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Systems Change During Covid-19 Pandemic

Systems Change During Covid-19 Pandemic
A reflection by Cari Patterson, Director of Evaluation and Research

Inspiring Communities works in a complex environment. Ultimately we are building toward a culture of collaboration, where systems leaders work collectively for change. Systems change is big, it’s complicated, and it can feel hard to put your finger on and measure. And we are working on developing methods for doing just that.  

The COVID 19 pandemic is necessitating systems change, and offers an important opportunity to reflect on working in complexity and tracking early signs of positive change. Here are just a few:

  • Common purpose: Governments, businesses, community organizations, and citizens are united in a common purpose. We want to stop the spread of the virus, reduce the number of people who become seriously ill or die, and prevent the collapse of our health care systems. 
  • Systems leadership: Within that sense of common purpose, political leaders are united, working together for the common good. They have put aside their differences and along with politicians from across the country and around the world, they are focusing on what will best serve humanity at this time. Business and community leaders are also aligning their work with this common purpose.
  • People have trust in our leaders: People are putting faith in our leaders’ decisions and guidance. As we chart this unknown territory together, we know that we are united with a common purpose, and we are looking to formal and informal leaders to provide guidance and support. Political leaders and community and business leaders are stepping into that space.
  • Policy shifts: Leaders are making policy decisions based on rapidly changing data. As the situation progresses and more information becomes available, new policies are being developed and communicated. This is the case at many levels, from provincial policies about public service and school closures, to delivery of healthcare services online, to local food bank policies about how to deliver service. 
  • Behaviour change: People are changing our behaviours on a massive scale. Nearly everyone is practising ‘social distancing’  and ‘social isolation’ voluntarily, because we know it is the right thing to do. Businesses and community organizations are adapting their practices to minimize physical contact. Policies support this behaviour change. We have access to the evidence – and our leaders, businesses, community organizations, and fellow citizens are continually reinforcing the message and holding each other accountable for our behaviour.
  • Resource allocation: Funding and expertise are being allocated to support the actions required to achieve the common purpose, and to remediate the negative consequences of the actions being undertaken. Funds and personnel are being channelled where they are needed to support the collective effort. Programs are being created and funded to support those who are immediately impacted; for example, employment insurance regulations are adapting to better support laid off workers, the National Arts Council is providing funds for musicians to live stream concerts from their homes, and food security services are mobilizing to ensure that people have access to healthy food. The priority is providing what’s needed right now. 
  • Resource sharing: Many ‘products’ are being offered to the public at no cost. Some cafes are offering free lunches to children. And to support individuals and families in reducing the impacts of isolation, many businesses, organizations, cultural, and learning institutions are making their information and resources available to the general public online at no cost.
  • Continuous communication: Systems leaders are in constant communication with the general public: providing updates about the situation, about new policy changes, and about expectations of the public. They are also sharing  suggestions and information to help the public adhere to what’s needed – and the general public is sharing information broadly, through social media groups and other channels. Leaders, businesses, and community organizations are providing daily updates to the public through news outlets and social media. In this environment, access to the Internet is proving critical for continuous communication. Political leaders are prioritizing and incentivizing broad high speed access, businesses are waving data overage charges, and communities are sharing information about where to access free wi-fi.
  • Decisions are evidence-based: We are drawing on experiences from other jurisdictions to inform our evolving practice. Because the pandemic originated in China and many other countries have had to deal with it before it arrived in Canada, we have an opportunity to build on the experiences and lessons from other places, giving us a chance to get ‘ahead of the curve’ in a timely fashion.
  • New collaborations are forming: Community organizations and businesses are coming together in organized ways to support the common good. An example of this is restaurants that have had to close donating their surplus food to Feed Nova Scotia and local food banks.
  • Community members are supporting each other: People are coming together to support each other. They are checking in on neighbours and family members, getting groceries and medicine for people who are self-isolating or shut-in, forming social media groups to share information and resources, singing together so no one feels alone. 
  • People are making great sacrifices to support the common good. People have accepted job losses and reduced income as a necessary side effect of the strategies that must be adopted. For example, many people have lost their jobs and their incomes, and face complex challenges looking after themselves and their families.  
  • Consideration of people who are most vulnerable: In working for systems change,we must develop genuine, comprehensive strategies to support the most vulnerable people – those who use food banks, who don’t have access to the Internet, who are experiencing violence and harmful substance use in their homes, who have underlying health issues. In this case strategies are being developed at provincial and local levels to deliver food, increase access to supports, and improve Internet access.

Systems change in a crisis is different than gradual systems change that is built to be sustainable. There are obviously severe economic consequences and fallout that we will have to deal with when the COVID 19 crisis is over. It will be interesting to see what opportunities arise from this experience, and how the learnings will be applied to ongoing systems work.