There’s new news about COVID-19 every day. But as I’m writing this, I only see three possibilities.
One, we continue to pursue our ordinary lives, imagining this virus doesn’t really matter. We keep going to our jobs, to church, to parties. We cling fast to life as we have always known it, willing it to stay the same. We do our work because we have to, because our economy must stay in motion to survive.
But if we do this, many human beings may not survive.
And then, life as we’ve always known it changes anyway. That’s why this option is no option. This first possibility is one we can’t allow.
We have to let it go.
That’s painful; it means loss and change. We’ll have to grieve and mourn. To stay home costs us something.
But it saves lives. We must choose it, every day, however long it takes.
That leaves two possibilities.
Two, we slow down our interactions – and thus, our economy – from sprint to crawl. We suffer. But we save lives, too. We embrace temporary change to save ourselves and others.
In a couple months, the threat is past.
And then it’s back to our old normal. Our old jobs, our favorite restaurants, our old haunts. Old incomes, rents and mortgage payments. Our old social and financial hierarchies.
This possibility, in which the present phase of social distancing takes weeks or months, means we emerge from isolation to re-start our world the way it was – albeit in a deep recession. It may take great effort – bailouts and exemptions, waivers, stimulus packages, and a lot of good old-fashioned human kindness – to keep jobs and businesses alive in deep freeze long enough to wait the virus out. But for a couple weeks or months, perhaps enough of us could hold our economic breath.
We’d take the hit – but we’d keep on going. Money lost, lives saved.
And we’d rebuild from there.
But that’s assuming extreme social distancing need only last for weeks or months. That’s the assumption governments and businesses – including mine – are working with right now. The CDC said wait 8 weeks; we’ll wait 8 weeks. Write continuity plans; make it through two months with low cash flow. Then get to work.
Remarkable, incredible. A painful, monumental possibility. We grieve this outcome – and we hope for it as well. We hope the world returns to what it was.
But we don’t know yet, do we? There’s another possibility.
Three, there’s the possibility that social distancing persists in some form for a year or more. Some experts warn us that this virus may be something we cannot wait out: It goes away when there’s a vaccine, not before. Without vaccines, the threat remains.
And we remain apart, in economic freefall.
That’s why we’ve already made vaccines so quickly. But if you intend to give a vaccine to most of the human race, you need to test it very carefully. We’re doing that. And tests take time. They take more than a year.
And that’s the rub. If going back to work before vaccines are ready means exposing anyone to deadly illness, we can’t do it. We can’t turn back and choose the first possibility. We can’t trade our economic health for someone else’s actual health.
So what if saving lives means economic death?
My service business can’t hold out for 12-to-18 months with zero income. Not unless we fundamentally transform it; not unless we pivot so severely that the business isn’t the same business any more.
Most can’t. More than 40% of private-sector jobs in the U.S. come from small business; what if most of those jobs disappeared at the same time? How safe are landlords then, or lenders? Would even our biggest businesses survive without those customers?
The third possibility, the 12-to-18-month possibility, may mean we don’t need economic life support.
We need a resurrection.
Economic rules we used to live by simply don’t apply in this scenario. We’ll need a new economy, new rules. That’s awful. And it’s also cause for hope.
Because the truth is, our economy already didn’t work. Before COVID-19 came, it wasn’t possible for families to make ends meet on a standard salary. Before COVID-19 came, people who weren’t born with wealth had little chance to buy a house or build a business to success. Before COVID-19 came, the way we were doing things financially was working… but not all that well.
It wasn’t just. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t healthy.
This third possibility may mean we have no choice except to change it.
Here’s the most important question, then: Can you imagine something better?
Shut down swaths of our economy for 12 to 18 months, and we could lose it all. But we’ll lose nothing, too: Our infrastructure isn’t going anywhere. We’ll still have running water, groceries, transportation, electricity. We’ll have our homes and highways, planes and shipping lanes and spreadsheets and skyscrapers. Everything that’s given us the most amazing quality of life experienced by any human beings in any time or place – none of it’s going anywhere.
We just have to imagine a new way to pay for it.
In the worst-case scenario, if we cling to old ways of doing things, we lose. Imagine a world where, out of work for more than year, almost nobody can afford to pay their power bill. Do we shut off the power to every home, until utilities have no more customers and power plants themselves shut down? How foolish would that be?
In business, when one customer can’t pay, you cancel their account. But when all customers can’t pay, you cancel your own business model. Losing every customer won’t help you, so you find a different way to stay in business.
What if we could find a different way to stay in civilization?
What if this new virus, when it’s gone, provides us with a hard reset – a chance to rewrite rules, to do things differently and better? What if the Year of the Virus was also, to pick just one example, the Year of Release?
I can’t say how we do that; I’m no economist. I just tell stories. But if there’s no choice but to rewrite our economic rules – can we make them tell kinder stories this time?
Can we make the world more just, more human?
Can you even picture that?
Can you imagine something better?
Right now I’ve got space in my schedule to help just a couple businesses craft better COVID-19 messaging. There’s no set service model for this; I could write for you on an ongoing basis or just spend an hour consulting if you need a partner for strategic conversation. Contact me and we’ll cook up a plan to suit your needs. We are all struggling, waiting, hoping – you are not alone.
To see how we’re messaging so far in my small service business, watch this video.