Change is a Comin’…or Maybe Not: Facing the Coronavirus
By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC
We are now facing a national emergency, not of war, but of a virus whose transmission and insidious nature is causing a worldwide pandemic. Through the last 300 years, there was the Great Plague of Marseille of 1720-1722, which killed about 300,000; the Russian Plague of 1770-1772, which killed 100,000; the Flu pandemic of 1889-1890, which killed one-million people; the American Polio epidemic, which caused 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths; the Spanish Flu 1918-1920 which caused 500-million cases and 100-million deaths; and the Asian Flu 1957-1958,which caused 1.1 million deaths worldwide and 116,000 deaths in the U.S. Although through the years there have been terrific advances in medicine, the coronavirus will still be a major challenge for the health care sector.
Sacrificing Becomes Us
Whenever a serious crisis hit this country, there was a period of societal cohesiveness. Every one becomes or tries to become more connected to, and empathetic, with others who suffered a tragedy or struggled to survive. We saw this in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. We are now seeing it—albeit on a larger scale—with the coronavirus pandemic.
The question is: Will we go back to being creatures of habit as we did a few months after 9/11, or will the widespread impact of the coronavirus force us to accept and respond appropriately to sacrifice —and create more of a volunteer “mindset”? It’s a tough question, to be sure; after all, one’s obstinance to change is another’s minor inconvenience.
As a country, we made sacrifices. There is no better example than World War 2. During the years of 1940-1944, major manufacturers re-engineered their production operations for the war effort. General Motors ceased making cars and instead made tanks, trucks and aircraft parts. Ford Motor Company produced aircraft parts and trucks. Bethlehem Steel made ships. Lockheed and Boeing made aircraft. Many other companies transformed their production capabilities, ranging from rubber to gasoline and oil; from incendiary bombs to radios.
To ensure targets could be reached, President Roosevelt lobbied for policies that would make companies more willing to do business with the federal government, including tax incentives and advance payments for retooling and improving their production lines to make war materials. While not exactly a parallel, this public-private partnership was the sort of effort the current administration adopted in order to pass the necessary legislation.
While our military fought in the European and Asian theaters, on the home front sacrifices were made that included food rationing. People stood on long lines to get their ration cards. There were limitations on purchases of meat, butter, soups, vegetables, sugar and coffee, oil and gasoline; and no silk stockings for women, as the material was used for making parachutes. To manage with the hardship, people dug up their yards and planted vegetables that contributed a large portion of the overall vegetables produced across the country.
Finally, people bought “War Bonds” to help fund the war effort, which gave a sense of patriotism and a feeling of supporting a great and noble objective.
Will Behaviors Change and Will They be Permanent?
When it comes to convincing people or businesses to make some sacrifices or changes for the greater good, we can see either the best or worst of people.
The best: Neighbors, who include my wife and me, check in via phone or text with older people in our development. We ask whether they need food or medicine from a local mall or the preparation of meals. There are the EMT workers entering homes to aid those who have suffered heart attacks or the effects of the coronavirus and who themselves face the possibility of becoming infected. Add to this those who courageously slog through their days: from law enforcement and firemen to grocery store cashiers and bank tellers.
The worst: Those on the other end of the spectrum who have congregated in public parks against local mandates that resulted in closings. This has forced parents, who were already required to stay at home with young children, to be precluded from taking them to the park for fresh air, even though they would comply with the strictures of social distancing.
Then there are the shoppers in grocery stores who go down the aisles (opposite of directional arrows) and stop in the middle to talk on their cellphones; who don’t cover their mouths when they cough; or throw their disposable gloves in the parking lot instead of in the conveniently placed garbage cans outside the store.
Or what about the pastor in Florida who held two revivals in an enclosed area with hundreds of congregants gathered closely in violation of the social distancing rules? Or the governors who have not yet imposed stay-at-home rules? How about the ultimate in obliviousness: A governor who did not know that even if a person was asymptomatic he or she could still be infectious. And that governor’s mansion is located only 6.5 miles from the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A question to ask: Will selfishness leading to public harm finally reach a tipping point? Will it drive permanent change, or will new (and better) behaviors only be temporary? History has proven the latter, though we fervently hope for the former.
Much has been written about behavioral economics and how outside influences direct our thinking and actions. This discipline merges lessons from the fields of psychology, judgment and decision making, and economics that offer greater understanding of human behavior with more accuracy and in-depth analysis than any one of those fields could explain individually.
Behavioral economics suggests that people, despite what they believe is their best intentions, do not always make rational decisions. This considers the fact that even when it is in their interest to do so, the brain’s connections, which engages thought leading to decisions, is hard-wired and difficult to modify.
To gain a better idea of what makes us as humans tick, I recommend reading Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Among the topics it addresses: built-in biases, temptations, peer pressure and the architecture behind making choices. The publication is as relevant today (if not more) as it was when first published in 2008.
I wish we will be our best selves going forward; that we consider this pandemic a “reset” for evaluating our priorities, our thinking and our actions. Perhaps we can take a breath and differentiate what is a “must have,” a “nice to have,” and a “fuggedaboutit!”
We must resign ourselves to this fact: In this crisis, the tone is not set from the top. Instead, it is up to us to collectively practice good citizenship and set the right example.
Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.