By Matthew Hess, CEO, First Children Services
It is April 5, 2020 and we have been in our government ordered quarantine for going on three weeks. Schools have closed, businesses shuttered and most critically, thousands upon thousands of lives lost and turned completely upside down by COVID-19. Our collective assumptions about life as we know it have given way to uncertainty, fear and dread of what lies around the corner. While for many, especially those who have lost loved ones, life will never return to normal, I believe the future of our towns, communities, states, economy and country remains incredibly bright.
Here are a few of my own observations leading me to come to this conclusion, albeit a seemingly unpopular one with the narrative and mindset at the moment:
- Community. I vividly remember after 9/11 the sense of community that was so apparent and strong. While it is certainly sub-optimal that human tragedy is the driver of a stronger sense of community, one can not debate that oftentimes it is those drivers that lead to great fellowship and bonds with our fellow man. I see this every day now. Simple things like everyone waving and saying hello while out on walks/runs. People coming together to help those who have been affected by this awful disease and paying a little more attention to those who life may have left behind. The human bonds, often shrouded in the shadow of technology, social media and meaningless nonsense, are back. We feel for our fellow humans and that compassion, that empathy, is what will lift our collective spirits as this crisis ebbs. Without bonds of community and togetherness, we are all merely lemmings going about our business in some solo simulation of reality.
- Government. While partisan bickering and dysfunction has been a hallmark of government over the last few years, we must acknowledge the strong leadership coming from many within our political system. Governors in particular have been decisive and shown an ability to lead; protecting their constituents while showing profound compassion. Even our leaders in DC, on both sides of the political spectrum, moved quickly in a bi-partisan manner to pass landmark economic stimulus legislation which should ease the financial burden on our people, businesses and institutions. There is still much to improve about the state of our political system, particularly the inability to truly dialogue with those with whom few priorities are shared, but when action was required our elected officials delivered.
- Science. Smallpox. Polio. Measles. Flu. Those are all conditions that wreaked havoc on our world communities for many years before our international science and medical systems, leveraging their collective might, conquered them. We now have vaccines for these and many other, once deadly conditions. I firmly believe that COVID-19 will be no different and our timeline for a vaccine, while needing to be conservative, will be met faster than predicted. I also believe that our brilliant scientists, researchers and physicians will have very effective treatments for the disease in the coming weeks and months. Admittedly, I have no inside knowledge of this and won’t pretend to be some insider within this community. But I am a student of history and history tells us not to bet against our scientists.
- Commerce. The last few weeks have caused the single largest and rapid disruption of our economy in recorded history. Those are the facts, there is no way to sugar coat this truly unprecedented fall off in economic activity. Surely 2020 will not break any records through our indicators and corporations, small and large alike, we have to slog through the year. However, going into this event, our economy was very strong. We had been at full employment for many months, with wage growth, particularly for those on the lower end, starting to ramp up. Our banking system is strong with substantial capital to weather the downturn and lend. While by any definition we are currently in a recession, this one is so unique that I believe it is hard to compare with previous slow downs. Rather, I prefer to view this as a suspension. Our economy is suspended while we all do our part, practice social distancing and let this spike of COVID pass. As it does pass, which it surely will, our government will slowly allow people to get back to business. I believe our momentum heading into this event along with the economic stimulus will lead to pent up demand that carries us back to growth.
I don’t mean to paint an overly rosy picture of the current situation. There will be tough weeks ahead, with heartbreaking dramas playing out in healthcare systems across the country. I also don’t mean to in any way minimize the lives lost so far and those who will be lost in the weeks to come. I only hope that we use this very painful lesson wisely and begin to make decisions as people, as businesses and as a country that will protect all of us in the future.
First and foremost, we need to invest in science and medical research. I would wager that our toughest battles to come over the next 100 years will take place in our hospitals, medical labs and IT networks (cyber security, a case study for another day!) rather than on foreign lands with traditional military means. Our funding for NIH and other research/scientific bodies should be on par with the Department of Defense. We should also leverage our incredible private sector to accelerate these efforts. We are pretty damn good at stopping and destroying foreign military enemies but a microscopic virus has wreaked havoc on our people, institutions and economy.
This experience has also proven that international supply chains, while creating economies of scale for our companies, puts the nation at risk especially when it relates to critical items like pharmaceuticals, protective equipment and other medical devices. 90% of production of critical drugs like antibiotics should not take place on foreign shores. At the risk of sounding overly nationalistic, I believe we need to make significant efforts to reshore this production back to the United States. This is not a call for nationalism or protectionism, rather it is a call to restore some balance in supply chains that are so critical to our healthcare system and national security. COVID-19 is not our first challenge as a country and it surely won’t be our last. Our country, economy and most importantly, our communities, will come through the other side stronger and more fortified in collective values. It is in the darkest hour, in the deepest moment of the fight, when we must be resolute in our optimism and faith in the future. This too shall pass and when it does, we will be stronger for it.