“It’s the end of the world as we know it”— REM
It’s true that we should never let a crisis go to waste. One of the best things we can do right now is learn from this episode, so that when something like it happens again, which it will, we’ll be in a better position to prevail. We’re living through a multigenerational event and the lessons we are learning are as profound as the sacrifices we are making. There’s little doubt that we will be irrevocably changed by the pandemic. It’s teaching us many things; here are a few of those lessons, offered with the hope that we have the good sense to pay attention to them.
The End of Complacency. Let’s admit it. We had grown a little too fat, lazy and passive. Francis Fukuyama declared “The End of History,” a world where liberal democracies would usher in endless peace and prosperity. Rick Levine, Doc Searls and others envisioned a market utopia in “The Cluetrain Manifesto” and whiz kids over in Silicon Valley predicted life expectancy would rise to 120 years in a few generations. The stock market seemed to morph into a perpetual motion machine, TVs kept getting bigger, better and cheaper, and Apple kept rolling out all kinds of cool stuff. What could go wrong? How about a completely novel virus with a reproductive rate, or R0, of 2.5 (or possibly higher)? The explosion of the novel coronavirus blew away all of our presumptions, fallacies and complacencies about our lives. It has been a shock to the system and the message is clear: tighten your seat belt, open your eyes and improve your posture. We are vulnerable — every country, every city, every person. So, let’s replace the complacency with discipline and realism. Let’s hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Let’s build a culture of vigilance based on science, data and common sense. Let’s get real.
A New Appreciation of the Private Sector. Government has provided some relief and guidance in this episode, I think, but it’s the private sector that has stepped up with real solutions, from masks and ventilators to logistics, financial forbearance and old-fashioned heroics. How about the tireless medical responders in hospitals and clinics? The 43 workers at a Pennsylvania petrochemical plant who lived in the factory for 28 days to produce 40 million pounds of components for face masks and surgical gowns? The industrial conglomerates retooling assembly lines to make medical supplies? The delivery truck drivers and grocery clerks preserving supply chains? The list goes on. The private sector hasn’t solved everything, but it has taken the sharp edges off the pandemic and it’s certainly saved many lives.
The Need for Stronger Public Health Infrastructure. Is there anyone who does not now see the need for strong and smart investments in our public health system, from R&D to care and treatment? The need is for more funding, more cooperation, and more innovation. Global technocrats need to conduct “germ games” along with war games so we don’t get caught flat-footed again. Researchers need to work on pan viral vaccines that can be effective against whole families of viruses like the coronavirus, as well as focusing on “Disease X,” those for which we have no current knowledge or precedent. We need to have testing protocols and processes in place that can be activated in a 48-hour window. We know all of this now. Let’s execute.
The Importance of Leadership. True leadership delivers the truth. It gets us all rowing in the same direction. It is steadfast and consistent. It is compassionate but disciplined. It is respectful and inspires us to be our best. It is decisive, with a bias toward action. We need all of that now.
The Imperative of Human Connection. As my wife Kit pointed out early on, “social distancing” is a fallacy. It’s physical distancing we are practicing (minimum of 6 feet indoors, preferably 12 or 15 feet outdoors). Socially, we are closer than ever through the innovative use of technology (who had actually heard of Zoom six months ago?), things like driveway and balcony parties, email, texts and Facebook, and just the sheer social unifying effect of the entire globe sharing a common experience. John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” series on Youtube is human connection at its most epic. Kit also likes to point out that human connection is as necessary as food or water; it sustains us. The pandemic has boldfaced that necessity.
Science Matters. We’ve all become data hounds now. We all understand antibodies, contagion rates and modeling in a way that we haven’t before. Science is at the root of understanding the pandemic, managing it and prevailing over it. The best parts of the daily Coronavirus Task Force briefings are Drs. Fauci and Birx patiently explaining the scientific process. Managing a pandemic isn’t guesswork. It’s a rigorous discipline. Flat-earth clubs will always be with us (it’s still a mystery why they exist), but hopefully we come out of this experience with a much broader respect for science and other expert disciplines.
The Value of a Good Cocktail. I’m convinced that one of FDR’s secrets for leading the nation through a Great Depression and a World War was his nightly cocktail hour, or “The Children’s Hour” as he liked to call it. It was a time for family and friends to gather and relax with a drink (martinis seemed to be the preferred concoction). The cocktail hour is undergoing a revival in our current crisis, enabled by Zoom and FaceTime (“quarantini” anyone?). But the cocktail hour is a metaphor for something fundamental that we refuse to relinquish during all of this — the power of ritual and routine. In an age of radical uncertainty, routine and ritual serve as small anchors against the winds howling outside. They provide comfort on a human scale. They beckon us to tell a joke, share a story and ground ourselves. I’ll take a Vesper, please (2 parts gin, 1 part vodka, splash of St. Germain liqueur, shaken vigorously, served on the stem).