"At some point, the country -- always the same country -- crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different." – George Packer, The Unwinding (2013)
Never have Packer’s words rung truer than they do at this very moment. Most Americans, and millions of people all around the world, find themselves sequestered in their homes in the midst of an unwanted and terrifying isolation sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic. The global economy has slid to a screeching halt and the word "depression" is credibly being thrown around for the first time in decades. As numbers of infections surge in the United States, the worst for Americans is likely still to come. This is undoubtedly a moment of unwinding, as Packer would put it. However, as with any crisis, we will soon have a choice to make. Will we use this as a moment of further division or as a chance to learn and grow for the good of future generations?
Whichever path we choose, there is no doubt this is a moment of reckoning. I’m not only talking about the obvious reckoning on public health: We are living through a real-time realization that a global health pandemic is a catastrophic risk to us all, as experts have said for many years. This reckoning is about much more than that. The factors that have converged here reflect a much larger existential moment for humanity, likely comparable to seismic shifts following World War Two and September 11th. This is especially true for the United States, as we cling to our decades-long status as the most influential country on the planet.
Here we are at another moment of reckoning in our national identity. Beyond an awakening in terms of public health, it is also forcing a reckoning of beliefs, assumptions and norms that have defined, and often divided, the Western World for the last couple decades. Though it is far from over, I believe Covid-19 has already brought to light 6 realities for which we must come to terms once the crisis has calmed:
1. We need experts. And we need to trust them.
The head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci has enjoyed a sudden and deserved surge in popularity, almost achieving a cult following. I’m not a big fan of cults, but this is a man whose entire professional life has prepared him for this moment. We need him and we need to hear him. We need our elected leaders from both parties to listen to him. The influence of an expert like Dr. Fauci is critical for us all during a crisis such as Covid-19. Perhaps the views of these experts should be given greater weight during "normal" times as well.
But that gets in the way of all-day sensational headlines and our seemingly insatiable need for drama. The scientists simply aren’t the kind of influencers we tend to favor during crisis-free days and, for some reason, many of us aren’t giving them enough influence in this dire moment. Sensationalism and "created conflict" desensitize people to real issues and threats. Unprecedented partisan vitriol and the proliferation of ideological and partisan media have led to conflict fatigue and the inability of many Americans to differentiate smoke from fire. When everything is "breaking news" is anything, really?
Trust those trained on these issues. We need experts. In times of crisis and in times of calm.
2. Communications matter more than ever.
In the last week I have seen so many friends from across the communications universe sharing their wisdom on communications during times of crisis. Earlier in my career as a crisis specialist at Weber Shandwick I supported American Airlines in their response on 9/11, helped managed anti-Americanism in the Middle East for several brands in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and worked with clients on a wide range of other crises from human rights in Africa to product issues in Asia. I can confidently say many of our industry’s leaders have demonstrated strong crisis skills, companies have rallied to help those in-need and many have opined on the proper strategic and tactics for crisis response. The fundamentals ring true and most in our vocation know them well.
On the other hand, far too many of our political peers are missing the mark. I’m not just referencing the obvious struggles of the White House’s communications and contradictions of the last couple weeks, though those failings are worthy of discussion. I’m really talking about the absolute disaster that was the lack of preparedness for a very predictable and anticipated event. Not to mention the failure to seriously respond to the early warning signs. It has been a complete failure of our government and any bipartisan consensus of leaders to effectively advocate – via even adequate communications – the need to be fully prepared for a global pandemic. Many government agencies and states have rallied, but the poor communications and delayed action are inexcusable. Like the old crisis planning adage says – without preparedness the battle is lost before the first shot is fired.
Will we learn anything here about the importance of communication planning and preparedness? Will it be truly different the next time?
3. Living in your ideological bubble is not living in reality.
Somewhat similar to the current isolation so many people are experiencing, too many of us have sequestered ourselves for years with sources of information purely representing the views we want, not the information we need. I cannot overstate how incredibly dangerous this is during a public health crisis. I also personally believe this is incredibly ignorant during times of non-crisis. You are not living in reality and you are contributing to the erosion of public trust that, in turn, contributes to the furtherance of crises, but none more dangerous than a public health crisis. We all see parents who just tell their children what they want to hear, rather than sharing the hard truths that prepare them for life once they are independent adults. How does that story end?
If you don’t live in reality, consume objective information based in science and practice habits in the best interests of the public (rather than for yourself or on behalf of your ideology) there are ramifications. This is when actual, living breathing human beings with families, friends and only one shot at this life…can die.
We must get out of our bubbles and live in the "real" reality, not TV’s – or our chosen channel’s – version of it.
4. Our standard of living is very high. And terrifyingly fragile.
Who knew toilet paper would achieve hype-beast status like that of a Supreme T-shirt?
I’d guess one group with a sense of the value of toilet paper would be the half-million people who die each year from poor sanitation and related issues like open defecation around the world. I am so proud to live in a country with such a high quality of life and I truly believe we worked very hard to earn it. Nobly fighting through two world wars, standing strong as the shining beacon of freedom through the Cold War and bringing the world incredible innovations in industry, technology and medicine over centuries.
But perhaps our triple-ply oversupply caused us to get a little soft? Maybe we’ve gotten a little greedy? Maybe we’ve spent a little too much time (and way too much money) on things that simply aren’t that important because we’ve come to take for granted the fundamentals?
Maybe we’ll start to realize how unimportant some things are and how fragile our affluence really is – at least for the many (not all) who have had it for so long.
5. Corporate citizenship is now a vital resource for human wellbeing.
In recent months there has been growing criticism of "greenwashing" and CSR fatigue, but I’ve been so impressed by the efforts of many brands and corporations working over the last week to fill the voids and offset the failings of many public sector leaders. Tesla and other automakers have mobilized to help with ventilator shortages, DuPont is surging production of hazmat suits and many apparel brands, from Nike to the Gap, have shifted production to make masks for frontline health workers.
I’m never a fan of kneejerk government bashing, but there’s no question we’ve seen failings by our leadership and some public institutions during this crisis. Business has also been far from perfect, as we’ve seen inexcusable price-gouging and certain companies and products exploiting public fears by tailoring their marketing to this moment. But it is clear that corporations and brands have a ton to contribute to the public good, in both times of crisis and times of prosperity.
Hopefully, we’ll see even more investment in corporate citizenship, the furtherance of public-private partnerships for preparedness and more contributions of innovation from businesses for the public good.
6. We are one global human race.
Nationalism and isolationism have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, largely as a counterpunch to the surge of globalization in a digitally connected world. Much like the technology that has changed so many realms of daily life (and brought international interference into national political systems), pandemics know no borders. Pathogens have no regard for your political beliefs. Diseases typically don’t care much about the color of skin or your national or ethnic identity. While any good scientist would rightly argue the virtues of isolating a toxin, there is no doubt this is a lesson in our inevitable and unavoidable interdependency in the global economy. Have we forgotten the weight of our responsibility as that "bright shining city on the hill", which defined decades of leadership and highly engaged foreign policy? Rather than entrench and isolate, we need to lead, engage and collaborate to ensure there are quality, consistent systems in place to manage future threats, not only at home but also around the world.
And what will this mean in terms of other global realities? Climate change is a real and pervasive threat to the future of humanity. Will doubters and resistors now realize how interconnected we are? Will those of us living our lives of mass affluence where we can’t see the imminent threat of climate change begin to realize, like a pandemic, it is more than a talking point? More than a reason for some frivolous regulations and spending of hard-earned tax dollars?
Will we all finally accept the science and commit to taking the necessary measures to rein in this other, rapidly growing global threat?
Someday we will have a vaccine. Hopefully sooner than later. For those who survive, life will return to some semblance of normalcy. Probably a very new normal.
The crisis will be tirelessly examined. Books will be written, politicians will opine and say things like "never again". Victims and heroes will be recognized.
And no doubt we will become "irretrievably different" as Packer wrote.
But will we be better for it? Will we actually learn from it?
That will be up to us.
Bryan Specht is CEO and Managing Partner of Salient Ventures.