In the rush to return to “normal” and escape the Covid-19 self quarantine, perhaps we should be asking what part of “normal” we are in a hurry to return to and what elements of the “new normal” actually provide an interesting or better alternative. Taking the opposite path from George Bernard Shaw’s quote: “There are two great disappointments in life…not getting what you want and getting it,” we need to stop and think about the positive learnings of this challenging time and draw strength from them – rather than letting them fade away when the crisis passes.
The obvious learnings
We can ask how we have used this time to reconnect with friends, family, our community and maybe even with ourselves. We learned how technology enabled many connections, while the wider acceptance and use of these tools provided some amazing opportunities in areas like education and remote working.
Nature has definitely liked this virus: our impact on the environment and the rapidity with which nature responds to a respite from our relentless assaults is remarkable to observe and is providing tantalizing real data we might not have been able to collect without the shutdowns. Many universities are conducting research, having realized this crisis provides perfect conditions to experiment.
Finally, individuals and organizations alike have used this time to reevaluate major social issues and priorities as we reassess what is truly important versus what we thought was important. I see people yearning for the time when they can get together with the people they love and share new memories in places, rather than yearning for the time when they can be back inside a mall shopping for stuff they never needed in the first place.
Some reflections on the obvious
Connections, technology, the environment, and social questions are some of the broad categories of thought which we might direct ourselves toward in these perilous times. Remembering the Danger = Opportunity equation is a challenge that the HBS Community Partners community is well suited to explore. Our goal has been to harness the gifted minds of HBS alumni to create positive change by assisting nonprofits and government organizations to better achieve their admirable purposes. Gathering people’s perspectives on what we have learned in this unusual period and building on the positive elements might leave us much stronger than if we merely look to get back to “normal.” Here is a deeper dive on the four questions I alluded to above. I invite you to contact us to share the wisdom you’ve gained through this crisis. We will gladly share it in subsequent articles here in our blog.
1. True connections matter
As we get calls from people “just checking in” with us, we wonder why it has been so long since we last connected. We feel inspired to reach out to others with whom we haven’t spoken for a long time or to reach out to someone we think just needs to know that we are thinking about them. The conversation almost certainly updates needs we each have and we explore how we can help one another. That, or just talking things through, we realize we are really doing OK despite the prevailing unsettling sense of uncertainty and the very real dangers that may lie ahead. Perhaps we can take away a commitment to not let these connections diminish when the crisis subsides is a valuable commitment we can make.
We may have been apprehensive about the close contact with our immediate family during self quarantine. Yet, now we are finding more time to talk, reconnect and just hang out together rather than “respecting privacy” and facilitating the most rigorous set of outside engagements for our kids. Maybe we all need to detox a bit from many counterproductive forces, pure time with our families might provide the environment to do so. Maybe we need to just have the time to direct some attention inward- as the Zen directive advises: “Don’t just do something, just sit there.”
2. Technology is a means, not an end
So some technologies like Zoom have grown exponentially because of this crisis. What has this shown us in terms of being able to work from home? Instead of just accepting – and contributing to – ridiculous traffic congestion, with its associated pollution and wasted time and high stress, how might we really understand that there are alternatives to massive highway and transit infrastructure investments if we really adapt how we work. Maybe the demand for ever more office space in prime metropolitan areas, which has conflicted with housing needs in the same limited land area, is something we can get into better balance.
Furthermore, inequities in educational opportunities may be partially addressed with equal access to broadband and guarantees of laptops/tools to level the playing field for all. Having practically every kid in the country successfully end the school year through online education is one of the great lasting consequences of this time in confinement. Now let’s focus on getting these kids the right tools to enter the hybrid education of the post-COVID-19 era. We can’t accept, as we did before, that lack of the right digital tool and access places a kid at a disadvantage,
Health care is exploring opportunities to deliver broader and cost effective care through telemedicine. Making routine or preliminary diagnostic or treatment options available remotely may free up more resources for the care needed by in person visits, and lower the cost of healthcare for all. This same principle is true for fitness: we are seeing that underlying conditions are among the most important determining aspects of risk from this virus. While our healthcare system is the primary avenue for addressing wellness, broader and low cost/free alternatives to bring exercise to many more people is also part of the equation. This crisis has seen the explosion of free programs to stay fit at home. This is good for all of us.
Regarding the arts, many organizations are offering virtual tours of their galleries or performance spaces. Performing artists are offering their inspired talent often with a much more intimate and personal element which is unavailable in large venues or highly polished and edited performances. Ironic how this happens, right? Our job after the crisis is to figure out how to use these introductions to – or connections with – people and institutions to create broader appetites for creativity and beauty.
3. We can’t continue to act as a virus for the environment
The shutdown has been the grandest test of what our impact on the planet truly is and how we can mitigate it. Did we expect the canals in Venice to change from murky to clear almost immediately? Did we expect even some of the most polluted places to have their air quality improve by amazing amounts almost immediately? What can we take away from this unexpected and enormous “test” we have just run. Are we really going to go back to our dirty ways of co-existing with all other living creatures? We don’t have to suggest continuing an indefinite shutdown to accomplish these positive environmental outcomes, but we can learn how concretely we are impacting the environment and seek out the changes that can bring us along a more positive path faster. We know the positive impact is feasible – I see it from my window right now.
4. We are a community and need to take care of each other
This is all about examining priorities. Is a consumption economy really the answer we long to go back to or do we see options in a care economy? Trying to educate our kids at home may help us better appreciate what educators and child care professionals are really doing and their value to society; this may create the empathy we need to have to team-up to raise good, resilient kids. What have we learned about cooking at home using simple, healthy and economical ingredients vs. fast food, prepared dishes, with their corresponding diabetes and obesity pandemics? How do we value time and invest it in our families, friends and communities vs. hours (and dollars) spent on games, cat videos, escape media and binge watching the latest trending fad.
Crisis does show us we can be better. Check out this inspiring home-made video that circulated around social networks this week, which brilliantly – and in verse – brings home this point, that the author calls “The Great Realization.” I invite you to reflect on how we can avoid rushing back to “normal” without understanding how this pandemic has shown us some very positive paths forward. If we choose to pursue them.