(More) lessons from covid-19

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before.”– Rahm Emanuel

(Wall Street Journal interview, November 19, 2008)

Covid-19 has reinforced an old lesson: pandemics and other disasters are inherently nonlinear and integrative. Pre-disaster, our respective lives and our families and our work and our destinies seemed only loosely connected to each other; we all enjoyed great freedom to follow our individual inclinations. The economy and public health, though co-existing, were essentially unrelated. But then the disaster hit; suddenly we found our lives and futures tightly intertwined. That cliché “we’re all in it together” turned out to be the reality.

Those who managed our once separate lives – our spouses and our bosses and our political masters who tweaked our conduct and performance, molding us and making us more useful to society (and sometimes to their personal ends) – also awakened to reality. At all times, but most visibly in times of crisis, the task that matters most is leadership – not modifying behavior but instead listening to and working with people to uncover and build and articulate common aspiration and purpose and enthusiasm. Judged by this more demanding standard, some of the folks in charge rise in public regard while others fall.

A big lesson indeed. But the covid-19 crisis has so much more to teach us. The schooling doesn’t stop there. The pandemic underscores three other important realities: (1) Disaster recovery may be a widely held notion, and a subject of study by experts, but it’s not a real thing. (2) Hurricanes, earthquakes, and many other disasters are confined locally and are of short duration, leaving a much larger world essentially untouched, able to conduct business as usual; but disasters of fully global scale require a different conceptualization and treatment. (3) For most people undergoing a disaster and its aftermath, a major challenge is the loss of what is called agency.  

Each provides opportunities for learning that could vaccinate us against future disasters. Let’s begin with: 

Disaster recovery is an oxymoron[1]. Those individuals who experience but survive a catastrophe – who lose a loved one, or their homes or jobs or businesses in a hurricane or tornado or earthquake – rarely actually recover. Instead they move into a new normal. Their lives take a substantially different trajectory. They’re changed physically, mentally, spiritually by the experience.  Their financial, career, and life circumstances are permanently altered. Similarly, the idea of community recovery fails to capture what actually takes place. New homes may be built where the old ones stood. New jobs may arise to replace the old. But often, entirely new people enter the affected area from outside. A community’s governance, economy, culture, and social networks may still be there to be seen, but they’re not a recovered version of the old; it’s not the population or the demographic that was before. Ask Puerto Ricans if they’ve recovered from hurricane Maria. Ask Houstonians if they’ve recovered from hurricane Harvey. For that matter, ask New Orleanians if they’ve recovered from hurricane Katrina. The late-summer anniversaries of these events will bring a new spate of updates, rediscovering this same reality. 

Life for the survivors does move on. It’s not just about loss. Even during the disaster itself, there’s good (as described so well by Rebecca Solnit in her wonderful 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, the Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster). More encouraging signs follow. As time passes, there’s healing, and new preoccupations and new aspirations.  New relations are formed. New love is built. Positive things happen. 

Good wins out. 

But the more accurate way to look at the healing is this: it’s the much larger society that recovers. An analogy: suppose I cut my hand in a kitchen accident. Some time later, I’m healed. Fact is, that slight cut hardly slowed me down. But the millions of cells that had been at the site of the wound? They died, and stayed dead, starting on day one.

Which segues to the second lesson:

Global catastrophes bring additional challenges. These days, amid the personal concerns (how do I keep the kids moving forward when school’s out and they’re isolated at home? Did that person in the supermarket cough as he went by? Is my throat just dry or is that the beginning of something more serious?), we look around or catch up with the news and are confronted by larger questions: what does recovery look like, what’s the path forward, following this catastrophe? When everything we’ve learned about smaller disasters – the floods and the tornadoes, and the earthquakes, and more – is scaled up? When there’s essentially no untouched part of society to carry on? When we have to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps, instead of relying on an external helping hand?

In particular, how and when will I start working again? What does it mean to reboot the world economy? Experience with small disasters gives us clues. Take restoration of power following a hurricane. Step one is waiting for daylight. Step two is clearing the debris making roads impassable to and within the areas hardest hit. Step three is bringing up the infrastructure. Restoring power to hospitals, the larger population clusters comes next. The last step, restoring power to scattered individual homes, can take days. It’s messy and prolonged, and life is on hold until pretty much the end. (Oh, and did we cover the piece where many of the crews working the restoration came from unaffected utilities in the states nearby? And now we’re talking about “no unaffected states;” they have their own preoccupations and priorities. We’re seeing this play out in the global and state-by-state competition for medical gear and personnel.) Restoring global commerce will take time. It will be messy. There will be casualties. We can’t just wait for help; we need to shoulder personal responsibility.

Experience with the impacts of lesser disasters on local business gives us an idea of what to expect.  FEMA studies, and others, suggest that something like half of small businesses that close their doors during a disaster never reopen. It’s not just that small businesses suffer property loss. Their income stream may be interrupted, because their employees or their customer base were affected by the disaster. Most small businesses are marginal; few can afford insurance against such disruption. And the history is that SBA and similar loans, which can lay claim to personal assets as collateral, too often merely aggravate and prolong the agony for the small-business owner.

Covid-19 is playing out this scenario on the big screen. It’s hammered not just small business, but also larger firms. It’s disrupted entire sectors of the economy: cruises; air travel, and transportation more generally; restaurants, the hotel industry, sports, entertainment; retailing; the oil sector. Each day brings home new understanding of the fuller, still-unfolding dimensions of the impact. 

Which brings us to the third lesson:

Disasters destroy agency. When life is normal, prior to a disaster, most people – including you and me – enjoy a degree of control over daily decisions and with regard to their longer-term destiny. People have options; they make choices. They then act. But those who evacuate in the face of a hurricane and relocate in the gymnasium of an inland school, or who flee the wrath of a dictator like Syria’s Assad, and find themselves in a refugee camp backed up against the Turkish border, walk into a condition of total dependency. They lack means to feed or shelter themselves or their families. They have no opportunity for work. They lack transportation to seek help; they lose their standing and their ability to engage governments and larger authority. They can only wait for needed help to come to them. Social scientists call this a loss of agency.

Like a vaccination, as opposed to the real thing, covid-19 and the strictures imposed on our behavior, our freedom of movement, extending even our apparel, are giving each and every one of us on the planet the opportunity to experience this loss of agency first hand.  Our workplaces are shuttered. Employees are working from home or furloughed. Restaurants and stores are closed. Schools have cancelled classes through the end of the semester. Sports, the performing arts and other forms of entertainment have evaporated. Travel and movement, even in public places, are restricted. We’re now encouraged to wear masks everywhere we go.

The experience doesn’t begin to parallel the gymnasium shelter or the refugee camp, where food supply is intermittent at best and by no means assured, where sanitation and privacy are lacking, where basic human rights and aspirations are suddenly no longer a given. But the days or weeks of social distancing the world is experiencing so far and the weeks of more of the same that lie ahead should have convinced the most sanguine of us: we never want to experience anything remotely like this again in our lifetimes

Disaster experts tell us that our personal experiences with disaster shape our response to future such threats. Here’s an (admittedly antique) example. If hurricane Camille hits in 1969 and its winds and surge destroy my house, carry me and my family a mile inland, and we manage to save ourselves only by clinging to a tree, I respond to hurricane Katrina in 2005 by evacuating. If I was hundred miles away from the eye of hurricane Camille and the winds were high but the house remained intact, I decide to ride out Katrina. I maybe fail to refine my decisions based on where forecasters and emergency managers tell me I stand (stood) relative to the oncoming storm, or even based on the reality that I’ve aged three decades and am no longer the young man or woman I’d been back then. 

What are some of the covid-19 takeaways? You can develop your own better ideas, but here are some thoughts to start.

  1. Purpose to never again be complacent regarding the fate of others who suffer disaster at the hands of nature. Do your bit to help out. If you can’t do so personally, hold your business and public leaders to account. Insist they focus attention and resources on recovery from California wildfires, or Gulf Coast hurricanes, or Puerto Rico’s hurricanes and earthquakes. Don’t allow those survivors to dangle in the wind.
  • As for your present circumstance in this pandemic, expect a changed future; not a return to what was. Read, listen to what others see as the likely aftermath. Form your own ideas. Think through their implications for your life, your relationships, your career. 
  • Embrace that future! Reclaim your agency as quickly as possible. And take it a step further. Purpose to be an agent of the coming change, not simply an observer, or a passive participant. Don’t let the future simply happen to you.
  • Take the lesson to heart! Learn from this experience. Disaster experts talk about the disaster cycle: mitigation, preparation, response, recovery. Repeat. Wait a second! Cycle? Repeat? That’s not learning; that’s failure to learn. Do your bit to ensure that the next virus encounters a more prepared world, not a similarly vulnerable world. For that matter, meet the Rahm Emanuel challenge. Recognize that maybe – just maybe – the covid-19 experience can equip humanity to deal with climate change. Seize the opportunity.
  • And finally (and this might not seem to you to fit the tone of the post so far, but it’s the most important part), relax. You’ve always wanted to live a life that matters. That issue is no longer in suspense. Threats to your agency notwithstanding, your life – what you do, and how and why you do it, matter more now, going forward, than ever before. The rest of us need you. We’re counting on you. We’re glad you’re here, and that you’re engaged, and that you’re part of the solution. You’ve got our back, and we have yours. We’re in this together. And together – we’ve got this.

[1]The ideas here, and throughout this post, have been introduced in earlier posts in LOTRW, and in LOTRW the book (especially on pp. 141-145, but threaded through).

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