People around the world are dying alone. Stop talking about the economy. We live in a community not an economy. Go knock on your neighbour’s door & ask if they need help. Look after each other.Emma Alberici, Twitter, 24 March 2020
As the immediate COVID-19 health crisis in Australia is being managed, we are witnessing a burgeoning, much-needed contestation of ideas around the social contract that underpins public life in Australia. At the heart of this debate is how to build a more resilient and fairer Australia that is better prepared to meet future global challenges of this scale. As international-development professionals with a long history of working to support community development overseas, this juncture has prompted us to reflect on how communities in Australia might play a greater role in this endeavour.
Globally, there has been a proliferation of all manner of communal initiatives responding to needs ordinarily addressed by now-overwhelmed state institutions. This phenomenon is less of a novelty in developing countries in which communities have rarely had any reason to expect much from weak state institutions. Despite the diverse breadth and depth of these initiatives—from simple, neighbourly acts of kindness to more elaborate schemes such as community schooling—we are struck by their commonality. At its most basic, this nascent revival of community reminds us that humans are social animals who flourish best when they flourish together. Put simply, as we know from our work overseas, functional societies depend on carefully nurtured communal relationships, and these are especially critical when state institutions are found wanting. The response to COVID-19 is shining a bright light on the nature and importance of community. This is particularly well illustrated in the vulnerabilities it has exposed in the ultimate human need, the need for food. This conversation about fostering a better food system is not new of course. What is new is the magnitude of both the need and the opportunity to nurture a better, fairer food system that is less vulnerable to global shocks—and is therefore nourished by deeper communal roots.
First, COVID’s disruption of the international food supply chains on which we depend, on the back of the 2019–20 bushfires, has shown us how vulnerable our access to food is and, consequently, how important it is to guarantee local availability of food. COVID has forced communities to draw on the fuel of social trust to ensure that people know about good food and whom to source it from. With Australian restaurants closing down in their thousands and supermarket shelves something of a battlefield lottery during the early stages of the virus, we were suddenly calling on neighbours, family and friends to assist us with postmodern food-foraging tasks: ‘Can you drop off some food outside our place since we’re not allowed out?’ or ‘Do you happen to have any flour?’. Some of these informal support networks have blossomed into pioneering, community-driven platforms, for example through ‘community supported agriculture’ and community gardens, and even the rediscovery of barter economies. We also saw virtual communities connecting over food online, from the sourdough and banana-bread baking revolution to chefs in Australia and globally hosting live cooking demonstrations from their own kitchens.
Second, COVID has reinforced the importance of producing and consuming healthy food. It is widely acknowledged that our food is industrialised, which contributes to a range of negative health effects, although we are yet to achieve society-wide consensus and it has increasingly become an ideological flashpoint in recent years. In short, as Michael Pollan recently put it, there is a sickness in our food supply. The existing supply chains exclude the externalities of production—carbon footprints and soil degradation, for example—from the price of the food we eat, enticing us to consume food without any idea of who has produced it and how they have done so. Catastrophic animal-borne diseases are not confined to markets in unfamiliar, distant lands. Consider the example of Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations, particularly in the United States, characterised by underpaid and overworked migrant labour and the worst excesses of animal cruelty. These structures are bereft of communal roots and are also the most vulnerable to pandemics and disease outbreak. The social benefits of shorter, more community-engaged supply chains, meanwhile, are well recognised, with numerous studies finding that vulnerability decreases as people’s investment in the local food economy increases. Hence, for example, more localised production and consumption of food would likely mean greater support for small, local businesses, less inclination to drive, more interest in neighbourhood amenities and deeper relationships with our neighbours. Our city centres might never be the same again.
To build on communal responses to COVID, we must first secure high-level political endorsement of a genuine and elevated role for the community in forging a post-COVID social compact. The importance of increased communal engagement is a central theme of the recent Roadmap to Recovery by the Group of Eight, Australia’s leading research universities. We need to ensure that that endorsement is translated into systemic, structural engagement with—but not co-optation of—the communal energy that has been unleashed by this crisis. This is not just a matter of tokenistic ‘public consultation’; it will necessitate the reversal of decades of decline in public participation in addressing the big questions. This might look something like the United Kingdom’s ‘People’s Commission on Life After Covid-19’, which is starting to get off the ground.
We must also persuade our leaders of the need to embrace a root-and-branch re-examination of the system. The City of Amsterdam’s recent adoption of Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’ model is a good example of the growing extent to which mainstream political leaders are embracing bold, fresh ideas. Consequently, if we accept that fundamental society-wide changes are in order then we must start with the first steps needed to revive communal engagement with how we produce and eat food. In short, at this early stage, we need to be focused on asking the right questions rather than providing polished answers. Piecemeal reforms will at best only nibble around the edges of the morass of problems we are facing.
Rebooting our food system essentially means maturing (or initiating) meaningful relationships with the ecosystem of people who produce, package, distribute and sell our food. We could start by adopting the international Slow Food movement’s three interconnected principles for food and those who produce it: that it is ‘good, clean and fair’. COVID-19 reminds us of what should be obvious: ’we live in a community and not an economy’. Whether as a society we can elevate social considerations above economic ones is entirely in our hands. Pioneering Mexican American farm workers’ activist César Chávez famously said that ‘[t]he people who give you their food give you their heart’. Isn’t it about time that we gave them our hearts too?