Like most of you, I’ve been trying to get my hands around how humans should respond to a crisis and what roles each of us plays in the process both as individuals and collectively. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 affair, I have asked my partner and my friends almost on a daily basis, “What should we be doing?” To answer that question, we have used a mix of information, risk assessment strategies, and experience from past stressful situations.
My first action has been to find sources I can trust. In this case doctors and nurses who understand infectious diseases and national experts from Hopkins, Harvard, CDC, etc. I have also referred to economic and business professionals (Morgan Stanley, Bloomberg and Forbes) and my own business networks for assessing a broad range of factors on how and when businesses should open again. These sources have relied heavily on lessons learned from previous pandemics and from other countries who are ahead of us and who have been more successful in dealing with the spread of the coronavirus.
I have also looked back at other tumultuous periods of time to gain some perspective of how we came through previous desperate situations in my lifetime: Polio, Flu pandemics in the 1950s , oil embargoes and the social disruption of the 1970s, and more recently HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and the changing climate impacts. These were/are all quite scary events.
I have tried to filter out blatant ideological or political messages. Fortunately, there are political leaders from both parties on the state level (governors of MD, NY, OH, and CA) who share the data and the range of possible strategies and outcomes with the public so we all can see the impacts of different approaches. Once hearing of the risks of other approaches, e.g., going back to work too soon or too late, their strategies of relying on the data for each state make sense to me. It will be a challenge to get it right in all cases. The bottom line is that we all want to get the economy to rebound, but we sure done want to make it worse – the risks are too great.
There are lots of different perspectives for assessing when to go back to work and this is true in all decisions that will affect a wide number of people. I tried to explore the reality of dealing with different perspectives in The Big Melt, a climate novel set in Anytown, USA. In this book I created a typical small town in the US and populated it with a variety of people with a broad range of perspectives. A series of climate catastrophes hits the town and the reader watches as these disparate characters struggle with what to do. Everyone, of course, has their own opinion.
The protagonists, Marley and Brianne, have just graduated from high school and are looking forward to getting on with their lives. Then all hell breaks loose. They struggle with what they can do to save their town. They seek out mentors to discuss the options and then end up in a town meeting, debating what the local government should or should not do. The debate shows how messy the democratic process can be and reveals the challenges of getting community-wide buy in.
During their struggle to save their town, the teen-aged protagonists discover opportunities to help their neighbors and they organize to be more effective – much like we are doing today by helping each other with essential groceries, medicines, etc. As they learn how to help their community, they become role models showing us what can be done by individuals when governments don’t step up to the plate in time.
During the current pandemic, I have been thinking of the characters in this book, especially when I hear how some people are not following the recommendations of our leading experts: staying at least 6 ft apart, wearing masks, and staying home. I don’t get this response and yet the opinions of the more reactionary characters in the book are understandable in the context of their experiences. Their perspectives seem real in the story because they are shaped by their past history with neighbors and local governments.
So I try to accept different perspectives. But our country is asking us to go through a lot of pain right now to flatten the curve for the greater good. Shouldn’t we all be helping support that strategy? It’s success is dependent on all of us doing our part and it would be much more effective if we did. I have chosen to be more like Marley and Brianne and seek ways to work with others to solve this crisis in as scientific and logical a way as possible. I guess I do this because I feel deeply vested in my community. I know people who are compromised and who are at great risk. Like the protagonists in the book, I am part of my community and want to do whatever I can to protect as much of it as possible. So I wear my mask and I keep more than 6 feet apart and I stay at home and I try to support local businesses and people living from paycheck to paycheck.
I hope we come out of this pandemic with the realization that we are all better off working together. And I hope that the lessons we are learning right now will help us bring back a more sustainable economy – one that will help us be better prepared for managing future pandemics as well as the looming climate crisis. The best way to deal with a crisis is to prevent it whenever possible. When that is not possible, the next best strategy is to be prepared for it.