by Daniel Farber Huang
June 22, 2020
COVID-19 is forcing our world to hit the reset button at nearly every level of our existence.
From social, medical and economic standpoints, just to name a few, many aspects of how we previously measured our relative success and well-being have not merely shifted but, I would suggest, have been crunched. Crunched as in broken into pieces, fragmented to the point where one has to determine which parts are worth reassembling and which should be rebuilt from scratch.
Nearly 60 years ago the concept of the paradigm shift was introduced by the scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which has become one of the most cited academic books of all time.
Simply put, a paradigm is a framework we’re used to working in. For example, like most people in the U.S., you are required to pay income taxes to the IRS. If you don’t pay, the rules say you can be fined, even go to jail. We are surrounded by paradigms, we live them every second of the day. Don’t drive on the sidewalk. Wash your hands. Try to be nice to your mother-in-law. Vote. Gravity. Pants go over your underwear. Paradigms tell us how things work and, importantly, how to solve problems we know about.
Now, using the income tax example, imagine if the government somehow restructured itself and instead of taking taxes from your paycheck it started giving everyone extra money, free and clear, every single month, forever. The income tax framework would have shifted from taking to giving. Although this example is farfetched for illustrative purposes, if it happened you most certainly would start managing your money and budgeting differently, right? You would shift you actions to fit the new paradigm.
Paradigm shifts require us to do things differently to navigate and sometimes survive in a new reality. When a new development or problem presents itself that can’t be addressed by what currently exists, then a new paradigm is needed to make sense of it all.
Some realities change in a gradual but meaningful way, such as the adoption of the internet or widespread use of smartphones. Others punch you in the proverbial face when they arrive, such as COVID-19 did. In my view, COVID-19 isn’t merely a shift, it’s what I would classify as a paradigm crunch.
Why does any of this matter? To navigate the realities when they are thrust upon us, individuals who are able to recognize that a crunch has happened, reflect on the implications and then react accordingly and quickly are the ones who will navigate the uncharted, tumultuous waters best and safest.
What makes COVID-19 much more than a shift? For starters, the speed at which infection spread around the globe in part due to globalization was faster than prior pandemics. Connectivity has enabled governments, agencies, and people around the world to react (and sometimes overreact) in real time. Social media has allowed both information and misinformation to spread voraciously. Around the world, the novel coronavirus quickly became a real thing to address. Although some individuals, communities and governments consciously chose to ignore (and may still ignore) the new reality, the crunch is here whether they like it or not.
At some level it’s human nature to resist change. COVID response has certainly faced that resistance. In the U.S., lack of unified medical and political leadership from the federal government has forced states to figure out much of their COVID-19 response plans on their own. Fifty different states moving independently will inevitably make the country’s full recovery take longer than necessary, whether that is in months or possibly a year or two.
A paradigm shift by definition requires a change to the status quo, the existing state of affairs. There will always be individuals and interests at the outset that will fight any hint of change. Think about the people in power during Copernicus’ time, particularly the church, when he discovered the Earth was not the center of the universe as was commonly accepted. Back then, hell was thought to be pindropped in the fiery, pitchforky center of the Earth while heaven circled blissfully, high above for all to aspire to. For Copernicus to prove the Earth was not the center of the universe would indeed be unwelcome news to some folks. Keep in mind, back then blasphemers and other troublemakers were often dealt with harshly, including being burned alive, so contradicting centuries of dogma had major downsides. Not surprisingly, many of those who enjoyed the status quo would protect their comfortable existences and advantages vigorously. The same thing goes for every shift since then.
Before identifying how one can navigate the coming months or years or years, we have to project what the post-COVID world may reasonably look like. Here are some assumptions in my mental model.
1. Going forward, the way that many white collar jobs will be performed will change. Telecommuting is here to stay for many.
2. The economic disparity between the haves and have-nots will increase. For example, lower- and middle-income individuals were issued a single $1,200 disaster relief check in the early weeks of the coronavirus to great fanfare and celebration. At present, no additional direct relief is being offered to these individuals and households (that is, the majority of the population). In contrast, corporations and economically privileged layers of society are likely to continue receiving much more in relief funding, tax breaks and other economic benefits.
3. The digital divide has become more evident between people with unrestricted connectivity (including ample internet access and hardware for everyone in a household) versus households that have slow or no wi-fi bandwidth, inadequate devices or even quiet places to work or study at home. Thus the disadvantaged will be even further disadvantaged going forward. The digital divide has even greater disparity between developed and developing nations.
4. Many non-medical workers previously ignored or treated as somewhat expendable are now “essential,” even if they still are not being paid a living wage. Stocking shelves, delivering packages, and other important roles will continue to be delegated to people who can’t afford not to work, regardless of the risks to their personal safety.
5. Many business owners without safety nets watched their livelihoods shrivel up during quarantine. Sporadically but still significantly, physical distancing was thrown out the window when some states, businesses or communities stayed open for Spring Break or reopened around Memorial Day. And the crowds came. Bars, restaurants, boardwalks, even waterparks created big sweaty petri dishes of humanity. The decisions by these participants was entirely voluntary as they sought to return to the comforts they missed or perhaps to make a personal or political statement.
6. More recently, civil uprising against police brutality and institutional racism has brought out hundreds of thousands of individuals seeking a voice, justice and action. I would argue that the public’s participation in civil discourse and protest was necessary given recent widely-viewed crimes against Black individuals. Sadly, coronavirus puts the people forced to seek justice in additional harm’s way. It remains to be seen if and how COVID-19 may spread from these mass events, but I fear many will be worse off as a result.
7. The pendulum swing away from science by growing segments (such as anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers) may begin to inch back slowly. COVID-19, however, has spawned a new population of non-science believers, with theories too baffling to mention here.
8. The science behind COVID-19 is well known, as are the solutions to address the virus. Epidemiologists, the people who research viruses, know exactly what can save us all. And they would if they were allowed and properly resourced to do their jobs but have many political and economic obstacles blocking the way.
9. What contributed to this crunch was how grossly unprepared most countries’ healthcare systems were to handle the first wave of the pandemic. If and when a follow-on wave occurs around the U.S., it may be equally or ever more devastating to our healthcare system that we experienced in March through May 2020. Either way, we’re still not fully prepared.
So, where do we go from here? How does a person recover and grow stronger from this adversity?
Laurence Gonzales points out in his excellent, riveting book “ Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” that improvisation is the key to survival. As the world, our country, society and our communities reinvent themselves, by necessity each of us should determine how we can do the same.
Skyrocketing unemployment and underemployment has thrown countless millions of people into desperate situations. If you are so affected, any piece of support, encouragement or even charity that is available to you and that you genuinely need, you should readily accept. There is no shame in asking for help. Many of the strongest people I know do so when appropriate. Likewise, it’s always valuable and important to offer any support, encouragement or charity you can to others.
Where possible, it makes sense for individuals and companies to barter for goods and services if something important is needed but can’t be afforded. I hope any skeptical or even negative connotation that might have been previously associated with a cashless approach would be considered clever today.
In the outside world we will become even more of a touchless economy. Even before COVID-19, cash was dirty and germ-ridden. A study published in FutureMedicine.com suggested that paper money and coins spread transmissible diseases. Since COVID-19, paying in cash has been prohibited by many stores and restaurants. The effect that will have on the banking system is still to be determined, but presumably credit card companies are happily capitalizing on the situation. Gen Z teenagers and beyond will likely never utter the phrase “keep the change” just as none of us have likely ever said, “where did I leave my horse and buggy whip?”
In our inequitable society, unskilled laborers will continue to be pressured and further marginalized. It is grossly unfair but deeply ingrained in many parts of our system. For the foreseeable future, the demand for many traditional jobs will diminish with a slower, more virtual economy. People who can learn new, more modern skills will be better prepared to capture incrementally more of their market value.
Recent months have created an interesting opportunity for the broader public from an educational standpoint. Let me state that education should not be confused with intelligence. For decades, the prohibitive cost of higher education has shut the doors to countless, capable and deserving individuals. When COVI-19 forced every school and university to teach online, much of the negative or skeptical stigma around remote learning was erased. Virtual classrooms might not have been a perfect replacement for in-person lessons but they worked well enough.
Fortunately for people seeking to hone their existing craft or develop new, practical skills during these tumultuous times, abundant online resources are available to gain certificates and credentials demonstrating efforts to gain competency.
Our current paradigm crunch has created the new demand from state governments and healthcare agencies for COVID-19 contact tracers, who can identify, track and monitor individuals who may have come into contact with an infected person and are at risk of both having and further spreading the virus. Coursera.com is offering a free, 6-hour contact tracing certification course offered by Johns Hopkins University. At the end of the training, participants will receive a PDF certificate and can register for potential volunteer or paid work with health departments.
Numerous incremental opportunities exist for those seeking to broaden their skillsets, even if it might feel daunting or intimidating. Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, Psychologist and author of “Better Than Perfect,” makes the point that for anyone to grow, there has to be some discomfort. Complacency kills. I hear more often than I would like from people who automatically say they are “too busy” to consider learning something new and challenging, and I’d just like to point out that the above example requires the same amount of time as three movies on Netflix.
In upcoming articles I will get more granular and explore the opportunities and challenges today’s global paradigm crunch presents as well as lessons to be learned from past shifts and crunches.
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Daniel Farber Huang is CEO of The EchoStream Group, a specialized corporate finance advisory, an independent advocate on humanitarian issues and a documentary photographer. His work on the global refugee crisis can be viewed at www.ThePowerOfFaces.com.
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