By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
In a decade or two, when historians look back on 2020, they will see it as a year when the human race displayed the raw, redemptive power of collaboration and technology.
And 2021 will be the first year in a decade when we reaped the harvest of that redemptive power.
The iconic climax of 2020 was the development of not one, but many vaccines to push back the terror of Covid-19.
The abundant harvest of 2021 will be all the suffering alleviated, the lives spared and the economies revived by the widespread sharing and application of those vaccines.
The toll of Covid-19 in 2020 was unspeakably horrendous. Worldwide we charted about 85 million cases and mourned almost 2 million deaths. In the U.S. we saw more than 21 million cases and lost over 300,000 people of all ages and circumstances.
As I write this, the toll has not subsided. Indeed, the casualties are spiking on a global scale. But the end is in sight. Very effective vaccines have been developed. Some are being administered as you read this. Billions more will be administered in the year ahead, even as more vaccines come to market.
We are turning the tide.
The large and growing We
But just who do I mean when I say “we”? The “we” in this case is a global scientific community working together across a seemingly infinite communications network the likes of which humanity has never known before.
This was the news way back on Jan. 11, 2020, more than 2 million lifetimes ago:
Scientists worried about China’s lack of transparency about a month-old outbreak of pneumonia in the city of Wuhan breathed a sigh of relief today, after a consortium of researchers published a draft genome of the newly discovered coronavirus suspected of causing the outbreak.
That launched a global pandemic of experimenting, learning and collaborating the likes of which the world has never seen before.
Yes, each of the vaccine manufacturers do their own proprietary work and enjoy its exclusive benefits. But at the same time scientists have been reaching across nations and continents, sharing information, to move forward toward antidotes.
Case in point: A married couple in a small lab in Germany connected to the huge multinational Pfizer pharmaceutical company to develop one of the first vaccines.
As vaccines have taken shape, research labs are collaborating with manufacturing facilities, which in turn are working with distribution networks – using systems on a national scale, true, but quickly crossing back and forth across national boundaries in the process.
This is a global pandemic. And its solution is being found in global collaboration – across vast and instant communications systems. Working together using our new global communications technology, we have accomplished in hours what once took years, in days what once took decades.
A Both/And Reality
It’s not that the vast scale of the collaboration required to develop and distribute these vaccines undermines local networks. Certainly not.
This is not an either/or world we live in – and that should be one of the lasting lessons of 2020.
Morning after morning, research scientists woke up, stood before their bathroom mirrors and explored the recesses of their individual minds ever so individually, looking for insights, perhaps breakthroughs. Then they worked in small teams in small labs to experiment, evaluate and, when things turned out promising, to refine.
They shared their results with colleagues near and far. They sifted, sorted, combined and re-combined countless data points with the hope – more often futile than fecund – of progress.
They zoomed in, drilled down, dug deeper. And then they pulled back, reached out, asked questions and offered answers, sometimes no better than guesses to be tested before the slim chance they could be embraced.
Work – learning – went on at every scale and countless levels for progress to be made. But made it was.
As we stand on the precipice of 2021, we can only guess at all the learning this dreaded coronavirus has dragged us into doing. Yes, indeed, necessity is the mother of invention.
And there is one other thing we know. We learn faster and better, we execute more precisely and across a broader scale, we reap more and nourish more -- we simply do more good -- when we do it together, engaging as many people as possible, each doing their individual best to contribute to a whole that is always greater than the sum of its parts.
In First Corinthians, chapter 12, St. Paul speaks of how we are, in fact, a single body – the body of Christ, the cosmic Christ.
Organizational gurus have lately come to that same conclusion: the human community, at all levels and scales, is better understood as an organism rather than a mechanism, as a living system rather than a machine.
When we respect that insight, that reality, we all do better. On occasion we midwife miracles. This is one of those occasions.
It will take decades to chronicle all that we have learned in this last horrendous year. In the meantime, we can be grateful for the early harvest that collaborative learning has given us.
As Pope Francis often reminds us, it is better to build bridges than walls.