I’m writing this from my office at ATRA, a complex that was once bustling with activity. I say, once bustling because to comply with the order imposed by California Governor, Gavin Newsom, on March 19th, the rest of the team is working from home. It’s now been a month and work just isn’t the same.
Our story is not unlike others across the country and the world, for that matter. Many, like our friends in New York, have been hit harder than others. But the suffering is real for everyone, and so is the uncertainty as to when the COVID-19 pandemic will end.
Through all of this, I’ve discovered a few silver linings, which I’ll discuss later. Perhaps you’ve discovered some, yourself. Maybe you’ve found a bit of toughness you didn’t know you possessed. Perhaps you’ve been lazy with managing your spending habits and realize there’s a lot you can do without. Suddenly, that expense-reduction goal you’ve failed to hit in the past isn’t as challenging to reach. In any event, life may never be the same after this experience. But there’s more.
As an avid history buff, I’ve studied politics, world leaders, and people who have shaped our views over the past two centuries. When we look back at calamities, tragic events or military conflicts, there’s a powerful force that is always at the forefront – the press!
In the end, it was the press who showed us the brighter side of a catastrophe, and it was the press that made a mountain out of a mole hill. Today, the press still shapes our opinions and colors our perspectives. And it’s the press that’s driving our reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. But what drives the press?
Here’re a couple of practical examples to show you what I mean. In 1918 the world was at war. There were over 30 countries embattled in what started out as a simple border dispute between two countries that many people couldn’t find on a map – Austria and Serbia. The Spanish flu broke out in January of that fifth year of World War I.
President Woodrow Wilson, along with other world leaders, tried to tamp down the news of the flu, which quickly grew into a pandemic. They encouraged the press to bury any news of the flu that could erupt in panic and dispirit the troops. And with that, the world press focused on the outbreak and deaths occurring in Spain, a neutral country at the time. That’s how the name, “The Spanish Flu” came about.
In the end, over 500,000,000 people were infected. That was 1/4 of the world’s population at that time, and yet, the press kept much of it on page 3 of the local newspapers. The worldwide death toll is uncertain, but it’s estimated to be in the tens of millions.
Likewise, in 2009 we saw the outbreak of the H1N1 Swine Flu. It wasn’t declared a National emergency until over 1,000 Americans had died. That was slightly over 10 years ago, and yet, who remembers the details of that crisis? It was the press that kept the danger away and allowed us to live a normal life, while others were suffering.
Today, we see just the opposite. The press can’t cover COVID-19 enough. It’s front-page news every day, and it’s the lead story on every news channel. Politicians scramble to get facetime on the various news programs to one-up their opponents. The coverage is so sensationalized that it’s sparked a nationwide panic – shutting down businesses, closing schools, and slashing 1/3 of the value off the stock market.
The continuing hysteria has led to shutting down every park, beach, shopping mall, festival and sporting event. When the dust cleared, they had effectively shut down the country.
I’m not denying that we have a crisis. I’m just asking, “Why the difference this time?” Why is the media driving a panic, this time? With past crises, some even worse, why did they try to calm the country and to be part of the solution, rather than exacerbating the matter? That’s for each of us to answer.
So, what silver linings have I discovered? One is that our industry, and our Nation, can adapt – we’re resilient. After the first two weeks of panic, many businesspeople decided that they’re not giving in. They’re finding new ways to serve their customers. I’ve learned that ATRA can operate with people working from a home office. We’re not just getting by, but in many cases, we’re doing better and being more productive. Out of necessity, we’ve revisited some of our processes and found better ways to do things.
When this virus mess is over, I think many of us will use what we’ve learned over these several weeks to make our businesses operate better both now and in the future. And in the end, we’ll recognize many silver linings we can’t even see while we’re in the midst of this crisis.