“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
— Advice from Paul Romer, Nobel Laureate and Stanford economist, shared at a venture capitalist meeting in California in 2004
Key points from Professor Romer about what happens in a crisis:
- Resources become available
- Priorities are clear
- Rigid rules and regulations suddenly become pliable
- Leaders pay attention and are pliable
- Change, even far-reaching change, is possible
The original context of this quote was in reference to changes Professor Romer felt were needed in the education infrastructure of the United States.
Today, we are facing a global health crisis of unprecedented scale and scope. What are we going to learn from this crisis, so that the thousands of lives lost and the millions of lives seriously disrupted are not wasted and are more than just statistics?
As this has been unfolding, the immediate concerns are about individual and collective health. News media all over the world are covering these issues and helping people, including government leaders, understand what is at stake. We are seeing the outcomes noted above.
As our distress over feeling totally powerless decreases, as it will eventually, we need to reflect on “lessons learned."
Respect for humanity
In times of crisis, admirable examples of generous, selfless human beings show up. Some of these are people with power and influence, many more are “ordinary people” who simply care for strangers and help out in whatever ways they can.
Some, like health care workers, doctors, and nurses, “pay the ultimate price," literally giving their lives in service to others. Some are being asked to pay another kind of spiritual price when they are forced to allocate scarce resources among the desperately ill. This is the kind of ethical dilemma presented to students in college courses on ethics: “If you can only save one of two people, one is elderly, the other is a teenager, who would you save?” How will you decide?
Respect for science
In times of crisis, one of the urgent major challenges is to understand what is going on: What are dependable facts and truths (to the best of current knowledge)? What kinds of experiments need to be performed? What are the resources needed? How will people react and respond?
In the current COVID-19 pandemic, most people around the world have little knowledge of viruses, resources of the medical healthcare system, about how governments can and should respond, and how all aspects of society will react, including businesses and the economy. The complexity is multiplied exponentially by the nature of viral transmission, and again further thanks to the immense ramifications of our global networks that invade every corner of our lives. Never has it been more true that “no man is an island," even for those who choose to live in remote areas of the world.
Scientific truth, experiments, discoveries, inventions are critically important for the growth and survival of our species. None of our businesses could exist without the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, the Computer Revolution, the Communications Era, and whatever else scientists and engineers are working on, including space exploration. Building on reliable knowledge is the only path forward. This requires long-term commitments, investment of money and energy, not only by governments, corporations, educational institutions, but also by every individual. Ultimately, we are our greatest innovation and the product of our lives. This is a never-ending, continuous journey until we die. Milestones along the way are useful targets, but their value may be transitory. At any time, the true value is the accumulated knowledge and the insights we gain and share. To be truly valuable, what we share must benefit others, as well as ourselves.
Respect for nature
Even as we gain more knowledge and some control over specific agents of change, such as a particular virus, we are in awe of the immense, unpredictable power of Nature, how limited our power is to effect change, and how much more we have to learn — about ourselves, how society works, and how we need to be so much more mindful about our place in this fragile, delicately balanced world.
Respect for education
There is none so blind as those who do not see. We have come to realize that our response to the current crisis has been severely limited (and late) because of seriously irresponsible lack of attention from the general public, from government officials, to education, research, the development of more knowledge and understanding of a global society. We must learn with each other, to work together as positively as possible, politics and economic competition notwithstanding.
Crisis doesn’t choose its victims. Celebrities and powerful politicians or business people are not exempt, but they do have access to the best care that money can buy, so they will suffer less and have the best chance of survival. The cruel side of crises is that the “poorest among us” do suffer the most because they have the weakest defenses.
Respect for ourselves and each other as human beings
For the general public at large, education is the single most powerful tool they can possess to care for themselves. This is true regardless of the state of the medical healthcare infrastructure. All of us are learning how much needs to be done, just to maintain basic hygiene in our homes as well as public places, and not just in bathrooms. We are re-learning ancient truths about food, healthy lifestyle choices, social customs, etc., and re-evaluating what is truly important for our lives. Especially in America, we have become lazy and dependent on public and commercial systems that we choose to believe will take care of us — at a price, of course. There’s insurance for that, right? When the easy answer is to use money to solve problems, that sense of comfort may be illusory when tragedies strike. Then, the lawyers get involved…
Respect for clear communications, based on facts and realistic strategies
In a time of crisis, all kinds of people show leadership, by helping to guide awareness, shaping plans and actions for our communities, and simply caring for our families. We are learning how essential it is for each of us to embrace the opportunity to take initiative and accept the responsibilities that come with the privilege to be a member of society. In this sense, we truly are “brothers and sisters." Our lives are inextricably intertwined, no matter how much we would like to believe in our independence and separateness. We are discovering how dangerous even innocent, well-intentioned spreading of “news” can be, especially when they turn out to be rumors based on misinformation or worse.
Respect for our egos
Maybe this is more of a warning to be aware that we can build on the strength of our confidence, our courage, our leadership qualities, but we have to remember that these assets also bring filters on our ability to perceive and process information and input that we receive from others and the outside world. This is one of the paradoxes of human nature. Our strengths are also our greatest weaknesses because the blindspots make us vulnerable. To counteract these vulnerabilities, we must be sensitive, empathetic, and respect that other people are different, have different preferences and values. Diversity really does make the world go ‘round.
A monochrome, homogeneous culture sounds like it would be a much simpler place to live in, but who would want to live there?