“As systems collapse, people rise” says the author of Theory U, Otto Scharmer, in his recent article, where he reflects on the changes brought about by the COVID 19 crisis. At the same time, the historian Yuval Noah Harari writes in his article about the world after coronavirus, “A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population”. These two articles complement each other: the first one talks about communities that have organized themselves from the bottom up, and the second one discusses how governments should encourage and guide the empowerment of citizens rather than using totalitarian surveillance methods.

As Yuval Noah Harari points out, the latter brings the risk of a dangerous shift from “over the skin” to “under the skin” surveillance. In the first case, government surveillance traces people’s movements and activities, but in the second case, this surveillance goes much deeper, tracing parameters of the state of the body (temperature, blood pressure and heart-rate), which can then provide a snapshot of people’s emotional reactions. Introduced to protect people from the spread of the pandemic, there is a risk that these methods will continue to be used after the crisis is over, to control citizens and for other nefarious purposes.

Is there an alternative?

Harsh measures with punishments are less effective in fighting the spread of the virus than empowering citizens. This can be done by increasing their awareness and scientific understanding, and asking them to take care of themselves and others, particularly more vulnerable groups, such as the elderly. To achieve this, citizens need to trust science, public authorities and the media. Since this trust has been significantly damaged in recent years, governments should devote all their efforts to rebuilding it. As Yuval Noah Harari has noted, normally this process would take years, but we are not living in ordinary times.

Can the global pandemic crisis become a “window of opportunity” for re-establishing trust?

The key is to build civic responsibility along with true citizen empowerment. Otto Scharmer underlines that collective action is a superpower that has the capacity to flatten the curve of COVID-19. While a response by public authorities is necessary, it is collective action that really changes the situation, supported by “a timely and proactive government response”. Interestingly, in some countries where the government response was late, collective action was faster – people started to self-isolate even before the government told them to do so (for example in the UK and Sweden). People have the power to flatten the curve by realizing that their behaviour, such as social distancing or wearing a mask, “contributes to the flattening of the curve”. This is responsible behaviour – when wearing the mask is not just about you, but about protecting the elderly lady that lives nearby.

As Otto Scharmer has noted, this new collective capacity will prove crucial in addressing other challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, well after the pandemic. This is because government regulations and measures are not enough; they need to be complemented by collective action and empowered citizens, if we want to achieve sustainable transformations.