THE AMERICAN WAY: The Return from COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented response that has impacted nearly every aspect of society from healthcare, commerce, education, and beyond. While each state has some degree of autonomy when it comes to issuing shelter in place/social distancing orders, most state governments have taken steps that have resulted in the full or partial closure, or a pivot to remote operations, for businesses and public venues for a period of several weeks. 

(With a notable exception of six states: Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Arkansas

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, an estimated 20.5 million people have lost their job due to COVID-19 causing a 14.7 percent U.S. unemployment rate as of May 27, 2020. 

 

TIMES OF CRISIS

For most Americans, COVID-19 is not the first crisis or life altering event that they have experienced. As recently as the turn of the century Americans have endured events such as September 11th (2001), Hurricane Katrina (2005), Sandy Hook (2012), the Boston Marathon Bombing (2013), the Las Vegas Shooting at Mandalay Bay (2017), and notable health crisis’s – West Nile (2002), SARS (2003), Bird Flu (2005), Swine Flu (2009), Ebola (2014), and Zika (2016).  

In the days following 9-11 there was a belief that there would be a mass exodus by many high-profile companies occupying major metropolitan high-rise buildings out of fear that they may be the next target. There was also a belief that airlines would see a major and indefinite decrease in passenger travel out of fear that flying was no longer safe. 

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina there was a belief that the City of New Orleans would never be the same. A belief that many residents would reconsider living in a city below sea level out of fear that another storm like Katrina was looming on the horizon. 

In the days that followed the tragedies of Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the Las Vegas Massacre, many people wondered if going to school would ever be the same; or if people would once again attend large public forums such as marathons or large outdoor concerts. 

 

RESILIENCE, APATHY, AND THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE 

One of the best ways to predict future events is to look at historical events. The United States has experienced unprecedented tragedies that have sparked debate as to whether or not “the world will ever be the same”. 

With each of these events, for a moment in time, time stopped for a vast number of people. Each one of these events required a response that led to significant changes to industries, to communities, and to public perception. However, despite all of the negatives that came with and from these events, one thing is undeniably true, and the truth is that in relatively short order, Americans returned to their daily lives. 

Whether it is a function of resilience, or a tendency toward apathy, history has shown that when it comes to moving on in the wake of catastrophe, most Americans have a relatively short attention span. Furthermore, and as a matter of a practical point of view, significantly altering one’s way of life can be difficult and uncomfortable. Most Americans are creatures of habit, and creatures of comfort, and when it comes to making significant life-altering choices, more often than not people will gravitate toward a path of least resistance. If a new way of life is found to be easier, and more comfortable, the average person will accept and adapt to their new circumstance. If, however, new changes cause more work, are less convenient, or are less comfortable, the average person will more often than not revert back to old habits and preferences. 

 

A COUNTDOWN TO NORMAL

When shelter in place orders are lifted, we will see people respond in three distinguishable ways: 

  1. Business as usual: A significant number of Americans that will run full speed ahead toward pre-COVID habits. They will make no effort to socially distance, they will attend large gatherings without a second thought, and they will display a general disconcern and/or disregard for potential consequences. 
  2. Concerned and cautious: A significant number of Americans will continue to express concern for public health and safety, as well as their own personal health and safety. While states may lift shelter in place orders, or simply see the orders expire, those that are concerned and cautious will continue to honor social distancing policies, work from home if they are permitted to do so, and refrain from going anywhere that may be viewed as a health risk to themselves or others. 
  3. Middle-grounders: And perhaps the greatest number of citizens will fall into this third group. Middle-grounders will prefer to go back to a pre-COVID environment, but at the same time will acknowledge potential risks. These individuals will attend smaller gatherings, mostly with family and friends, avoid large crowds and events that they do not deem to be necessary, and take proper precautions to wash hands and sanitize frequently as a means to minimize potential risks. 

 

At some point America will move past COVID-19, as it has with all of the other aforementioned events. The question is — how long will tangible effects and behaviors last once businesses begin opening their doors, events are put back on calendars, students begin returning to class, and government warnings and mandates are lifted? 

The answer, once again, can be found by looking at our recent past. When the day-to-day effects of COVID-19 are no longer felt, and when COVID stories are no longer front page and headline news, and when new stories and headlines take front and center, the nation will revert back to a pre-COVID “normal”. 

 

PLANNING FOR NORMAL

As businesses and schools look ahead to the back half of 2020, there has been a lot written about planning for a “new normal”. Looking at contingency plans for alternative working arrangements, school schedules, and adapting to a post-COVID world have garnered a lot of attention. 

Perhaps the most prudent course of action will come from our Middle-grounders. Those that proceed with a moderate degree of caution, refrain from engaging in unnecessary risks, and those that practice good hygiene as a means to transition back toward normal. 

Having contingency or backup plans is never a bad idea, so long as planning doesn’t require an inordinate investment in time or money. Taking drastic and unorthodox measures is oftentimes time consuming and expensive, and in reality, likely unnecessary. Instead, consider solutions that are designed to pivot back to normal, while at the same time focuses on mitigating risk. As more and more Americans transition back to normal, and do so safely without experiencing health consequences, the more and more the majority of others will do the same. In reality Americans have a short attention span, and it is more likely than not that “normal” is just around the corner. 

 

Brian A. Peters, M.Ed., M.S.A., M.B.A.  Professor, Rader School of Business

Brian currently heads Swing Education’s school partnerships in Chicago, Illinois.  Brian has worked in various roles in education from school administrator, teacher, and consultant, as well as in the private sector as a business development manager for both education publishing and education technology companies. He has authored domestic and international award-winning books in education and personnel and professional growth.

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