Monday, April 6, 2020

COVID-19: Simple Advice for a New Kind of Long Tail

We are drowning in advice about how to cope with the current pandemic.  It's well-meaning, and much of it is helpful.

But we’re all different. One person might be searching for a new podcast to pass the time while another might not have access to the Internet.  One friend might need advice on how to turn her living room into a home office, another on how to cope with two young children in a 1,100 square-foot apartment.  One might be looking for a new investment strategy, another worried about paying this month’s rent.

Amidst all these good intentions, I tried to find in my reading this weekend a few simple truths.

1. The virus writes the rules.

“There is a saying among epidemiologists, Alex De Wall of the Boston Review writes: “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic.”

In other words, we barely know what’s going to happen this week, much less six months from now.  Seasonality and duration of immunity are both unknowns.  Our willingness to practice social distancing is another.  We don't know why the virus kills some and spares others.

Maybe you were infected last October and have been asymptomatic and feeling fine ever since.

Seen one pandemic--seen one pandemic.

The reason, explained Margaret Chan, WHO director at the time of SARS, is that “the virus writes the rules.”

2. Prepare for a long process.

Cases may peak in May, maybe June.  There may be periodic peaks across America for the next three months.  Most of us can plan on at least more eight weeks of social distancing.
It seems likely that we’ll have a COVID-19 vaccine someday, but it’s unlikely it can be made available in less than a year. And a vaccine would hardly be the end of our worries. “Viruses are evolution in action—on steroids,” writes Robin Wright in The New Yorker.  New waves of infection this fall and in 2021 are almost inevitable.  We need to prepare for multiple periods of social distancing.

Adaptability and resilience will be strengths.  Modeling them for others will be a gift.  Listening to experts and avoiding the political happy talk will be essential.

3. Make your bed.

You already know this good advice from Admiral William McGraven’s famous graduation speech. 

You will feel better if there are events on your calendar so that Wednesday is different from Sunday.  You will feel better if you can get to the end of a day and know you have accomplished something, no matter how small. 

Writing in the New York Times, astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year on the International Space Station, suggested that keeping a routine and writing a journal can help ease loneliness. The legendary biographer Robert Caro gets up every morning, puts on a suit and tie, and goes to an office where he works all day by himself. 

Scott Berinato, an author and senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, says: “Rituals, it turns out, are a powerful human mechanism for managing extreme emotions and stress, and we should be leaning on them now.”  He encourages people who are anxious or grieving in this time to deliberately create rituals to help organize their lives—even if it’s watching TV together at the same time every night.

You don’t have to wear a suit and tie, keep a journal, watch TV every night, or make your bed.  But the advice is consistent: structure helps.

4. Empathy, empathy, empathy.

According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, an expert in loneliness at Brigham Young University, studies have shown that those who feel they have “supportive people” in their social networks are less likely to react to stressful circumstances than those who do not. 

If you have teens or tweens, especially girls, the New York Times Book Review podcast with psychologist Lisa Damour will calm you.  She says: Lots of empathy.  Lots of empathy.  By helping young people get through this crisis, it will make them more resilient for the rest of their lives.

Think of this crisis as a teaching moment.  You are the instructor.

5. What we do matters.

When historian David McCullough tells the story of the retreat of Washington's army across the East River in 1776, he says it was an unexpected fog that allowed them to slip past the heavily armed British navy. "It was a miracle," McCullough adds. "If the wind had been blowing in a different direction that day, we'd all be sipping tea and singing 'God Save the Queen.'”

However, had Washington not been decisive in attempting his bold escape, no fog in the world would have saved him.

What we do matters.  People create history in the choices they make.  

In the entrepreneurial world, the groundswell of innovation in direct response to COVID-19, from cheap ventilators to dozens of vaccine trials, has been astonishing.  But even if you are not on the front lines, or your education or employment has you sidelined, innovation doesn’t need to stop.  Whatsapp, Uber, and Slack all emerged from the ashes of the Great Recession of 2008.

If you are a young entrepreneur, you’re probably tired of hearing about tales from the 2008 Recession, or the dot-com bubble and bust.  If you hang around the elderly, you’ll hear about Black Friday 1987 or worse still, the Blizzard of ‘78.

When you make it through this, you will own it.  You will be more resilient.  No future crisis will seem as bad.  And, imagine having lunch in 2035, when you can bore the heck out of your young managers with stories of the Pandemic of ’20.

Patience, humility, structure, empathy.  The virus may write the rules, but what we do matters.

1 comment:

  1. This is so important. What we do matters. You may inspire me to dust off the post I've been trying to write ever since reading "The Last Battle is the Biggest One." (