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Living with COVID-19

Supermoon viewed through the atmosphere, May 7, 2020.

I participated in a United Parcel Service webinar about challenges posed to supply chains by the coronavirus pandemic.

Rich Hutchinson of Boston Consulting Group presented an overview of our response to the pandemic that made plain, clear sense. He used three Fs — Flatten, Fight and Future — to frame his discussion.

We read and see a lot of information about the pandemic. In Iowa we fixate on daily reported number of cases and deaths. We need a break from that. The take away from Hutchinson’s analysis was as global corporations and mid to large size businesses use the pandemic to re-engineer their approach to supply chain and how they operate their businesses, regular people should be doing the same.

We understand what flattening the curve means, the first F. By reducing spread of COVID-19 we take the peak load off the bell curve of hospital bed usage and ventilator deployment so our health care system can handle the pandemic. In Iowa we began flattening the curve eight weeks ago with the governor’s March 9 proclamation of a disaster emergency due to COVID-19. Thus far the health care system has been able to handle the caseload. Hutchinson expected this phase of the pandemic to last several months with regional variations depending upon the extent of community spread of the disease.

Recent surveys show most people are not ready to end sheltering at home and restriction of business operations, although the president and the Iowa governor favor easing restrictions now. Governor Kim Reynolds issued new orders to ease restrictions yesterday. Whether we agree or disagree with elected officials’ approach, at some point people have to do more than shelter at home and shop on line or in limited trips to retail establishments that remain open. When the flatten the curve stage of the pandemic is over, COVID-19 will persist into the next phase. To cope with it, new approaches to what we previously took for granted about social interaction must be developed and adopted.

The second F, fight COVID-19, is not much discussed, but needs to be. Fighting the pandemic is expected to be book ended by an end to the first phase (i.e. the curve has been flattened) and development and implementation of either a cure or herd immunity. Policy implemented during the flatten the curve phase continues but will be relaxed. It could get ugly. Cases of COVID-19 continue to exist and spread during the fight phase, including additional significant outbreaks. The expectation is this phase will last another 12-24 months until there is a cure. This is the scariest part of the pandemic because as severe restrictions on business and social interaction are relaxed, identification of cases of COVID-19 and deaths are expected to continue in our daily reporting.

The most important phase is our future, the final F. I’m concerned about what the future will look like. My spouse retired last year and I retired last month because of risk of COVID-19 exposure. It seems likely my consumer behavior will change and be more limited than it was last year. With retirement this would happen without COVID-19. Society is not in a place where it makes sense for our political leaders to tell us “the economy is opening.” Nor would the advice President George W. Bush gave as we were coming out of the recession, “to go shopping,” make sense. I empathize with small business owners like cosmetologists, nail salon operators, and barbers who are itching to get back to work and generate operating income. At a minimum we need to deal with the pandemic for at least another couple of years and accommodate new behavior to protect us from the disease. How will businesses create needed changes in light of an extended pandemic? Our path forward is unclear at this writing.

If the question is whether workers will offer themselves as human sacrifice on the altar of late stage capitalism, Americans seem unlikely to do that. That’s not who we are. We expect more from our political leaders than they have given. The vacuum of leadership at the top — the president, the legislative branch of the federal government, and the Iowa governor — created a disconnect between corporations which can lobby government and people like me who lack such standing and may be forced to return to society beyond its digital aspects. My bottom line is no one is providing us with the type of information we need to make it to the new future us. That is as much a problem as the pandemic itself.

The first step in developing a future, post-pandemic life is recognizing our current location in the process. For a newly retired person it is easier to develop a future life than for those in their prime earning years. Our lives depended on so many beliefs and assumptions which have now been scrambled. If nothing else, Americans are a resilient people and we’ll figure it out together. Here’s hoping.

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