Wayne Clark PhD and Woodrow Clark PhD
A continuum of fear exists during this stage of the coronavirus pandemic; an emotion that gets expressed at one end as a fear of being exposed to, contracting the covid-19 virus, and risk of death. This expression of being scared on the one hand is juxtaposed and compared to the eagerness of getting back to the old normal based on the fear of losing income, ending a profession, and livelihood. These fears play out in two major ways. On one end is the illness death side of the continuum is cautious, unwilling to expose oneself to the molecules that might be found by simple contact or conversation with a coronavirus positive carrier. This fear controls whether one goes out of your house, let alone go to a store, restaurant, park, office, school, or especially a large gathering such as a convention, concert, sporting event. The public policies emanating from this end of the pandemic fear continuum are cautious, gradual, specific to certain populations and places (hot spots), while capable of changing with any new surge in re-occurrence.
The eagerness is the second fear on the other end of the pandemic fear continuum stems from the loss of livelihood, of profession, and income. This second fear gets played out in policies for the immediate return to work, opening schools, beaches, in a manner that is more abrupt, more eager for return to the old normal, while apparently unconcerned about health consequences, and mortality.
Let us step back from this live vs livelihood definition of the problem and instead view this as the opportunity to change society so this does not happen again. The pathway out is filled with new livelihoods that are sustainable and renewable. How do we build this road, what do we need to do to adapt the society to a sustain a healthy populace and a more regenerative robust economy? What does successful rebuilding look like?
Foremost, we need a united message, based on caution, reason, science, and empathy voiced at all levels of national, state, local governments, and businesses. The initial successes in bending the curve of the epidemic have been due to clear and simple messages, wash your hands, stay a distance away, take action for yourself while knowing that these practices will help others, and obey the rules. Some parts of the United States have identified a common purpose with much success. We now need a new common purpose and a strong voice. Yes, there will be extremes; yes, there will be some difference of opinion; yes, there will be choices, but now we must merge the division between health and wealth. Do we prioritize one over the other or do we embrace both? We can quell the most eager and show caution to reassure the most scared.
Several authors have written about the significant role consumers will have in telling the story of how we moved down the road to a new normal, predicting that people will vote with their feet. We can open the schools but if the parents do not send the kids to school, what will happen? We can restart shopping malls, but if shoppers are too scared to be in contact with others then all we have done is create more cost and less revenue for the businesses. We can no longer try to bend the curve by not regulating social interaction. Even though this will result in more morbidity while the healthcare workforce struggles to have sufficient numbers that are still able or willing to risk their lives for a policy that is unwilling to unite towards a future and new normal.
To keep bending the curve to decrease disease, time and change need to be balanced, is it the right time and how much change? Today, we have significant contractions and expansions, in the health area we have declines in the new cases, but we also have hot spots of expansion of new cases. In the economic sphere we have significant decline in the workforce, revenues, everything from airplane reservations to house cleaning services. Economically, we also have significant expansion in new ways of communicating (Zoom), consuming (home delivery), educating (distance and virtual learning), working (In home), etc. Everywhere you look the health and wealth of our society is in a tipping point of assuring we do not spread the pandemic while we carefully keep economic vitality.
In the early 1980’s the AIDS epidemic picked up steam as only specific populations in certain hotspots became places where seemingly normal illnesses would strike down healthy young men. Their immune system had no defense, so for those with AIDS a normal chest cold would lead to life ending pneumocystis pneumonia. The media was full of scientific information about medicines, research trials, and precautionary activities. The newspapers in the hotspots filled with pages of obituaries, alternative therapies were tried, new vectors of transmission, were discovered, but well into the next decade there was no cure, no vaccine and people were still dying around the world. The epidemic did not go away quickly, easily or with some miraculous cure. In fact, it was the combination of several drugs ten years after the first case was a successful treatment produced so there at least was given a glimmer of hope.
AIDS is a much different virus than Covid-19 for at least two significant reasons. AIDS is spread by direct contact with another human being that has tested positive for HIV and AIDS. Second is that AIDS is spread primarily in specific populations, men who have sex with men and injection drug users. Covid-19 is much less contained not only in the method of transmission (oral molecules in the air) but also in the exposure in the general population by human carriers of the virus (all ages and those without symptoms). So, we have a situation now where the disease is more widespread while the method to control it is potentially as difficult as it was with AIDS.
The significance of these factors is very troubling for how we live now and how we as humans survive in the future. Re-growing the economy needs to be attending to containing the spread of a deadly virus. One of my main concerns is that we pull the politics out of this. We are a polarized nation and world, nationalism and radicalism ideas are rampant, faith in our leaders and trust in science is at a low level. How do we get through this without killing each other off, while in the political reality that now exists?
Let us explore the possibilities: how does a society manage the variations while combating the disease, preventing economic collapse, and creating the next economics?
Before the pandemic started spreading, the society, the economy, the lifestyles, the businesses, etc. were at a certain level of predictability. For instance; there would be a March Madness, a baseball season opener, an unprecedented high employment, enough health care delivered in a timely way, the airplanes would fly, the trains would roll, the workplace would be buzzing, for most of us there was a normal we got used to.
Then the pandemic hit and we as a body of public and private institutions and businesses, united to assure there was social distancing, social isolation, quarantining, no more sports, no more concerts, no more school, no more religious gatherings, no more tourists, no more eating at restaurants. An alternative normal was achieved, it resulted in thousands not millions of deaths, we did it, it is not over yet, but we created an alternative normal. My niece who works in pediatric ICU’s sent me the following analogy: “What if we were to jump from a plane, open our parachute, then half way down, we decided that since it was working so well, we didn’t need it anymore?”
Now we are looking for what the new normal will be! It will be different for all of us, just as flying after 9/11 has been different, but due to the breadth and scope of the pandemic, there will be many more differences. We as a society need to step up and create how we want those differences to be, we have shown that we can create an alternative normal if we all work together. We have bent the curve, some places better than others sometimes not as well, but we have not had millions of deaths, we have minimized it thus far. We need to change our social norms again, but this time we can be more visionary, more careful about social justice, income inequality, caring for the earth and all living beings on it.
No one person or discipline has all the answers! Many of the answers at first will ultimately not work, others that seemed unattainable will be seen as normal after we as a society get used to them. Some alternatives will change our lifestyles, our work schedules, how we learn, where we spend our last years (more of us aging in place fewer of us in nursing homes). How we travel, whether to take a cruise or not. How to learn, in person or virtually. Where and how we eat, outdoors instead of intimate dining. How we get to and if we work every day. How we participate and observe sports and entertainment like concerts. These are just a few of the challenges which will result in changes, some for the better some that just might not work. As we have said in previous blogs, there will be new policies; new ways of educating, doing business, and the option to vote with our feet.