Photo of graffiti asking What Now?

Narrative and COVID-19: Resources and Reading Lists

The Coronavirus pandemic is shaping (and being shaped by) narratives. These articles, essays, research and resources offer insights into narrative change strategy in the context of COVID-19.

In BC times (before Coronavirus) we talked about how populism and the untenable state of neoliberalism created an opening to shift deep narratives. COVID-19 has widened the space in which narrative change work may happen.

Climate and economic policies are up for grabs. So are narratives surrounding race, public health, work, collective action and more. All are deeply integrated. Climate policy needs to consider economic shifts, employment and how health care access is tied to jobs in America. Narratives help people make sense at scale. And right now, sensemaking is in high demand.

In March we began sharing guidance and resources for narrative change amidst the pandemic. Here are many of those pieces with context to help unpack their use in advocacy, communications and narrative work. We’ve been sharing many of these in our newsletter (subscribe here) and will continue the conversation there.

Narrative Strategy and Resources

A March 10, 2020, Twitter thread by Nicole Carty and Anthony Torres continues to offer concise narrative guidance – and hope – on a range of issues in this time. Here’s a quote:

The things that will help us fight this virus are good for us long term + will model the cooperation we need to address other challenges like climate change.

Colleagues and partners have continued sharing useful resources and guidelines over the past two months.

In a moment of crisis – especially one centered around easily transmitted infection – the messages we must disrupt are rooted in xenophobia, racism, and individualism. More than ever people will be susceptible to fearing “the other,” and without a counter-vision and narrative, dominant media and certain public figures will actively or inadvertently stoke that fear.
– Anat Shenker-Osorio

Anat Shenker-Osorio offers a COVID-19 messaging guide that helps communicators identify (and use) narratives of equality, justice, and care as well as social and collective good.

Frameworks Institute has a helpful pop-up newsletter, Framing COVID-19, for communicators and advocates. Check out Keeping democratic ideals alive during the pandemic or Widening the circle of “we” to get a feel for what the newsletters offers. Subscribe here.

Topos Partnership has pulled together a collection of COVID-19 oriented messaging guides, models and narrative insights on economics, science, health policy, voting rights and more.

Uplift in Ireland focuses on values, framing and new language in their guide to talking about COVID-19.

Need some resources on thematic framing and system change? Public Interest Research Centre in the UK has a helpful explainer on how to speak of COVID-19 in systemic ways that avoid individualizing.

Opportunity Agenda has shared several COVID-19 messaging resources, particularly for inclusion, justice and racial equity.

In How do we make meaning in a global pandemic?, Narrative Initiative’s Liz Hynes and Jacob Swenson-Lengyel, highlight four principles for narrative changemakers going forward in a COVID-19 world:

  1. This crisis will be fast and slow. We need a narrative strategy that can hold both.
  2. Deep narratives, not just messaging.
  3. Prepare for attacks we know are coming.
  4. Focus on values and building power.

Futures: Designing a Vision

A positive, inclusive and achievable (if ambitious) vision for the future is needed if we’re going to shift narrative in this moment. People are in search of ideas – even possibilities – on which to anchor security in a time of extraordinary uncertainty.

Narrative change is a culture and society-wide exercise in imagining that an alternative future is possible. We think it’s useful to have tools for envisioning the future we seek. There are some solid examples out there.

We want to start by highlighting A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This seven and half minute video by Naomi Klein and The Intercept came out in April, 2019. But the vision presented, grounded in features of the Green New Deal, is more relevant and empowering than ever. The video does wonderful work lifting up a vision, regardless of one’s view on the future presented.

Visions of the future are battling narratives of “normal.” This has implications for the economy, environment and justice. But also for public health, a profession familiar with futures design. Public health practitioners are continually modeling, planning for what could happen, and thinking about systems design.

Exploring Foresight, Epidemiology and the Coronavirus Pandemic with Dr. Peter Black presents the idea that a quick recovery – a rapid “return to normal” – diminishes public, government and leadership, interest in imagining alternatives:

It’s more likely that if it drags out for much longer, that there’ll be more interest in actually reimagining different futures. I think the earlier that this COVID-19 is overcome, the more likely it is that we’ll snap back to maybe not business as usual, but something which is closer to something we’ve been more familiar with in recent times.

Futures thinking and foresight is often left to “experts.” See, for example, What does the future look like? in Politico. The ideas presented may shape the economy, technology and public health. But the work of creating a vision for the future can, and we suggest should, be co-created. Futures work provides tools for people to be part of a coherent narrative.

We like metaphors for futures design and hope to see more that makes future narratives accessible to people. In Covid-19 is an unfolding story that hasn’t been written yet, Alice Sachrajda uses the metaphor of a novel to show us how we don’t yet know what the narrative of this time will look like.

The story of the impossible train is a wonderful exercise in futures and #MoralImaginations from Phoebe Tickell.

Economy: Neoliberalism or Economy that Works for All

What’s next for the “economy”?  There lies one of the greatest potential narrative shifts.

Neoliberal systems left governments and people unprepared for a pandemic, Jonathan Heller and Judith Barish write. A decade of, as some describe it, the strongest American economy ever, found the U.S. government (and others) unable or unwilling to prepare for a pandemic or create safety nets for its people.

The value of work is a core American narrative. And it left people with little in a crisis. The Coronavirus Reveals Everything That’s Wrong With Work In America by Amanda Schupak explores this theme.

Though trust in the government may not be especially high right now, almost across the board, the experts I spoke to said the government needs to be part of any meaningful solutions to our broken employment system: from equalizing pay to establishing comprehensive wellness protections and weaving a social safety net strong enough to catch workers when they fall.

Here are a few other pieces that explore narrative and the economy now – and what’s possible for the future.

Climate and Environment

Many activists and analysts are connecting climate and the environment to COVID-19. Climate change and environmental damage are implicated in this and other pandemics. The extraordinary, almost immediate, change in economic habits has prompted many to say that systemic change is possible (note that nobody is saying change is easy). And, well, shutting down cars, planes and factories reveals a skies of clean air – something many of us may have never seen.

Rhianna Gunn-Wright makes a case that Coronavirus – and our response to it – needs to consider the inevitable impacts of climate change. The Los Angeles Times editorial board offers similar language in support of systems that reflect climate change.

Other examples of narrative about climate, coronavirus and justice that’s possible now:

What doesn’t work: a general blaming of humans. What the ‘Humans Are the Virus’ Meme Gets So Wrong by Brian Kahn points out that there’s nothing helpful in blaming all people, especially without a fix. “Blame the humans” also reflects racism and classism. Coronavirus impacts people of color and low income communities – people who must work in public, have limited access to health care, and who are also least likely to be sources of environmental and economic conditions in which the virus may thrive.

Race and Inequality

Anat Shenker-Osorio, in her COVID-19 messaging guide, writes about the fear, racism and xenophobia present in crisis messaging:

In a moment of crisis – especially one centered around easily transmitted infection – the messages we must disrupt are rooted in xenophobia, racism, and individualism. More than ever people will be susceptible to fearing “the other,” and without a counter-vision and narrative, dominant media and certain public figures will actively or inadvertently stoke that fear.

Structural racism is embedded in public policy surrounding housing, health care, employment, food access and more. The impact of COVID-19 has been inequitably felt by people of color who are, in many communities, essential workers caring for the sick, providing transportation, working in grocery stores and more.

Racial and economic justice must be part of any effort to shift narratives and build a more equitable solutions. Here are some of the many good examples and guides we’ve seen on centering race in the context of COVID-19:

There are other communities who are at risk from COVID-19 and narratives that place the economy ahead of care. Zipporah Arielle writes:

Show immunocompromised people that you know that we matter, and take small steps to show us we’re not alone in facing this daunting virus.

Solidarity and Collective Action

The American Dream is an individuality project, and it is killing us collectively.
– Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine

Patrick Sharkey offers a segue between race and solidarity in a post-coronavirus world. “If we can muster the collective investment needed to fight back against Covid-19,” writes Sharkey for CityLab, “perhaps it will provide a reminder of a basic fact about our species: Our fates are intimately connected.”

Progressive narrative and communications can show that this is a collective problem with shared solutions. It doesn’t help solve the problem to blame people/society for the source. And we hope to show that working together is possible and beneficial to all.

Protip: collective action is a good approach to equitable and just public policy in general. And this may be a moment, Eric Klinenberg writes, when the United States rediscovers its better, collective self.

“The American Dream is an individuality project, and it is killing us collectively,” write Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine in Social Justice in a Time of Social Distancing. Their short piece offers ideas for making social arrangements (think health care and global logistics) public, deepening and prolonging the shifting social arrangements we’ll make in coming weeks, and imagining ways to rebuild publics when the time is right.

Maria Faciolince at Oxfam GB offers solid thinking and resources on care, crisis, community in Shifting narratives toward collective care.

Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies writes about the the connection between solidarity, climate change and coronavirus in Will Politicization of COVID-19 Crisis Erode National Consensus On Response?

As we’ve seen on the climate front, much of this resistance is driven by the political ideology of radical individualism. These people are deeply suspicious of climate change because it’s the ultimate collective action problem.

Solidarity and collective action can be built into systems. Narrative can support that. Just as an anti-government, pro-privatization narrative has disassembled systems that support solidarity. “Getting through coronavirus,” writes Nafeez Ahmed, “will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values.”

Disinformation: whose narrative is it?

The power of narrative is one reason disinformation, propaganda and “noise” are in play. Confusion and mistrust create questions about any explanations. It becomes harder to drive a narrative. Narrative work has never been more important and it’s important to work from trust, recognize and identify disinformation, and point out the differences between propaganda and authoritative explanation.

A few pieces that may help:

In other words, narrative now means sustaining trust, co-creating a vision for the future, and calling for equity, solidarity and care. This is, as we said in What Is Narrative?, long-term work:

Deep narratives are characterized by pervasiveness and intractability. They provide a foundational framework for understanding both history and current events, and inform our basic concepts of identity, community and belonging.

It’s long-term work with short-term consequences. We look forward to collaborating, testing and learning from you in the coming weeks and months.


Top photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

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