It’s not too late to make this the best summer yet.
Copyright: Evgeniy Baranov 89188538661
In 2012, President Barack Obama told CBS anchor Charlie Rose, “The mistake of my first term was thinking this job was just about getting the policy right… But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity, purpose, and optimism, especially during tough times.”
Our leaders have made many mistakes since the COVID-19 crisis began. But the biggest of all is their inability to tell the right story, one that unifies us. As summer approaches, throwing open its arms with the promise of sunshine — and yes, maybe even good times to come — let us take back the story we tell about hope, common purpose, and a can-do attitude.
Our collective fortunes require such thinking. And getting the story right requires us to be clear on what to do to ensure our economic recovery matches the hopes of millions. But success is not outside our reach. We can do this if we learn from the past and imagine a better future, starting with three insights.
Insight#1: Do No More (Needless) Harm
I recently teamed up with Dr. Angel Iscovich, to cowrite the forthcoming book, Routineology: The Key to Maximize Your Life and Cure Crisis. We never dreamed the content would prove so prescient. Just think about how COVID-19 has blown up our daily routines in the past few months.
A former ER physician and the CEO of billion-dollar medical companies, Dr. Iscovich has also been quick to point out the first line of the Hippocratic Oath all doctors are required to take: “First, do no harm.” Unfortunately, this prescriptive all but vanished in a panic of fear and uncertainty this spring.
Michelle Fairless, owner of a photography business in Mission Viejo, California, felt the brunt of this reality. According to her, “When we first started seeing what was going on in New York and images that looked like a war zone, we were all worried. The news coming in was 24/7 coverage of the coronavirus. Things went downhill from there. First, they shut down San Francisco. Before Orange County even put the order in place, fear had set in within the community. The business networking groups I am a part of cancelled all meetings until further notice. They’re still cancelled.”
Like many others in the service industry, Fairless was hurt by the March shutdown. She could no longer connect with the trusted advisor groups who sent her leads on a daily basis, and government orders barred her from servicing clients, crushing her ability to provide for her family.
Before describing what happened next, it’s important to acknowledge no one is discounting the gravity of this tragedy. We are all grieving. We are all devastated by so many lives lost. But it is also worth asking this question: is our approach needlessly hurting the living, those who must work to survive?
White House Trade advisor Peter Navarro thinks so. In April he said the following in an interview with The New York Times: “It’s disappointing that so many of the medical experts and pundits pontificating in the press appear tone deaf to the very significant losses of life and blows to American families that may result from an extended economic shutdown.”
Was Navarro right? Let’s consult the numbers. According to CNN, more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March. However, it’s likely this statistic understates the problem since many are unable to file claims due to ongoing problems, such as overwhelmed state offices.
But this isn’t all. “As bad as those numbers are, though, they greatly understate the crisis, since they don’t take into account many part-time, self-employed, and gig workers who are also losing their livelihoods, explains David Rotman for MIT Technology Review. “Financial experts predict that US GDP will drop as much as 30% to 50% by summer.”
Worse, we live in a country in which many depend on employers for health benefits. “That means that millions are or soon will be without health insurance, and millions more will struggle to pay premiums and co-pays on insurance they do have,” writes Abbe R. Gluck and Timothy Stoltzfus Jost for the Washington Post. “This puts even more pressure on hospital systems — already under enormous financial strain — because they are required to treat all patients with emergency conditions, including the uninsured.”
Though we could point to more examples of spiraling economic fallout exacerbated by the decision to shut down vast parts of the economy, let’s zero in on one more: rents. In a recent interview with NPR, Gabriela Roque, housing advocate with CASA, an immigrant rights organization working in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, puts the problem in stark terms. “The main crisis right now is paying for rent.”
Roque goes on to describe “horror stories” about renters borrowing money to avoid eviction. And lest we think this issue stops with renters, it’s key to recall this statistic from the same article: “According to an analysis from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, almost half of the country’s rental units are owned by individual investor landlords — ‘mom and pop’ landlords — people who depend on the rental income to pay bills, including mortgages and utilities.”
In the wake of so much suffering for the living, how might we change the story? To answer this, let’s consider Fairless’ thoughts on what happened to the country this spring. “They’ve taken away our constitutional right to earn money, protect our families, our homes, and our businesses.”
To understand how Fairless and others got here, it’s helpful to hear from Dr. Iscovich again. “As a doctor, I’m saying it’s ill-advised on the part of the administration to allow Dr. Anthony Fauci, or any doctor for that matter, to have such a lead role in forming our economic policy. Doctors are cautious by nature and want to ‘treat.’ But they’re not economists. They treat illnesses. They are supposed to ‘do no harm.’”
As all of the above proves, the ‘treatment’ is worse than the disease. Knowing this, we must acknowledge the next pivotal truth.
Insight #2: We Are ALL Essential
Psychologist and educator Victor Shamas, PhD once wrote, “In an era of globalization, we recognize that we are part of a global society, but we have no idea how to make such a society work. So far, no unified vision or leadership has emerged to guide us in this endeavor. We have not yet found a way to expand the spiritual ideals of democracy so that they pertain to every human being, every animal, and every plant. Until we do, human civilization and the Earth’s ecosystem will continue to be in peril.”
Shamas is right. And the real tragedy COVID-19 lays bare is our collective failure to realize our interconnectedness. For years, soothsayers such as Andrew Yang, warned us A.I. would take our jobs. Did we respond with universal basic income to protect the livelihoods of our citizens? No. Likewise, in The Sixth Extinction, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert told us human activities would kill 20 to 50 percent of all species by the century’s end. Did we take heed? No. It’s been business as usual.
Then, suddenly, COVID-19 comes along and we are told some workers and businesses are more essential than others. And while there is no doubt that nurses, doctors, police officers, retail clerks, and delivery drivers have carried the hardest, riskiest load in this crisis, we mustn’t discount the importance of all people. We’re all needed in the same way every species contributes to the rich, living tapestry of this planet.
“When it’s all said and done, the big boys will be able to write off losses from this pandemic,” says Donald Shepherd, owner of Shepherd Construction, commenting on what is likely to happen to so-called non-essential businesses. “But the little guys are not in a position to do that. This will go a long way toward quashing the American entrepreneurial spirit for years to come.”
But not if we don’t let it. Not if we change the story. Not if we wake up to the value each of us brings to this economy and this world. So, how do we honor this truth? With our final insight.
Insight#3: We Must Support Small Businesses
For years, Valorie Green and her husband, John, owners of the restaurant High Park Tap House, gave back. Members of their local chamber of commerce, they hosted weekly breakfasts to connect businesses with each other. They volunteered for fundraisers and donated food to local sports teams, charities, schools, and religious organizations. To use a common phrase, they were pillars of their community.
But then COVID-19 struck, forcing the Greens to close down the business they have owned for years, the establishment where their son Michael works as general manager, the same locale that once raised money to help an employee with cancer. Still, Green is not disputing the need for the shutdown. “I want others to be safe. It’s a terrible feeling to look at people and feel you should avoid them.”
It’s heartbreaking to consider these words from the owner of a family restaurant that year after year provided a retreat for devoted patrons to celebrate milestones and holidays, a place where every weekend guests packed tables to watch sports games and converse with the people they love.
All of this sadness leads us to one more question: what is the story for restaurant owners such as Green after COVID-19? Likewise, what is the story for small business owners like Fairless and Shepherd? Are we willing to let them fail?
No. The new story we must tell, beginning today, is that all of us matter. All of us compose a vibrant ecosystem that rises and falls based on how we support one another. To get our recovery right, to save this country and our way of life, we must remember our collective responsibility to one another.
In the final chapter of Routineology, Dr. Iscovich and I discuss the human need to fight uncertainty: “Since time immemorial, we feared the unknown. Technologies, like Big Data and AI, are supposed to free us from our terror, to make the unpredictable, predictable.”
Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, even these innovations fail to tell us what will come next. In the absence of certainty, in the void of not knowing what tomorrow will bring, we must return to a better story to tell in the dark. It goes like this: we are in this life together. And we shall overcome the worst. Together.