Social distancing has shown us that our siloed and fragmented social systems and services will be stronger with more integration and interconnection.

As plans for lifting the pandemic restrictions take effect, there is widespread recognition that things will not go back to the way they were. Government, community and corporate sectors are all preparing for a new normal — at least until there is a vaccine. Others point to the need for a more permanent change in our ways of thinking and being, based on the lessons of this pandemic. Perhaps one of the most profound of these lessons is the fundamentally relational nature of our lives and the need to change our social systems and services to reflect this fact.

Forced distancing from one another is revealing the essential and fundamental importance of relationship to what and who we are as individuals and as a society. A new normal requires a relational shift: a shift in the way we live, work and play that recognizes the importance of relationship and connection to those we know and to those we may never even meet.

There is some irony that it took the need for us to physically and socially distance to reveal the essential relational nature of our world and ourselves. The same measures led us to recognize that our usual ways of working are not up to the task of responding to the challenges and needs of the pandemic. COVID-19 reveals the weaknesses of systems and services that have ignored for too long the fact of our interdependence. It is displayed in the daily government briefings by ministers with portfolios from health, finance and procurement to justice and fisheries, all engaged in the integrated effort required by the dynamic and complex challenges we are facing. It hits home for all of us, as we rely on the collective efforts of neighbours and strangers to flatten the curve.

What has been revealed is that we need to work in more relational and integrated ways, not only in this extraordinary moment of crisis but also in ordinary times. We need a relational shift because the virus has shown us what we always need to be safe, to be well, and to flourish.

Such a shift is about more than just what we do; it is about how we think and what we value. It is a shift in our understanding of the world and ourselves with implications for how we do things: the approach we take to our social structures, systems and services. It is a fundamental shift to a relational way of seeing and working. While COVID-19 has afforded a newfound recognition of our relationality, this is not a new insight for many who have been advocating for reform and transformation of these systems based on a restorative approach. The need for such a shift was the core insight of the recent public inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.

Restorative justice advocates have long recognized justice as relational work concerned with ensuring just relations and addressing the harms resulting from injustice — harms caused at the interpersonal level and at systemic and institutional levels. But what this pandemic has made so clear to us all is the importance of being proactive to prevent harms and promote our well-being rather than waiting to respond after harm occurs.

The work of building and sustaining just relations is not then the work of the justice system alone. This insight has led to the use of a restorative approach in other systems and institutions to ensure our well-being by building strong and healthy relationships. For example, around the world a restorative approach in education is being used every day to build relationships and support learning in classrooms, to resolve conflicts on playgrounds and in the office, and to develop plans, together with students and caregivers, for learning and support. The approach is resulting in stronger school communities with greater school attachment, reduction in harmful behaviours and improved academic outcomes.

The value and importance of a restorative approach is showing itself during this pandemic, as schools must draw upon the strength of their connections to support continued learning at home. Similarly, Nova Scotia succeeded in decreasing populations in provincial correctional facilities by relying on the knowledge and experience of justice system and community partners thinking and working together restoratively to find alternative solutions for public safety.

A restorative approach also holds significant insights and promise for the challenges we face in the journey forward from COVID-19. The Nova Scotia inquiry shows the value of a restorative approach in supporting a different way of dealing with institutional and system failures and securing the collaborations needed to envision and implement necessary changes.

As we recover from the pandemic, many critical questions will be asked about what happened and what we need to do to ensure it does not happen again. One of the obvious issues that will require our serious reflection is our approach to care for older adults and other vulnerable people. A restorative approach is already being taken to address safety and well-being for seniors by building collaborations across government and community to ensure strong local networks of care for older adults in Nova Scotia and Waterloo, Ontario.

We need to build upon all of this knowledge and experience gained through the application of a restorative approach. So far, however, restorative work has largely remained at the fringe of mainstream systems and services — funded and supported as pilot projects or alternative measures. As a result, such alternatives might be viewed as expendable extras amid post-pandemic economic pressures as “core” operations are prioritized. This would be a significant mistake.

For our post-pandemic world to succeed, we must remember the lessons of this time of social and physical distance: that attention to relationship is our only path to a sustainable, safe and just world. This requires shifting from outdated individualized, siloed and fragmented systems and services. A restorative approach has an essential and immediate role in achieving the relational shift needed if we are to secure our safety, health and well-being in the new normal.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by Andrii Yalanskyi.