Teachings of COVID-19

Current events surrounding COVID-19 (“C-19”) have provided ample time to ponder and in the past few days I have done more of it than usual.

It’s not the first time the world has changed in 24 hours even if other times the transformation occurred at a more gradual pace; The Renaissance, Gutenberg Printing Press, Industrial Revolution, WW1-2, Lunar Landing, 9-11, and my first round in the 60’s in a month or so. But never in the history of mankind has the world changed in 24 hours, every 24 hours, for as many days or weeks on end. Will this continue for months?

For almost three weeks everything we know about C-19 and its global impact has changed every day. The cycle has yet to show significant sign of slowing, and only if the collective continues to act responsibly should we emerge relatively unscathed. I believe we will, but it won’t be without a few lessons learned. Some painful and believe it or not, some for the better even if that is hard to fathom while we are in the thick of it.

Research Based Behaviour Analytics is what I do for a living. Relax; it’s a fancy way of saying I ask people questions, observe the human condition, hopefully arrive at some insightful conclusions, share these with clients, family, and friends, get paid for it, and sometimes I even get it right.

Never before have I learned so much in such a short period of time without engaging in the usual methodological rigours of the science. I’ve sat, mostly in my pyjamas with a Quarantini in hand by 4pm, observing and pondering my own thoughts and the thoughts of others whether or not they knew they were contributing.

So, what have I learned that we haven’t already been over-saturated with from every other theorist and pundit with an opinion?  

First, some of the individuals performing simultaneous signing are more entertaining to watch than Mr. Bean, and certainly more so than listening to certain politicians who say the same thing six different ways while standing bunched together for the photo-op. Social distancing preachings be damned. 

Second, and perhaps more seriously, unless all of us emerge from this ordeal in the best physical shapes of our lives, then our previous excuse of “I can’t find the time” rings about as true as the next tweet from the buffoon to our immediate south.

Which brings me to the third lesson which is where things begin to get deep.

For just over two weeks I have thought hard and tried to answer the question why most of us are not working-out like fiends, learning another language, or how to play a musical instrument, writing our mind’s book, or reconnecting with that special someone we always said we would, even if only virtually. 

Don’t get me wrong, some are doing these things. I see it from more frequent workout notifications from some of the people with whom I share Apple Watch activity data, and I also see it in what some are posting on social media. However, with the exception of healthcare workers and other front-liners sacrificing themselves for the rest of us, there is a huge swath of us Netflix binging and otherwise procrastinating as much, or more, than we did before. Again, why?

I’ve narrowed the answer to two reasons, the implications of which are important not just to our current predicament but also how we come out the other side of this unique experience. The two reasons are not mutually exclusive. In fact many of us are just as afflicted and conflicted by both.

For some, C-19 and its global impact has us staring like deer into the proverbial headlights. Fear itself and fear of the unknown can do that to a population just as easily as the individuals it comprises.

We are afraid of what’s going on around us and some are taking social distancing to mean curling up in a corner in the fetal position both physically, but more worrisomely psychologically. It does not help that much of our angst is driven by a social media which at times is only too happy to feed paranoia into our senses.

OVER-PROTECT BUT DON’T OVER-REACT

One of the resonating sentiments from one of the medical experts is, “over-protect but don’t over-react.” It’s good advice and not inconsistent with my own philosophical journey the past month.

Some may recall I started out minimizing C-19’s paltry number of fatalities compared to the common flu because even today’s 33,000, and counting C-19 deaths (1) are a fraction of the globe’s 1 billion annual flu cases resulting in upwards of 646,000 death per year (2).

I initially wondered, even aloud, why the hype over the one but not the other? Again, don’t underestimate the insidious power of that other viral phenomenon, social media.

In hindsight the hype was justified even if the hyperventilation by some was for less than altruistic motives. However, social media hype combined with the emergence of real experts helping to separate fact from fiction is, in the end, serving the public good.

While the overall numbers may be lower, C-19 is 10 times more contagious than the flu and 4 times more deadly. If 1 billion people become infected with C-19, there will be 47 Million deaths, not 646,000 the flu accounts for. This is why doing our part to make sure the numbers remain relatively low is so important. It also explains, as the facts emerged, why the change in my tune became so important. Mankind as we know it requires our immediate and full attention.

It bears repeating therefore, don’t over-react, but sure as hell over-protect. And if you are genuinely scared, it’s partly justified and you are not alone.

So, if fear in the headlights is the first reason we aren’t all suddenly buffer than we have ever been, what is the second reason?

You can stop reading here if you like and go read Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F@ck” (3)  to glean some of Manson’s insights, or you can continue along here and see where I’m going with this. Either way, the book is a great read and an even better audiobook.

Assuming fear in the headlights is not what’s driving all your procrastination, consider for a moment that perhaps some, or maybe even all of your rainy day promises to yourself are not that important after all.

To great extent I believe many of us attach a great deal more importance to the Round-Tuit (4) than it deserves. For 43 years I’ve said I would master the lead-lick in the Eagles’ Hotel California. The plethora of expensive guitars I have hanging on my walls are now more art than vehicle to a once dream-like fantasy. Perhaps it was only ever that, a fantasy, and not a realistic or important objective.  

Perhaps C-19’s only gift and greatest lesson is that it represents no finer example of why the journey is so much more important than the destination. Perhaps you are not procrastinating after all. Maybe you are simply exercising your right and duty to only give a “F@ck” about what truly matters.

If you are one of the lucky ones that has it all figured out – first of all you don’t – my only advice is that you use this time to pay attention to what your heart, soul, and mind are really trying to tell you at a subconscious level. The rest is all noise you owe it to yourself to tune-out.

Finally, be prepared for three inevitable lessons as we navigate our way out of this unparalleled and without equal event in modern-day history.

Warning, The first of the three lessons will be hardest to wrap your head around.

First, as much as we all say can’t wait for this saga to be over so we can get back to normal, there is in fact a certain comfort most of us don’t realize we derive from the current crisis.

THE COLLECTIVE

Never before has all of mankind worked in such large numbers or so closely together on a common shared goal in which our survival as a species is held in the balance. Sure, there are a few idiots out there working at odds with the rest of us, but the collective is working in harmony like it never has in the past and may never again. 

NATIONAL PRIDE

Think of how proud we felt as a nation during the 2010 winter Olympics when Sidney Crosby scored the “golden goal” or how nearly the entire country got behind the Toronto Raptors march to a National Championship. Who among us did not get chills when Kawhi Leonard’s improbable shot bobbled-around and finally dropped?

Take that level of sentiment and put it on steroids globally and you have the game mankind is currently trying to win. The difference is we are both spectators and participants.

For some I believe there will come a feeling of loss and void when the collective begins to split-apart and move on. When the parades were over, how many wondered what was going to bond us together next, when, and for how long? 

For others, the fear in the headlights of what we are facing today, will transform into a new type of fear; forgetting how to face the world outside the comfort of home, or having to re-learn how to do it. Mark my words, for many, getting back in the saddle will be almost as hard as being thrown from it in the first place.

Second, there will be no such thing as “getting back to normal.” Normal no longer exists. At best there will be a new normal and not all of it positive. Look no further than how our lives changed after Paul Bernardo, 9/11, and #MeToo. Children no longer ride their bikes beyond a parent’s watchful eye, air travel is shrouded in the constant reminder of terrorism, and tenterhooks are the hors d’oeuvres of communication between the sexes.

In the mildest of instances, grocery store strangers coming toward you with a shopping cart will forever be assumed to be carrying an invisible plague itching to fly at you across the aisle as you Nadia Comăneci your way past them.

In the medium of cases, say goodbye to 5,000 people crammed and floating captive on an ocean liner Petri dish herded like cattle to eat out of a common trough formerly called a buffet.

And in the severest and most likely scenario, everything we know about interpersonal relationships, supply-chain management, and the way virtually every business operates is going to make Y2K preparedness look like the meaningless blip it was, or that never took place.

In other words, if you don’t think the world as we know is it about to change, think again!

Third, we aren’t done. 

For more than 50 years we have, at our own peril, scoffed or paid lip-service to the impact of climate change. Make no mistake C-19 and its recent ancestors, but more importantly its offspring and mutations, stand to paralyze us again and with greater consequence if we don’t finally start to listen to mother nature’s warnings.

Much in the same way our climate has changed the past 100 years including warming temperatures and more frequent and violent weather systems, we can expect that dormant or yet-to-be-born creepy-crawlies insurmountably more harmful to humanity, are coming to life.

There is however a silver lining.

If nothing else, we have witnessed in the past few weeks mankind’s innate ability – even if only when a gun was put to our head – to work together across all continents, cultures, and yes even religions, to protect that which promises to make us as extinct as the dodo bird if we don’t.

My biggest fear, personally, is complacency. We owe it to ourselves not to let that happen. My wish for everyone is that you do as I am doing. Take this precious time to face your fears, determine what you truly give a F@ck about, and commit to working together going forward just as hard as we are right now at trying to flatten this particular curve.

Because, trust me, there is more to come.

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