As I begin to write this, it is early 2020 and the covid-19 virus is wreaking havoc. First it was just China, then as it spread the rest of the world started seeing cases. The information is still incomplete. We don’t know, at least now, exactly how many people are really infected. We don’t know what the actual death percentage is going to be. We do know that it is low, relatively speaking, and it mostly affects those at risk with compromised immune systems, or those who are generally susceptible to viruses such as the elderly.
What I can see clearly is the economic impact is going to be substantial. Travel for leisure and business has ground to a halt. For all intents and purposes the cruise industry has shut down for at least a month. Bigger than that is the world supply chain out of China. Everything is made in China. Okay, that is a generality, but China is a huge component of the world supply chain and it’s mostly shut down right now. To bring this closer to home, the organization I work with has shut down nearly all regular activities that include groups of people getting together or traveling.
What I find so surprising about all of this, what makes me want to write about it, is that it’s not an exceptionally unique threat to the vast majority of humanity. Anyone watching the 24 hour news cycle would think that this is turning this into a pandemic comparable to the bubonic plague and we are all going to drop dead tomorrow. As I listen to the scientists, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s bad, but it’s not horrible. At the time of this writing, the best information I found comparing the virus to the flu is:
- COVID-19: Approximately 127,863 cases worldwide; 1,323 cases in the U.S. as of Mar. 12, 2020.*
- Flu: Estimated 1 billion cases worldwide; 9.3 million to 45 million cases in the U.S. per year.
- COVID-19: Approximately 4,718 deaths reported worldwide; 38 deaths in the U.S., as of Mar. 12, 2020.*
- Flu: 291,000 to 646,000 deaths worldwide; 12,000 to 61,000 deaths in the U.S. per year.
Yes, COVID-19 could become really bad, but when you look at these numbers, the Flu is far far worse of a threat to humanity. The Flu is just something we’ve all learned to accept as part of our daily lives. When you consider how many organizations are making substantial changes to their operations and the number of events that are being canceled, the list currently seems endless, to me this is more of an irrational overreaction on the part of society than anything else.
At its core, this response, in my opinion, is really more about organizations mitigating risk. Nobody in any form of a senior leadership position wants to be accused of somebody getting sick or dying because they didn’t take appropriate action. It’s not that they have a personal issue with someone criticizing them, leaders at very high levels have developed tough skins by default of their positions. I believe the bigger issue for the majority of senior leadership teams is that there is the potential for lawsuits and the related costs of lawsuits. We live in a very litigious society. All it takes is one person to get really sick in an interaction in any way related to the company, and the lawsuits will become relentless. Eventually leadership will lose their jobs.
I think about my own personal risk aversion and I realize there are some similarities to how I react in my own life. They boil down to the fact that there are some things I won’t allow myself to get even remotely close to when it comes to risk. The topics that drive this reaction for me are related to finances and stability. As an example it’s probably easy for me to just get a credit card and manage personal debt like the rest of the country, but that is such a slippery slope that, to me, it is much safer to stay away from it completely. I’ve been at a point in my life with large amounts of consumer debt relative to my income and no job. I don’t like it when collectors call.
My thoughts on finances mirrors the attitudes and reactions that the large organizational leaders are having. They are trying to avoid the perception that one of their decisions could result in someone, or many people, contracting the virus. The companies and organizations would rather shut down wholesale or make drastic changes to operations. If you think about it, for many of these organizations this is a herculean effort. In some instances it makes sense, like airplanes and cruise ships, where large numbers of people are in confined spaces close together for extended periods of time. Most of the time, to me at least, and by the numbers I just cited, the reaction of shutting everything down is an over response compared to the actual real world risk.
I think where things are different is that the outcomes of my decisions are based on current reality and historical fact. Employers generally don’t keep people around for the long haul. The average time on the job is right at 4 years before there is a transition to a new job. The time to get a new job, even for a highly qualified individual in a tight labor market can easily take several months. North Carolina, where I live, ties with Florida for the worst unemployment program in the nation. Our program tops out at a few hundred dollars per week for approximately 12 weeks. To quote one author “North Carolina and Florida are not states you want to live in if you fear Unemployment”. Looking at these unemployment insurance facts, it’s patently obvious that any prudent individual would keep debt as close to zero as possible and maintain large financial buffers. You’ll still go backwards in an unexpected job transition but not catastrophically so.
Compare this to nations closing borders and corporations virtually shutting down for a virus that has a mortality rate that is currently 1/1000th of the annual Flu. Yes, Covid-19 could grow but it has to grow a great deal to reach the levels of the Flu, also we can’t forget that a strong strain of influenza could grow beyond typical infection rates. The biggest difference between the Flu and Corona Virus is that Influenza is something that most people are familiar with. Nobody likes the idea of the Flu but as a society we know how to handle it. We haven’t become comfortable with this latest respiratory virus.
Looking at all of this right now, what it seems to me is that we are having an emotional reaction to something new, scary, and unknown, and that emotional reaction is changing how our world operates. Eventually we won’t be as emotional as all the new will go away. We will accept that this virus is what it is, some will get sick, a smaller group will die, and then the pressures to get back to work will exert itself throughout all aspects of the economy.
I think the bigger lesson has to do with the reaction. To me, at this time, the overreaction and the fall out from it by governments, educational institutions, and some businesses shows what happens if mobs rule and emotions get in the way of logical decision making. If we were to measure pain and suffering from the economic fallout, I have a feeling it’ll be in excess of the pain and suffering caused by the virus. I can’t help but ask myself: How many people will lose their jobs and have serious health issues like strokes or heart attacks because of that stress, all leading from the efforts of governments to stop this thing? I’m sure someone will read this and say that i’m heartless and trying to kill old and sickly people. That, of course, is not what i’m saying. What I am saying is that right now, to me, it looks like our cure is as bad as, if not worse, than our illness, metaphorically and practically speaking.
I don’t expect to post this article until May 2021. When I do, I hope I’ll be able to add a coda that says “I was wrong, and the world was right and the reaction was commensurate with the problem.” I don’t mind admitting when i’m wrong. I have a feeling that I’m going to say “It was more like the hurricane watchs when I was a kid in South Florida. We had ten hurricane scares per year with tons of prep work and mania before the storm, but in twenty years only one ever hit with any force that I remember and even then the damage was contained.” I can’t help but think about the smarter home owners from my childhood in South Florida. They had reinforced cement block houses with roll down metal window covers and continuously stocked pantries. They could be prepared for a hurricane 5 minutes before it hit and life for them wasn’t interrupted no matter what the weather man was screaming about. I know there is a lesson I learned from them, and maybe it’s something the rest of the world needs to learn as well.