One virus, seven observations

Every seven years or so, Mother Universe urgently rings her bell to gather us around her feet – and in an earnest voice teach us a few elementary lessons.

As we all take a deep breath and sit wide-eyed in her classroom of 2020, the first seven comments on my own notepad read as follows:

1. The basics matter. The triggers that underpin humanity’s recurring difficulties may differ in nature and nuance, but oftentimes leave us with a lesson in common sense and basic science. This time around, it is a directive in basic health care.  It’s a stark reminder to not compromise our immune systems – by being cognisant of our lifelong lifestyle choices.  It has also pushed preventative awareness to the forefront – through a well-known fact that hand hygiene and social thoughtfulness can reduce infectious disease by more than 50%. 

If ‘clean living’ can be ingrained and systemised, doctors’ waiting rooms may well be half-empty a year from now, thousands of lives might have been saved for various interconnected reasons, and health care costs could have been nudged in a new direction.

Remember to regularly check in on the core truths in other areas of your life as well.  Progress is always about refining the basics.  

2. Cooperation is a multiplier. As demonstrated with the financial calamity of 2008, the joint crisis management skill of our species can be remarkable. It’s just a pity that it always takes a crisis to jolt us out of our self-centred ways. 

We will probably look back at 2020 as another example of what is possible when politicians, business leaders and society decide to pull together.  Imagine we confront all the world’s problems in such unison…?

3. Moderation is a conceivable style. We’ve learned to live under the slogan: ‘More is necessary – and much is better’. We suffer from ‘GDP-obsession’ and associated living-standard parameters.  Objectively, we live in the best of times, yet people work harder than ever – showing the scars of stress and fatigue.  This anxious doctrine that everything is about ‘growth’ masks the most fundamental problems in our economies and societies – and has resulted in a production process that had been smothering the planet for decades. 

Then suddenly, this economic model of ours was forced into a deep freeze.  Pollution in pandemic epicentres has fallen by more than 50% in a month.  Scientists estimate that, in China, two months of pollution reduction has saved the lives of around 4 000 kids under five and more than 70 000 adults over seventy – close to 20 times the number of lives that have been directly lost to the virus in that time.

It almost feels as though the planet said: “You humans aren’t going to change your behaviour in time, let me do it for you – by giving you an idea of my respiratory battle to survive your gluttony”.  May lawmakers and business leaders get the message.    

4. The digital economy awaited our call. We have created an astonishing new toolbox in the last 20 years, but so many of us remained ensnared in the physical realm of work, an industrial way of measuring production, and a management style devised from our grandfathers’ manufacturing model. It took a virus to break the shackles of lazy habits, expensive offices and peak time traffic. 

If the penny drops, the ‘new economy’ may eventually become a fully-fledged operational model – allowing us to do the same and more – at a much lower cost, more efficient and in an eco-friendly way.  Such transitions have, of course, its teething problems and associated aftermaths.

5. Poverty-stricken people live with this burden every day. The basic securities that the middle to higher classes experience as a given, is not a given for the poor. They are living in the presence of the most basic hazards, every day, having to spend their best energy on survival strategies.  It is estimated that more than 700 000 children a year die of poor hygiene in deprived communities throughout the world. 

Policy makers don’t hesitate to implement unprecedented measures and, in effect, borrow vast sums from our children’s future resources when the privileged are threatened – but are stuck in philosophical mode and budget debates when they have to lighten the weight of its poorer fellow citizens.  Just picture a world in which the remaining causes of poverty were tackled with the same urgency going forward – and in which employers pause to reflect upon the conditions to which their workers return to every night? 

6. Be prepared for uncertainties. This crisis is a reminder that life is not predictable. And that you have to create a ‘margin for the unknown’ during good times.  Mega-crises normally travel with a henchman, whose name is ‘Recession’.  Its job, amongst others, is to discipline businesses with over-geared balance sheets, deflate overvalued share prices, bring mavericks down to earth, remind families to plan their finances, and shout a wake-up call to many workers who simply go through the motions at their workplace.  Its ways are messy, but the creative destruction accompanying it, quite effective.

7. Stay sane. The opposite of fear is not bravery – it is reason. The most dangerous thing to do during a crisis is to be led by irrational, doomsday voices on TV or hyped cry-outs of ‘this time is different’ on social media.  Panic is more infectious than any virus, emotion more damaging than the event itself.  Fortunately, there are some voices of reason that get airtime in times like these – though their un-intrusive demeanour can often be drowned out by all the shouting.

Remember to seek the council of these rational, un-panicky voices and instructive information also in non-crisis times – and so infuse your life with balance, logic and peace. 

The crisis of 2020 will leave you with more notes than these seven on your own notepad.  We can choose to code these reminders into our lives – or ignore them, and be confronted with another brutal wake-up call.  I suspect we will get another chance – as Mother Universe is called mother for a reason.  The return of confidence may take slightly longer than we wish for, but the revival is likely to be more pronounced than even optimists may anticipate at this point.