When workers are bullied and assaulted by customers

Here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic appears to be triggering outbreaks of angry, entitled customers taking out their frustrations on retail and fast food workers who are simply trying to comply with public health standards and work in relative safety. The abusive behaviors range from verbal bullying to physical assaults, typically in response to rules requiring customers to wear protective masks.

Two days ago, Universal Hub, a popular Greater Boston news site, posted a short item (link here) about a well-known Northampton, Massachusetts ice cream shop faced with enraged customers:

Herrell’s in the bucolic city of Northampton (started by Steve Herrell, yes, that Steve, and his wife) reports several incidents in which people got so, so mad when they were told to put on a mask or to take their cone to go – one even threw the cone at the server when told they couldn’t eat it inside. 

On their Facebook page, the ice cream shop shared more of the details:

We again have had a nasty visit from a ‘refuse to wear a mask’ person. His partner wore a 1/2 mask below her nose. She was asked not to eat in the store. He wasn’t served and asked to put on a mask or leave. He called our Masked Scooper hero an asshole.

Last week someone threw her paid for ice cream at my staff member because she was not allowed to eat in the store. Then earlier this week a person who was mad because she had to wait 15 minutes. Then finally, someone who planned to report us to consumer protection for Herrell’s refusing to serve them: no mask, no shoes. I said ‘ you do that’!

People THIS IS ONLY ICE CREAM SO, NO PUN INTENDED, CHILL!

Stories like this are popping up across the country, from local mom and pop stores to big-box retailers. (Go here, here, here, and here for more.) Lower-paid retail workers are usually the ones who face customers’ ire over observing and enforcing safety rules for the benefit of all.

I understand that these are trying and stressful times for just about everyone. Patience and basic manners may sometimes be wearing thin. But this is no excuse for bullying and assaulting workers who are helping to re-open our economy and restore some semblance of normalcy to our lives, often in return for very modest wages, while observing smart public health practices. 

It’s a lesson for us all. Let’s not take out our frustrations on workers who are doing their best under difficult circumstances. Instead, let’s be grateful that we can safely buy an ice cream cone in the midst of a global pandemic.

Developing our 2020 vision

In an opinion piece for the Boston Globe last week (link here), veteran journalist and editor David Shribman speculated on how the momentous events of this year will shape, in one form or another, the rest of our lives. Here’s a good snippet:

It is only June, and so far the crises of the age — along with the diminution of the country’s international profile, the coarsening of the civic debate, the looming bitter election — comprise a page the country has not yet turned. But it’s clear that the year 2020 is a turning point — in public health, in public debate, in public affairs.

“This will be a year that lives eternally in the history books,’’ Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said in an interview. “The country has a clear election decision, we have to decide whether we will be a global leader or revert to bedrock nationalism, and all the while a pandemic rages and the cities burn. Not since 1968 have things been so decision-fraught. We are going to have to decide what kind of people we are going to be. One way or the other, this year will be remembered as a turning point.”

History is full of turning points, moments when the patterns of human affairs are upended, when great disruptions course through the culture, when tranquility is shattered, assumptions are blown apart, whole ways of thinking and behaving are transformed.

As you can see, Shribman quotes Douglas Brinkley, a prominent American historian who is not one to overuse phrases such as “a year that lives eternally in the history books” and “(w)e are going to have to decide what kind of people we are going to be.”

With what feels like lightning speed, we now find ourselves in a truly momentous time. No wonder so many feel overwhelmed and powerless as individuals.

But let’s look at this differently. During the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, thinking, and talking with folks (via Zoom, FaceTime, and email) about our current state of affairs. I don’t have any great epiphanies as to grand fixes, but I now understand that this pain and tumult provide opportunities to make important changes in our society.

So I find myself asking over and again, how can we, individually and collectively, create our respective visions for making a positive difference in the world?

Speaking personally, I remain devoted to the work that has been motivating me for many years. As I suggested a month ago, workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse aren’t about to go away because of our experiences of the past few months. So many other labor and employment issues merit our attention as well. As we haltingly return to our physical workspaces, the quest for dignity at work continues.

Of course, there’s much more to address: Global climate change is real, despite the efforts of those who try to deny or obscure the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. The coronavirus pandemic is teaching us about the vulnerability of our public health systems and economic safety nets. And especially here in America, the current protests prompted by the police killing of George Floyd remind us of the continuing presence of racial injustice and systemic abuse. To name a few.

OK, so individually we cannot do it all, but we can be allies and supporters. And we can help connect these causes together, as part of a working agenda toward a better world.

***

Which brings me to folks roughly around my age (late Boomers, early Gen Xers), especially, who are faced with the question of how we will use our remaining productive years. To this consideration I’d like to reintroduce two frames that I’ve discussed before on this blog, legacy work and body of work:

Legacy work

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

Body of work

Pamela Slim, author of Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (2013), defines her operative term this way:

Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created.

Most of us won’t appear in the history books, and so perhaps our stories will go with us, at least beyond our immediate circles of family and friends. However, if we have some ability to define our personal legacy and our body of work, then perhaps we owe ourselves and others some consideration of how we can make the world a better place, given the challenging opportunities before us.

Dear reader, I won’t try to prescribe that path for you, but I hope these thoughts will help to prompt your way. After all, we sometimes have more power than we think we have. There’s no better time to utilize it than now.

On the rhetoric of change: I’ll take “evolution” and “transformation” over “revolution” and “creative destruction,” thank you

Seeking the light (photo: DY)

This may sound a little abstract, but I’ve been paying attention lately to the rhetoric associated with perceived needs for dramatic change. Among other things, some political activists call for “revolution,” while certain business innovators call for “creative destruction.”

Perhaps I’m getting soft, but I’ve come around to favoring dramatic change in the forms of “evolution” and “transformation.” You might consider this a matter of mere semantics — the kind of distinctions a geeky professor (i.e., me) might make — but I believe the connotations accompanying these terms play out tangibly in terms of actions.

Whether it’s political “revolution” or capitalistic “creative destruction,” the inevitable human casualties that accompany such sudden transitions are too often treated as acceptable collateral damage. After all, “blowing up stuff” (hopefully figuratively) often means that people are going to get hurt.

OK, I confess, as far as pathways to change go, I’m not a revolutionary or a creative destruction guy. I believe in a mixed economy with strong private, public, and non-profit sectors, offering opportunities for enterprise, efficient public services, humane social safety nets, and protections in the form of checks & balances. My politics are that of an old-fashioned liberal, holding that government can and should serve the common good. My views on law and public policy are critically informed by the school of therapeutic jurisprudence, which calls upon us to view our laws and legal institutions through a lens of human dignity and societal well-being.

That said, I do believe that our world needs some dramatic changes. Indeed, for over a decade, I’ve used this blog and other platforms to urge that our workplace laws and policies should advance human dignity. Our obsessions with short-term profits and excesses of managerial power have led to a lot of innocent people paying the price. More broadly, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted serious, pre-existing fault lines in our health care and economic systems. Global climate change is an existential threat to humanity.

Some folks are benefiting mightily under these conditions. Even during this pandemic, news accounts have documented how powerful billionaires have built wealth, while countless millions of others have lost their jobs.

Needed evolution and transformation can occur, but it won’t be easy. Here in the U.S., for example, the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.

Academic and professional conferences in the age of coronavirus

I am hardly alone in attesting that I can trace career and life changing collaborations, associations, and friendships to various conferences, seminars, and workshops. These events have introduced me to people, ideas, and research that have profoundly shaped the course of what I do and fostered communities that transcend distance.

I have written frequently about the importance and meaning of such events. For example:

A workshop as annual ritual (2019) (link here) — Photo essay on the 2019 annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, held at Columbia University in New York City.

A short speech in Rome (2019) (link here) — Text of my speech praising our shared experiences of participating in the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, delivered at the 2019 Congress in Rome.

Workplace Bullying University, “All Star” edition (2019) (link here) — Recounting experiences at an enhanced edition of the Workplace Bullying Institute’s intensive training seminar, hosted by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie in San Francisco, CA.

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing (2017) (link here) — I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Edith Eger, noted trauma therapist, author, and Holocaust survivor, at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California.

North of the border: On transforming our laws and legal systems (2016) (link here) — Report on a therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada.

Conferences as community builders (2015) (link here) — Touting the many benefits of the 2015 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Atlanta, Georgia, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

With these events and so many others, I could tell story after story about gaining meaningful, lasting connections and insights.

Thus, it is with a heavy heart that I see so many conferences being cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t disagree with these decisions; quite the contrary. Because this virus is very contagious and has life-threatening health impacts, I reluctantly believe they are the right moves.

Zoom to the rescue?

Can Zoom and other online conferencing platforms fill the void?

Some event organizers are moving their programs online, and I hope they turn out well. Video conferencing technology is way ahead of where it was just a few years ago. It is possible to hold genuinely interactive exchanges via these options.

But these platforms cannot deliver true alternatives to the fortuitous sidebar conversations, meals, and coffee meet-ups that are often the stuff of future projects and new associations. Great things can hatch from these more informal interactions. Online “chat rooms” simply do not provide the same space.

Return to “normal”?

For now, the prospect of hopping onto airplanes, staying in hotels, and sitting in crowded classrooms and meeting rooms understandably won’t appeal to many people, nor should it. I am saddest for newer scholars and practitioners in so many fields who have not yet enjoyed the enriching experiences that I have had over the years and who may be denied them for at least the better part of the coming year. 

As for the future, so much depends on advancements in public health and medicine. Hopefully, travel and large face-to-face meetings will become safe again sooner than later. Then maybe we’ll see a return to the kinds of gatherings that can change lives and create communities.

Coronavirus: What can we expect in terms of workplace bullying, incivility, and conflict as we reopen our physical workspaces?

(image courtesy of clipart.email)

With various plans, policies, and discussions addressing the critical question of how we reopen our economic and civic society in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, faithful readers of this blog may be especially interested in how these measures will affect interpersonal behaviors as people start returning to their physical workspaces.

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier, I hope that more employers will find ways to pay all of their employees a living wage. After all, many of us have been able to shelter-at-home in large part due to the service rendered by a lot of workers who haven’t been earning much money.

Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

So maybe my hopes for a great enlightenment are somewhat unrealistic.

In any event, I’m willing to make some mild forecasts about the workplace climate as we start to reopen physical workspaces:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

Coronavirus didn’t create the holes and divisions in the U.S. economy, but it surely has widened them

The U.S. Department of Labor’s monthly jobs report for April provides a jarring look at the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the state of employment. The Washington Post‘s Tracy Jan summarizes (link here):

As the unemployment rate soared in April to its highest levels since the Great Depression, with 14.7 percent of workers without jobs, the coronavirus shutdown fell unequally on Americans according to age, gender, educational attainment as well as race.

Women became unemployed at higher rates than men. Hispanics and blacks were hit harder than whites and Asians. Those without high school diplomas fared the worst. As did teenagers, of whom nearly a third are now out of work.

Jan’s full story takes a deeper look at the labor market implications from these numbers. Suffice it to say that while the pandemic is now affecting people in virtually all demographic groupings except for the super wealthy, it is delivering especially painful blows on those who had already fallen behind.

***

Back in early-to-mid March (which now seems like another era ago), I anticipated a severe, coronavirus-induced recession (here) and the need for a significant economic bail-out of Main Street and its residents (here). I based my assessments on (1) the low cash reserves of most small and medium-sized businesses and non-profits; and (2) the millions of people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck.

However, if anything, I underestimated how rapidly these economic realities would manifest themselves. Recently I recalled the results of a Federal Reserve survey covering personal finances of Americans. As Soo Youn reported for ABC News last year (link here):

Almost 40% of American adults wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit-card charge that they could quickly pay off, a Federal Reserve survey finds.

About 27% of those surveyed would need to borrow the money or sell something to come up with the $400 and an additional 12% would not be able to cover it at all, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2018 report on the economic well-being of U.S. households released on Thursday.

These survey findings basically tell us most of what we need to know about our financial readiness for a crisis.

***

As I wrote in early March, “(a)t least since the early 1980s, our economy has become one of (1) flattening wages; (2) widening wealth gaps; and (3) reduced and eliminated employee benefits, especially retirement plans.”

This was America’s shaky foundation as the pandemic appeared.

Thus, the already gaping holes and divisions in the U.S. economy and its social safety net simply awaited another seismic event to widen them. For now, at least, the pandemic has given us what appears to be a terrible choice: Re-open the economy while infection rates are steady or even increasing vs. remain in a quarantine state in order to squelch the spread of the virus.

A more equitable economic structure, stronger safety net protections, and/or more effective early public health responses would’ve made these choices less dire, but such is the cost of repeatedly bad policies, practices, and leadership. I hope that we learn these lessons for next time.

The debt we are accruing to workers we now deem essential

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has proposed an ambitious new program to provide free college for workers deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic. As reported by Wesley Whistle for Forbes (link here):

Today, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) announced “Futures for Frontliners,” as a part of a series of initiatives to help Michigan families during and after the coronavirus pandemic. This new program would provide tuition-free higher education for those considered essential workers during the coronavirus lockdowns.

…According to the press release, this program would provide those without a college degree a path to a higher education credential or degree. Those specified as essential workers included hospital and nursing home staff, grocery store employees, child care workers, those manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE), and more.

May this be but one small initiative designed to recognize the everyday contributions of service workers in our economy and society. Many of us are able to shelter at home and to practice social distancing because of retail and delivery services performed by workers who receive only modest pay and benefits at best.

We owe these workers a growing debt of gratitude, but here in the U.S., we are way behind when it comes to embracing employee dignity as a primary objective for our workplace practices and public policies. For millions of service workers classified as essential employees, the agenda for change includes better pay, safer and healthier working conditions, and health insurance and retirement plans.

Will we see the light?

Hopefully this public health crisis is shining a light on that need for change. And just maybe, wealthy folks are among those paying closer attention.

For example, Mark Cuban — owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team and co-star of the “Shark Tank” reality TV show for budding entrepreneurs — went on National Public Radio in April (link here) and explained how the pandemic has changed the way he regards the importance of corporate social responsibility:

Of anything as devastating and dangerous as the coronavirus has been, it’s also been a great equalizer. I mean, it can affect anybody. But within the business construct, just the idea that everybody has got to do their job or participate in a way that works for not just the business, but for individual families, but also customers. And so, I think it doesn’t matter what your role is. Each role is of equal importance.

The CEO is of no more importance than somebody cleaning the floors or that takes a bucket and mops the floors. I think that this is a time as a reset where we really have to reevaluate how we treat workers, how people are paid, how can we get them into a role where they receive an equity as part of their compensation. So that they’re not having to live paycheck to paycheck, they have something that appreciates. All these things I think are important as we go through this reset in business.

Labor unions are essential to solutions

Even if more corporate executives start to get it, we still need to ground these changes in a stronger labor movement. To illustrate, labor studies professor John Logan (San Francisco State U.) is an expert on working conditions in the retail grocery sector. Here’s a snippet of a recent piece he wrote for The Hill (link here) about grocery store workers, in connection with the coronavirus pandemic:

Researchers have long known that unionized workplaces – whether in mining, construction, manufacturing or warehouses – are significantly safer for employees than non-union workplaces. Now we are learning in real time that the same is true for grocery workers, who have been unexpectedly thrust onto the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Previously treated as “unskilled” and “disposable,” grocery workers are now recognized as essential personnel who are helping to keep millions of Americans alive.

…Large non-union companies such as Walmart, Target and Amazon have introduced their own measures on worker safety and employment security, but their limited efforts have largely focused pay raises and bonuses to attract and retain employees.

…In the past, many food retailers have lobbied against measures such as paid sick leave that would have better protected workers and shoppers in this time of national crisis. The same companies cannot now be trusted to prioritize worker and public safety over their own greed.

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken us hard and fast, and we’ve got a ways to go before we are done with it. Nevertheless, it’s time for us to be thinking about how we can create a society that values the contributions of all workers. If we don’t learn these lessons now, then shame on us.

“Disastershock”: A free handbook for coping with disaster and trauma

Disastershock: How to Cope with the Emotional Stress of a Major Disaster is a free handbook (link here) for individuals and communities, co-authored by Drs. Brian Gerrard, Emily Girault, Valerie Appleton, Suzanne Giraudo, and Sue Linville Shaffer. First appearing in 1989, this valuable book has just been updated to include mental health challenges wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s a brief description:

This Disastershock book is intended to help families and communities to cope with disaster related stress such as that caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Part I describes ten effective methods to be used to reduce stress. Part 2 describes 12 stress reduction methods to be used with children. Although Part 2 was written primarily for parents, teachers and other adults working with children will find it useful. A unique feature of Disastershock is that its practical stress reduction methods are described in an explicit manner making them easy to learn. 

You may freely download an English-language version of Disastershock by clicking here. It is currently being translated into languages of nations significantly affected by the coronavirus crisis.

Disastershock has been praised by mental health professionals and educators from around the globe. Practicality, accessibility, and brevity (under 50 pp.) are among its key strengths; you won’t feel overwhelmed by it. I became aware of the book from one of its co-authors, Dr. Brian Gerrard, emeritus faculty member at the University of San Francisco and chief academic officer and core faculty member at the Western Institute for Social Research, on whose board I serve. I recommend it enthusiastically.

***

Along these lines, I’d like to reiterate my earlier recommendation of the John Hopkins University’s Psychological First Aid course (link here) taught by Dr. George Everly and offered for free by Coursera, a leading provider of online, continuing education courses. As I wrote in a blog post last September

Dr. Everly developed his PFA model to provide first responders who are not trained as counselors with knowledge and training to assist those who have experienced traumatic events, such as displacement due to wars, severe weather events, and other man-made and natural disasters.

In addition to completing the course myself, I assigned it to students in my Law and Psychology Lab course at Suffolk University Law School, and they responded very favorably to it.

How COVID-19 has placed health care providers at grave risk of moral injury

Obviously the coronavirus pandemic is squeezing the capabilities of our health care systems. It also is impacting the psychological health and well-being of health care providers on the front lines of treating COVID-19 patients, especially as they strive to provide life-saving treatment without adequate resources.

The ultimate nightmare scenarios include choices that may have to be made when the number of severely ill patients exceeds the number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds and ventilators. For example, here in Massachusetts, a task force of doctors and medical ethicists has developed a controversial protocol for determining who gets ventilators and other treatments and who does not, when demand exceeds availability. As reported by Adam Gaffin for Universal Hub, a local online news site (link here):

The “crisis standards of care” guidelines are designed for a hospital system in the process of collapse – too many sick people and not enough medicine equipment and healthcare providers to care for them all – possibly because they themselves might be knocked out by the virus.

When that happens, and patients are coming in faster than hospitals can provide intensive care for them, doctors will have to switch from trying to care for each individual patient to trying to maximize total “life years saved” for the community as a whole, the task force concluded.

To do that, a designated a triage doctor will assign patients scores based on such factors that include not just the severity of their Covid-19 infection but their age and preexisting conditions, with points added for each. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, as well as patients who otherwise would be involved in “maintaining societal order,” however, would have points subtracted….In the event of a tie score between two patients, the younger one would “win,” because of the priority of maximizing total “life-years” saved.

…Patients with the lowest scores would then have their medical records color coded – so that ICU staffers know at a glance who’s next for a ventilator – possibly even if that means removing somebody with a higher score from one. Red-tagged patients would be first in line, orange next and then all the older, sicker patients would be marked as yellow.

The guidelines promulgated in Massachusetts are similar to those developed in other states and nations. Basically, if the swell of COVID-19 infections is overwhelming the availability of hospital resources, doctors and other health care providers are directed to institute a triage system that determines who gets potentially life-saving treatment and who does not. 

The specter of moral injury

The excruciating challenge of treating patients with inadequate supplies is placing health care providers at grave risk of moral injury. “Moral injury,” as defined by Syracuse University’s Moral Injury Project (link here), “is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.”

As Dr. Wendy Dean, psychiatrist and co-founder of Fix Moral Injury, a non-profit organization, explains in Time magazine (link here):

If healthcare workers can’t provide the care they typically believe is medically necessary for their patients, they may experience a phenomenon known as “moral injury,” says Dr. Wendy Dean, a psychiatrist and the co-founder of the nonprofit Fix Moral Injury. Dean says that American healthcare providers are used to doing anything and everything to help their patients, but inadequate protective gear and triage procedures will force them to make “exquisitely painful” decisions, such as choosing whether or not to risk infecting themselves, their family and other patients in order to help everyone in their care.

The consequences of moral injury can be significant. According to the Syracuse Moral Injury Project:

Moral injury can lead to serious distress, depression, and suicidality. Moral injury can take the life of those suffering from it, both metaphorically and literally. Moral injury debilitates people, preventing them from living full and healthy lives.

The effects of moral injury go beyond the individual and can destroy one’s capacity to trust others, impinging on the family system and the larger community. Moral injury must be brought forward into the community for a shared process of healing.

The specter of moral injury is among the reasons why our health care providers will require ongoing help in dealing with the psychological burdens and health risks of working to save lives during this pandemic. This experience will leave its formative mark on current generations of health care workers for decades to come. We owe them our support for the short and long runs alike.

Coronavirus: Timelines toward normalcy and choices for society

(image courtesy of clipartmag.com)

I’m neither a public health expert nor a physician, but whenever I hear people asking when life will return to normal, I keep coming back to three requirements regarding the coronavirus:

  • The availability of inexpensive, fast, and readily available testing — ideally accurate do-at-home tests;
  • Effective therapeutic treatments that can stop infections from turning into severe cases that require hospitalization and invasive ventilator treatment; and,
  • An effective preventive vaccine, hopefully one that provides blanket protection along the lines of the polio vaccine, but in any event more effective than seasonal flu shots.

Until we have these three pieces in place, I cannot imagine life regaining a strong semblance of normalcy. Instead, at best we will experience periodic outbreaks that require us to return to social distancing and shelter-at-home practices.

So what’s the timeline on these needed public health developments? Based on way too much surfing around for information and informed opinion about the virus, I think it’s reasonable to expect (1) widely available testing kits by the end of the year; (2) therapeutic treatments later this year or early in 2021; and (3) a vaccine available sometime in 2021.

If I’m right, it means that we’re going to be in this mode of living for some time. Accordingly, this increasingly will start to feel like wartime-style deprivation and sacrifice. The world of work will continue to be profoundly affected. Displaced workers and shut-down businesses will need ongoing public subsidies during this time.

I hope that I am very wrong. I hope that our heroic doctors and medical researchers will improvise miraculous treatments in the coming weeks. I hope they will make brilliant discoveries on the vaccine front that can be quickly screened for safety and provided to the public.

More realistically, I think we should hope for the best but prepare ourselves for a longer haul. Among other things, our planning should include creating a much stronger social safety net for supporting individuals, small businesses and non-profits, and our cultural and educational institutions. 

In other words, how we deal with the weeks and months to come — individually and collectively — will define the character of our society for many years, well after we’ve quashed this damnable virus. Let generosity, compassion, and care be our guiding lights.

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