informal settlement. This is particularly important in slums where the state has limited legitimacy and capacity.

Such figures may include local chiefs or councillors, religious leaders, medical and other professionals, businesspeople, traditional healers or youth group leaders, and will vary depending on the settlement. Most informal settlements have some form of community-based organisation or residents’ association, and the acceptability of coronavirus control measures will be greatly enhanced if they have these groups’ support.

Community leaders can play a role in disseminating education messages, identifying and isolating suspected cases, enforcing rules such as social distancing in queues and limited movement between units, and distributing protective equipment such as masks, soaps, and hand sanitisers.

They can also develop measures of their own, which may be more appropriate to the local context than broad-based policies developed by central governments. Sudan’s Neighbourhood Resistance Committees, which were instrumental in ousting the dictator Omar al-Bashir last year, have been making and distributing hand sanitisers using alcohol originally intended for use in illicit liquor. During Sierra Leone’s Ebola epidemic, groups of young men used plastic bags and rice sacks to make their own personal protective equipment for conducting safe burials.

But community groups should not be expected to go it alone. Local and national governments, NGOs, businesses, diaspora groups, and the international community must support them with materials – soap and hand sanitisers, educational posters and leaflets, testing equipment and so on; with basic services – free water, waste disposal, food provision for those unable to feed themselves, and mobile clinics to complement a slum’s existing health centres; and with training to give them the knowledge and skills they need to identify those most at risk of severe COVID-19, recognise symptoms, deliver information, and organise the care and quarantining of those who fall sick.

6. Don’t forget human rights: Coronavirus lockdowns in Rwanda and India have already seen citizens killed by the police for breaking curfews. Residents of informal settlements often have a troubled relationship with state institutions, and beating people to death for going out to buy milk is unlikely to improve matters.

If populations are to comply with COVID-19 measures, they will have to trust those who are enforcing them. Without trust, and if governments trample human rights in their efforts to contain the disease, rules will be ignored and the virus will spread more quickly.

Engaging community leaders to help implement and enforce the response to the virus will ensure that rights are upheld, while regular consultations with slum residents will apprise external actors of both their concerns and their suggestions for fairer ways of implementing policies.

7. Empower the youth: Although less vulnerable than their elders to severe coronavirus, young people in informal settlements will need support to maintain their livelihoods. Some governments, such as the state government of Uttar Pradesh in India, can afford to pay people not to work, at least in the short term. In Sudan, donations from the diaspora have been used by the Sudanese Professionals Association, a trade union, to persuade street vendors to stay at home.

Most governments in countries with large slum populations cannot afford such policies. It may be cost effective, however, to pay young people to provide services during the epidemic. Youth underemployment is rife in many slums, and young people can be recruited to deliver provisions to the sick or to self-isolating units, to police toilet and borehole queues, to assist with waste disposal and water delivery, to transmit educational messages to their peers, to impart lessons to children whose schools have shut down, and to perform many other tasks.

In this way the virus can be an opportunity to unleash the potential of young slum residents, giving them cash while the epidemic persists and much-needed capital to set up their own businesses in its wake. Their entrepreneurialism and creativity should also be rewarded – those who come up with new ways of tackling the virus and its effects should be given cash rewards. Young women, too, will be empowered by such strategies and will devise new ideas of their own for use both during and after the epidemic.

8. Don’t forget long-term challenges: For the majority of people living in informal settlements, COVID-19 will be far from the biggest health threat they have faced. It is important to continue to provide services to prevent, detect, and treat other communicable and non-communicable diseases, regardless of whether they are aggravated by COVID-19.

To reduce the burden on health services, the provision of non-essential services could be postponed until the coronavirus epidemic has subsided, while shuttered schools could be opened up to treat people with minor health issues, to deliver childhood vaccination programmes, or to attend to those with conditions that might be exacerbated by COVID-19. Opening up more healthcare delivery points will also reduce the footfall of those who may be infected with the virus (in some countries, there have been reports of crowds of people queuing outside hospitals with suspected fevers, for example), thereby reducing transmission.

At the same time, residents of informal settlements have many other long-term challenges to deal with, which risk being neglected if resources are diverted to COVID-19 control. Cutting education budgets, for example, would have serious long-term consequences – including health consequences – for slum residents. Neglecting sanitation, environmental, microfinance, and other programmes will also pose grave risks.

The coronavirus is one challenge among many for those living in the world’s informal settlements. Balancing the response to it with broader healthcare and other development priorities will be essential if their long-term resilience to such threats is to be strengthened rather than dismantled.

Peace and Pandemics: How COVID-19 will impact violence and what we can do about it

As the world prepares for and responds to the direct health impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus, those of us who work on reducing violence and preventing conflict are also bracing. The coronavirus pandemic is already producing knock-on effects for safety at the individual level, the community level, and – potentially – at the international level.

Recognizing and naming the risks we face is imperative, as is highlighting the positive steps being taken to reinforce peaceful resilience, to remind ourselves of our common humanity, and to re-invest in the international systems of cooperation that are more critical now than at any time in the past decade.

Below are six areas we should be prioritizing from a conflict and violence perspective, followed by a roadmap to help us chart a pathway forward:

Increases in domestic and intimate partner violence. Over 35% of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence, much taking place within the home, by intimate partners or family members. Isolation and quarantine requirements will force many women to remain inside with their abusers. Last month, during China’s quarantine, there were three times as many calls to police reporting domestic violence incidents than the previous year. Simultaneously, resources – shelters, outreach by social workers, law enforcement intervention – will be more limited as funds dry up, staffing tightens, and priorities shift. Women are essential voices in reinforcing peace and social cohesion. And, yet, when crisis strikes, their bodies, as the WHO has said, become battlefields.

An increase in firearms deaths. The United States dominates the global arms industry. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, sales of firearms in the US have spiked, as indicated by a 300% increase in processing of background checks. Many of these purchases are being made by first time gun owners, some of whom will have limited training on proper handling and use of a firearm. Unsecured guns in the home kill eight children every day in the US and increase likelihood of death from suicide and domestic violence. Given relaxed regulations on sales of guns overseas, a proliferation of weapons could ultimately result in more trade of firearms to countries nearby, including those already struggling with exceptionally high levels of violence such as Mexico, El Salvador, and Jamaica. More guns will make families less safe in both the short and longer term.

Increased violence resulting from lack of trust. Trust in governments is declining around the world. During the recent outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a lack of trust in governmental and international response resulted in over 300 attacks on health workers in 2019. Such incidents are not only immediately destructive, they limited the ability to fight the deadly spread of Ebola. Just when we need them most, the intentional undermining of our systems of international cooperation over the past decade has and will continue to allow conflict to take root. It is partly for this reason that there has been a 140% increase in armed conflict since the year 2000. Unsupported international systems of assistance will further undermine the ability to deliver aid and stop the spread of COVID-19 to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including the millions trapped in Northern Syria right now.

We will see an increase in human rights abuses. The lack of trust in governing institutions is partly a consequence of a rise in authoritarianism across the globe, where both civic and journalistic space are diminishing. Political leaders will use this emergency to further consolidate power. States will take action against civilians resulting in abuse of human rights and limitations on freedoms in the name of pandemic abatement. We will see further negative impacts to processes of democracy, even in places with strong democratic traditions. Elections in the UK and US have already been postponed, where we will see cries of foul play by political actors down the road.

Fear will be used to incite violence. While some will respond to the pandemic with calls for greater cooperation, others will turn into fear and violence. Already we have seen attacks on foreigners in Ethiopia, people of Asian descent around the world, and a rhetoric among leaders that aims to use the virus to fan the flames of identity-based otherism. Social media will allow such fearmongering to spread, creating opportunities for maligned actors to further their manipulations of popular content for strategic aims. The use of social media to foment violence is well documented, from Myanmar to India to Brazil. There is no reason to expect that COVID-19 will not be subject to social media manipulation as well.

Extreme number of displaced persons will suffer even more. As people look inward to protect themselves and their loved ones, the world must not forget that the COVID-19 outbreak is taking place at the same time that there are over 70 million people forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, violence, and persecution. Not only are displaced populations at particular risk of the health impacts of the coronavirus, the underlying breakdown of peaceful order will continue. As governmental and philanthropic organisations shift funding to invest in immediate public health needs, attention risks shifting away from maintaining the ceasefire in northern Syria, consolidating gains in Ethiopia or halting arms sales fueling violence in Yemen.

It is hard to consider the scope of the challenges ahead and think optimistically – and yet, we must. Luckily, we have roadmaps to help chart a path forward. Those who dedicate their lives to making people and communities safer – the peacebuilders of this world – can light our way.

As a first step, we must acknowledge that unless we address the global tilt towards inequality, the above phenomenon will not only worsen, they will consolidate. As the UN Secretary-General has said, “Income disparities and a lack of opportunities are creating a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration and discontent across generations.” Inequality directly contributes to fueling violence, undermines our ability to reverse cycles of poverty as called for in the Sustainable Development Goals, and undermines a sense of collective respect in humanity. Calls are being made to respond to the current crisis with attention paid to addressing long-standing inequalities, including those between genders. We would do well to heed such advice.

Second, it is long past time to rebuild our faltering governing systems, placing real value in the legitimacy of institutions. In the short term, in places from Nairobi to Chicago where governments have failed to deliver safety outcomes for all residents, we are seeing credible messengers share information on how to address COVID-19, providing a protective layer in areas where trust in government is low. These efforts should be supported to both address COVID-19 and potentially build a stronger platform for future transformation of public sector investment, something that must start by listening. Re-investment in our institutions extends to our international systems of cooperation as well. Tackling the coronavirus and the fallout it will bring cannot be accomplished by one nation alone. It’s well overdue to respect, fund, and staff our international institutions to support not only direct service, but also the nuanced negotiations to recover from this pandemic. 

Finally, listening to people also reinforces social cohesion more broadly, which is crucial to helping communities recover from disasters. People want to feel part of something, including at times of crisis. This is particularly important in contexts where trust is low. Creative social networking has already begun taking place within the context of COVID-19 pandemic as people, companies, and governments reinforce the power of collective resilience. Recalling the methods proven to reinforce resilience will be crucial in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Indeed, there are already lessons about how governments can communicate the public health imperatives in such ways that calm fears and support best practice.

The spirit of the protests witnessed around the world in 2019 will not die as a result of COVID-19. The tools of communication may shift, but the message will be the same. People demand respect, voice, and agency at the individual, community, national, and global level. Crisis breeds creativity. We can come out of this better, healthier, and more peaceful. But only if we try.

Rachel Locke is Director of Impact:Peace at University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice.

You’re not being bold enough

You’re not being bold enough. I don’t mean that you should be going out. Stay at home, covidiots! I’m writing this from home in Italy – and just as it is said that the past is another country, right now this other country, Italy, is probably your future. So stay home.

And I don’t mean the nurses and the frontline workers – you are heroes. You are the boldest and the best of us.

I mean you policy wonks and thought leaders and popular economists. Seriously, you are not being bold enough.

I know you’re feeling that you are being bold. I know you are feeling that, hideous as this crisis is, now is at last your time. You are no longer being ignored. You dusted off the old policy demands that everyone called too bold and are now saying “See?” and you are right. Then you dug up the old drafts that you couldn’t get sign off for and you are sneaking them out in blogs. And you are right. And people are listening. But you are not being bold enough.

All changed, changed utterly. We are in a situation that we have never been in before. And the one thing about this moment is that there is no one thing. Yes I know you spent ages fighting for a Universal Basic Income. And it’s important that now Mitt Romney is calling for one. But that’s also a sign that it’s not enough. Thank you, next!

There is no reason to conclude that this epidemic will lead us through choppy waters to better times. In a brilliantly written but depressing book, The Great Leveler, the historian Walter Schiedel implies that beating inequality requires a catastrophe. His argument looks in particular at the contribution of the legacy of World War II in the development of more egalitarian societies to conclude that only events like World War II can overcome inequality (other cheerful examples include England’s “Black Death” plague that killed so many ordinary people that the remaining ones had better bargaining power in the labour market!). Sadly though, catastrophes are not only awful in themselves but are very unreliable handmaidens of progress. We cannot rely on shocks to fix things on their own.

Crises have often been important in enabling progress – creating critical junctures or moments of possibility – but crises alone have never been enough to secure success for those fighting inequality. The 1929 crisis was followed by progressive change in the US, but was followed by fascism in central Europe. The oil and debt crises helped facilitate neoliberalism. The 2008 crash, which “should” have led to a resurgent progressive movement internationally, was instead more marked by the rise of the far right and the mainstreaming of xenophobic politics. They are moments to seize, but we are not the only ones who have seen that – the supremacists and oligarchs have seen that too, and they are making the case for a world that accepts mass suffering for the market.

Make your case. “Go large or go home”? Nope, stay home, and go largest. This is a time for radically new policies. The bravest ideas of yesterday are the weak tea of today. Set out now your ideas for a bold tomorrow. Many will be shocked. Who did a 1966 Gallup Opinion poll show was viewed unfavourably by 63% of Americans? It was Martin Luther King. Because by 2011 Dr King was viewed unfavourably by only 4% of Americans, people often read the recent consensus back into history and assume that he was always broadly accepted, and learn therefore a completely false lesson, that change comes from people and movements who never offend anyone; whereas the true lesson of Dr King and of other change-makers is that fighting inequality requires us to disrupt, to confront power and to take on prevailing norms. Throughout history, progress has been won through people’s own collective struggle. Alone, we may indeed be trapped by the structures in which we find ourselves, but history shows that acting together we have the capacity to remake them.

This crisis is awful, terrible, terrifying. I’m scared. I long to get back to normal. I long for boring. But boring is not an option. Normal is not coming back.

This requires a bold response. Radicalism has just gone mainstream. How mainstream? Well, Britney Spears has just called for redistribution of wealth. You too, or are you still that innocent? Don’t let them hit you one more time.

Solidarity. Courage. And love.

The collective psychology of coronavirus

Just like climate change or political tribalism, coronavirus asks us: do we see ourselves as part of a Larger Us, a them-and-us, or an atomised “I”?

Each of us is answering that question all the time right now. Do we hoard hand sanitiser, or leave enough for others? Do we observe social distancing protocols, or shrug and figure we’re young enough that the symptoms will be no big deal so why worry? Do we think we’re all in this together, or do we blame it on others (the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Americans)?

All this makes me think about the stuff I’ve been working on over the last couple of years in the Collective Psychology Project (CPP), which I set up in 2018 – and in particular the importance of whether we respond to perceived threats by going into fight-or-flight or tend-and-befriend mode.

Fight-or-flight – or more accurately, fight / flight / freeze – is a natural reaction to threat or feelings of overwhelm. But it’s not particularly helpful in the face of a collective threat like coronavirus. It’s a primal response, not a considered one. It focuses on the interests of the individual, not the collective. It reduces our capacity to empathise, and makes us more vulnerable to extremism or other hyper-tribal thinking. It leads to behaviours that push us apart.

With tend-and-befriend, on the other hand, we respond to danger by tending ourselves and our families, and befriending others so as to build dense social networks of mutual assistance. It’s a far more prosocial response to threat. It emphasises our interdependence with one another, and regards it as a source of strength rather than vulnerability. Where fight-or-flight zones out on the individual and pushes us apart, tend-and-befriend focuses on the collective and brings us together.

So what can help us into tend-and-befriend and out of fight-or-flight? In our work at CPP, we highlight three factors in particular: Agency, Belonging, and Conscious self-awareness, or ABC for short. Briefly,

  • Agency is about whether we feel like we have power to shape our lives;
  • Belonging is about whether we feel connected or alone; and
  • Conscious self-awareness is about whether we have the presence of mind to be able to choose how to react to the stuff that happens in our lives rather than our amygdala (the part of our brain that deals with threats) choosing for us.

All three are really relevant to coronavirus.

Start with agency. This is what what we’re really looking for when we fill our shopping trollies with enough to survive a zombie apocalypse: the sense of being able to do something to control our circumstances. (And actually, while panic buying is clearly bad, some calm, steady stocking up is good, in that it puts additional slack in the system. Read this great thread.)

But for the Larger Us version of agency, we need to go beyond stocking up our own personal bunker, and think about our communities. A lot of people in our communities – especially elderly people – are going to have a very hard time over the next couple of months. 80% of those with coronavirus will need to tough it out at home. Many more, like those with weak immune systems or existing conditions, will also need to self-isolate.

There’s a lot we can do to help them without compromising social distancing. Buying food or medicines. Cooking food if needed, and leaving it at the doorstep. Setting up systems for checking in on vulnerable people to make sure they’re OK.

Which brings us to belonging. Loneliness is terrible for health at the best of times; as bad for life expectancy as smoking 15 a day. Now imagine being an elderly person living alone and finding that not only are the grandchildren off limits for the next three months, but so are the ‘weak ties’ that constitute your day-to-day social contact: the GP, the postman, the person at the supermarket checkout.

Again, we can do a lot to allay this – and the boredom, anxiety, and grief that all of us may be about to face – by coming together. Now, before the tsunami hits, is exactly the right time to be reaching out to our neighbours, whether by email or with fliers or a poster on a lamp post, to set up a street level WhatsApp or Facebook group.

A month from now, when we’re at the peak, we may find that to be an incredibly valuable source of belonging: a platform to share news and memes to keep us sane, and to create a sense of shared identity that nurtures our sense of rootedness in the places where we live even when we can’t go out into them.

And then there’s conscious self-awareness – the one that tips the balance between fight-or-flight and tend-and-befriend. This is a deeply weird time. As Venkatesh Rao notes on Ribbonfarm, it’s one of those moments – like 9/11 or the fall of the Berlin Wall – when our master narrative is collapsing. Suddenly, everything is uncertain. With no story to guide us, we zone out on maths. (“Pantry stocks math. Alcohol percentage math. Infection risk math. Toilet paper math.”)

Amid such uncertainty, with no guiding story to fall back on, we’re prone to a another kind of contagion besides the virus itself: infection with other people’s mental and emotional states. As yesterday’s market crashes showed, panic can ripple through our collective central nervous system as quickly as a murmuration of starlings changes course. More subtly, we can find (as I did last night) that a 3 hour Twitter information binge can leave you feeling depressed and edgy rather than informed and prepared.

So even as we care for others – and, in doing so, increase our own sense of agency and belonging – we need to look after ourselves. Everyone’s version of self-care is different. It might mean meditation. Time in nature. Eating healthily. Reading Stoic philosophy, or a Harry Potter novel. Yoga. Favourite music. Looking at the stars.

Conversely, don’t zone out on the news all day. Curate your social media feed to mute haters and panic spreaders. Try to defuse polarisation and fake news when you come across them.

All of us need to manage our mental and emotional states now more than ever. Not just for our own wellbeing, but also because our inner states end up affecting everything else around us. That’s the whole point about collective psychology: the state of the world affects our states of mind, and our states of mind affect the world. Coronavirus brings that fact into especially sharp relief.

As I noted at the end of the thread I did when CPP launched A Larger Us, all of us now own this challenge. None of this is going to be solved for us by a few expert practitioners. Because the truth is, all of us already *are* practitioners of collective psychology – whether consciously or otherwise.

So we’d better get good at it.

Communications in the age of digital elections

Recent elections in the US and the UK have yielded more questions than answers about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to messages and tactics designed to persuade audiences. Targeted political adverts, unofficial memes, psychographic profiling and giant datasets will all be in play during upcoming elections on both sides of the pond with tech platforms increasingly providing the battlefield for mass communications combat.


Over the last two years I’ve been exploring how technology will affect politics in the near-future through my podcast Government Vs The Robots. In that time I’ve spotted five shifts in the information ecosystem which demand a response from people interested in communicating ideas and values. The current UK election and the democratic primaries will provide a chance to scrutinise what the best political campaigners in the business think is the right way to win hearts and minds in the age of the algorithm. So what should we be looking for?

Hyperfragmentation

Today’s voters each have a completely unique flow of information into their laptops and smartphones. The information we consume is based on the choices we make and algorithmic interpretations of those choices which drive us deeper into our filter bubbles. It’s easier than ever before to find like-minded communities brought together by niche interests. This is reflected in the rise of identity politics and call out culture. How candidates seek to set different groups against each other and win the backing of others will be a significant part of their strategies.  

Contested Realities

Facts have been established as secondary to emotions when it comes to forming political opinions. People have always held up competing versions of events as truths which inform their political judgements but at the warp speed of social media, ownership of the facts is less important than plausibility of narrative. Watch out for the short-lived vacuums after live events and breaking news where various ‘outriders’ and opinion formers are not yet in receipt of the party line. These will most likely occur after nocturnal presidential tweeting, outspoken left-wing candidate gaffes and episodes of Boris Johnson bluster or buffoonery. 

In addition it is now easier than ever to manipulate digital media and harder than ever to spot something which is fake. Where people unknowingly consume fake memes or they travel across mainstream media before being debunked there is a risk that debate becomes warped. Initiatives like Who Targets Me or Sky News’ Under the Radar are good ways of monitoring these. 

Disintermediation

The advent of ‘live’ channels on social media has precipitated an increasing amount of content from politicians that is broadcast straight to social. Just a few weeks ago the UK Prime Minister held a people’s Question Time where he pre-recorded a question and answer session and streamed it on Facebook. The Brexit Party also has its own online TV channel. These channels present a challenge to media covering elections who risk losing their role as interlocutor but by watching how it’s done there’s plenty for communicators to learn from.

The proliferation of data

In the era of GDPR (and the wake of Cambridge Analytica) many voters are much more savvy about who has their email address but there’s still much lower understanding of the role that consumption and location data can play in targeting voters. Expect to see evidence of highly targeted adverts (by geography, social class and gender to name a few) and increasingly quizzical eyebrows raised by an electorate not always aware of exactly what data they may have  signed away and to who. For people committed to raising awareness of consumer consent and the future of data ethics this is an important one to watch.

Post-text content

Whilst smartphones form the backbone of our media consumption there’s an increasingly vibrant scene of podcasters and You Tubers providing independent commentary on the election. Some of the best analysis could well come from these audiovisual pundits operating outside of mainstream media. Expect to see savvy politicians courting cult shows and maybe even producing their own materials to tap into a technological trend which is steering us away from screens and towards accessories.

It will take a braver or more confident person than me to predict the outcome of the next 12 months electoral politics but i’m already certain there’s going to be lots to learn for communicators. This blog doesn’t even touch on the role of foreign states in creating and fostering disinformation designed to influence opinion. Perhaps that’s one for another day. 

Too many powerful forces are driving division – here are the seven trends you need to know about if you want to democratise and depolarise our common life instead

Lawyers, historians and constitutional experts will ultimately have the final say about whether last week’s decision to prorogue parliament is a democratic outrage or well within the bounds of our unwritten constitution. But however history judges prorogation, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: the seven ways in which a politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has emerged at precisely the time we need leaders to tell a powerful story of our shared humanity. 

Earlier this summer, we commemorated the bravery of the veterans who landed in Normandy on D-day, and in coming weeks we will be inspired by the active citizenship of thousands of young people who rally to avert climate catastrophe. But can those of us in the generations in between be proud of the political culture we’ve let develop, where we are encouraged to view fellow citizens as ‘enemies of the people’ and national treasures talk about our Prime Minster and ropes and lampposts in the same breath? Our children are watching – surely we can give them better examples of how to disagree well?

There is already plenty of research about how public opinion has become more polarised, people have become more isolated and hate actors have infected our shared online spaces. There are also many incredible organisations already working in community cohesion or at a grassroots level to counter loneliness. Sadly, these are critical but insufficient responses to the fractures in our society. So the four of us – two working with young people and two working on depolarisation – came together to think what can be done about the coarsening of public discourse and how to inspire the next generation about the value of our democracy. 

As activists we think there’s plenty of injustice to get angry about – none of us are hankering after a lost era of deference. But we do think there is still a role for political leadership in countering the following alarming trends: 

  1. The use of violent language and threats of violence not being taken seriously. Politicians and candidates receive appalling abuse from strangers and organised trolls, but we should also be worried when politicians themselves are talking about their colleagues being lynchedstabbed or bayoneted, threats to their safety are diminished by their leaders, and digital supporters threaten or abuse without censure.
  • The use of dehumanising language and imagery. Again this is something that is all too common on the street or online, but the striking thing is how normal it has become for elites to talk about each other as traitors or saboteurs, and how few long-term political penalties are paid for using language and tactics which have real world consequences for those already subject to demonisation and discrimination. 
  • The promotion of conspiracy theories. In many respects the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the test case for how far conspiracy theories have penetrated the mainstream. Since then, Brexit coverage and the response to evidence of antisemitism has normalised them further still.
  • Swift rehabilitation after failures to tell the truth. One ex minister rejoined the cabinet in an elevated role just two years after resigning for misleading the then PM, another was in contention for her party’s leadership just one year after misleading MPs about Universal Credit and a shadow minister remains on the front bench despite misleading journalists about previous statements. 
  • Attacks on democratic institutions. From the civil service to the BBC to the judiciary, Britain’s independent institutions are increasingly under attack from senior politicians and media decision-makers.

There are, of course, plenty of brilliant ministers, MPs and councillors – politics remains full to bursting with people of phenomenal integrity and commitment. Likewise there are so many journalists and editors committed to maintaining our great national tradition of robust but civil debate through initiatives like Britain Talks. So ordinary people coming together to fight these seven trends aren’t setting ourselves against politicians or journalists – we are helping create a climate in which the best of them can do their best by us all. 

So what can you do? In the short term here are three things:

  1. Show there’s a reward for good practice. Write a letter to the editor, call in to a radio show, tell a candidate that your vote will be determined partly by who shows the most commitment to democratising and depolarising politics. Show your support online for journalists, judges, civil servants and activists who are making your country or community better.
  2. Extract a penalty for bad practice. Get involved with efforts to fight Islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of hatred in our political parties. Support those, like Stop Funding Fake News who are fighting conspiracy thinking and join campaigns like this one from the Fawcett Society to put a stop to abuse in public life.
  3. Vote and register everyone you know to vote. Support Democracy Club and other efforts to make voting easier. 

And finally, even if you don’t care about politics at all, or feel that the seven trends are bad but not really your business, do take a moment to think about your kids (or those of someone you love) and decide whether you want them growing up thinking this is how powerful and important people treat each other. It’s hard to teach young people about respect if the example being set from the top is of anything but. The next generation are watching – it’s up to this one what they’ll learn from what they see. 

Heather Hamilton is the Founder of Shared Humanity: Countering Us vs Them

Roger Harding is CEO of Reclaim

Kirsty McNeill is an Executive Director at Save the Children

Will Somerville is UK Director at Unbound Philanthropy

10 thoughts from an Extinction Rebellion newbie

Two weeks ago, I went to my first Extinction Rebellion meeting in Leeds, curious to find out more about it ahead of its national actions in five UK cities last week. It turned out to be the beginning of an in-at-the-deep-end experience: just a week later, I’d become one of two media coordinators for the Leeds action and found myself filming the moment activists took Victoria Bridge and later acting a spokesman for the action on Channel 4 News. Another week on, I feel a slightly surreal sense of “what just happened?”. So here are 10 reflections as it settles in my mind…

Making climate breakdown real. I’m surprised by how much involvement in XR has changed how I think about climate change. I’ve worked on climate policy for over 20 years, so I figured I already knew the science and projected impacts. But being involved with XR, being out on the streets, talking about the urgency with real people rather than other policy wonks turns out to make the whole issue a lot more real, visceral, and urgent. I’m feeling climate breakdown in my gut in a way I wasn’t before. 

Welcoming new activists. Something XR gets right: the warmth of the welcome to newbies. It’s so easy for political infrastructures to founder on this ground, with the veterans making the rookies feel patronised and creating a wholly unnecessary divide. When I worked at Avaaz we helped organise tactical voting at the last election and heard this story again and again from young volunteers going out canvassing for the first time. I never felt a hint of that during my first weeks with XR. 

Resisting the urge to other. Something else XR nails: I never saw any hint of othering, i.e. feeling or showing contempt for sceptics, critics, or opponents. This is a big deal. All progressive activists face the dilemma of whether just to fire up their base, or to build bridges across political divides. I think the latter is crucial on climate: as George Marshall notes, climate’s just too big an issue to be solved without broad consensus across society. We’re going to win this through a process of reaching out and healing, not through crushing our opponents underfoot. XR gets that deep in its DNA, and that’s rare and precious.

How XR comes across. On the flipside, I wondered a few times if there are easy things XR could do to make it harder for its opponents to dismiss. Its members can look a lot like the stereotypical eco-activists of popular imagination and media caricature. On one hand, it’s clearly up to individuals how they choose to look and dress. But from a movement effectiveness point of view, I wonder if it would help XR to confound people’s expectations and assumptions – much as US civil rights activists in the 50s and 60s took their look very seriously. There’s also a definite lack of diversity.

The power of small groups. As someone who’s both run online campaigns at Avaaz and seen their limitations, I think that much of movements’ success depends on having small, tight-knit groups as their building bricks. Look at Obama 08, 350.org, the 2016 Bernie campaign, or (further back) at the role of religious congregations in 50s/60s civil rights or the abolition of slavery. XR gets this in theory with its idea of local ‘affinity groups’ – but I haven’t yet been allocated into one, and nor did I see much evidence of them at the action. I’m curious to see whether they figure more prominently in my future XR journey. I suspect future movement growth will strongly depend on getting this piece right. 

Getting field/HQ relations right. While XR prides itself on being decentralised, it’s also clear that “XR Central” is a crucial hub for operational coherence, as a knowledge base, and in coordinating comms. As a total newbie, I clearly have an incomplete view – but my impression was that some significant strains were showing, in both systems and relationships. That’s to be expected during a major operational surge, of course, and of a piece with every other organisation I’ve ever seen that has to manage field/HQ relations. But it’s also another element that XR will need to invest in understanding and getting right as a foundation for future movement growth. 

Managing burn-out risk. Relatedly, I think XR faces some very big questions about the risk of burn-out among activists (and especially its organisers and coordinators). Of course some stress is to be expected when a major national action in 5 cities is being put together. But given that this will be a marathon and not a sprint, I worry about the long term sustainability of XR’s model of activist engagement. I felt frazzled after just a couple of weeks of working as one of two Leeds media coordinators – and lots of others were working way harder than me. To be fair, XR clearly gets the need for a long term regenerative culture. But it feels like there’s quite a big gulf between theory and practice.

Legal advice and arrestee support. This wasn’t an area I saw close up in Leeds, given that we had no arrests, but I came away thinking that it’s an area of vulnerability for XR. The legal advice given at the nonviolent direct action training I took part in was very incomplete, and factually wrong on some key points. I also didn’t get a strong sense that XR has all that much support in place for people who do get arrested and charged. XR is asking a lot of its arrestable activists – justifiably. But by extension, it must provide good information to activists considering arrest, and ensure massive support for arrestees and people who get charged (especially given the prospect of harder police crackdowns). It will matter like hell for the morale of the movement.

XR’s theory of change. A big one, this. XR’s ToC to date has been to (a) block roads and disrupt traffic, and (b) get as many people arrested as possible. The evidence from April is that this was effective, both in moving the government and Parliament (see below), and in shifting public opinion.

But will this continue, or does XR need to consider alternatives? Blocking roads has clearly had some shock value and forced people to think about climate change. But I suspect XR will see diminishing returns and declining public sympathy if it just keeps doing this – especially if the requirement for all movements to keep building momentum means that the disruption to people’s lives grows and grows. So what could XR do instead? I wonder about:

  • Targeting Parliament, Downing Street or the Treasury, e.g. with a human chain. Jubilee 2000 did something similar at the 1998 G8, with 50,000 people, but only for 20 minutes. What if XR used the same tactic, but for (much) longer? It would have clear moral power; targeting politicians rather than the public would be more consistent with XR’s focus on system change; above all it would convey XR’s message of urgency.
  • Rapid reaction actions in response to extreme weather events. The news media is often pretty pusillanimous in attributing heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires etc. to climate breakdown (and there’s also some evidence that extreme weather events are weaker than we’d expect in shifting public opinion on climate change). So what if XR shone a bright spotlight on the root causes each time such events happen – and perhaps built public sympathy by assisting with emergency response while doing so (think XR activists helping people to save possessions from flooded homes, or filling sandbags…)?
  • A huge deep canvassing push. Deep canvassing is about reaching out past ‘our’ base, engaging opponents respectfully in real conversations on doorsteps, listening deeply and actively, and searching for empathy and shared emotion as a basis for eventual consensus rather than calling out or hectoring. It’s been hugely effective in the US on building support for equal marriage and trans rights. I think we need something like that on climate change too. 

XR’s demands. Lastly, there’s the question of XR’s demands. I came in to XR with a bit of unease about its stated aims – that government should tell the truth about climate and declare a climate emergency; that it should commit to net zero emissions by 2025; and that it should create a citizens’ assembly to decide on a way forward on climate, which should have direct legislative power – feeling that they’re (a) unrealistic and (b) too vague. 

Having now done a media spokesperson role for XR, I’m less worried about the realism. Movements are supposed to be transformational, not incremental. Demanding the (apparently) impossible is their job. And look how much progress has been made: Parliament has declared a climate emergency (though without much new policy to make that real); Theresa May announced net zero emissions by 2050 (though UK emissions aren’t yet really declining, and the date needs to be much sooner); and six Parliamentary committees have announced a citizens’ assembly on climate change (though XR is right to be worried that this risks just leading to another report unless the government signals its willingness to implement the conclusions). Despite the shortcomings in each case, this is incredible progress in just a few months.

But I am still worried about the vagueness. As XR gathers pace, it has a lot to do to fill those demands out: what they’d mean for people’s everyday lives, what they’d cost, and how the massive challenges of transforming the economy would be managed – economically, socially, logistically, culturally.

Overall, though, I feel energised and hopeful by what I’ve seen. XR feels very different – in its focus on solutions rather than just protest; in its refusal to play them-and-us politics when they’re on the ascendant all around; in how it aims to combine community level organising with international mobilisation. Climate change has for a long time felt like everyone’s watching everyone else, waiting for someone to do something. XR doesn’t feel like that. And so far, it looks like it’s having a powerful effect.