Michael J. Peterson
We are facing the most profound and threatening world public health crisis in 100 years. The last similar event was the Spanish Flu of 1918, which lasted through 1920. That flu infected 500 million people worldwide, which was estimated to be one fourth of the world’s population at that time. Approximately 50 million died worldwide, and 675,000 died in the United States.
So how do we cope with this event?
The first step we each need to take is to recognize that it is a major crisis for us individually, our families, our friends, and our communities. For about 4 out of 5 people, this illness will be relatively mild and recovery could occur at home. However, for others, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, this will be serious and life-threatening. They will often need treatment in an intensive care unit of a hospital, using ventilators to allow them to breathe.
The mortality rate of coronavirus is estimated to be 10 times higher than the common flu. Furthermore, it spreads easily and rapidly among humans. On March 12, 2020, there were 47,400 confirmed cases outside China; by March 22, 2020, there were 248,500 confirmed cases outside of China (source: Johns Hopkins University). There are no vaccines to prevent it, and there are no known pharmaceuticals to treat it.
As we learn more about COVID-19 as it expands throughout the world, we are seeing different impacts on people. Currently in many regional hotspots, including the United States, a high proportion of the people in intensive care units are young (20-50) and not all have underlying medical conditions. (Source: NY Times)
Our next and most important step in coping is to take action. Each of us has a role that we can play in slowing the rate of growth of COVID-19. Sheltering in place, limiting outside trips to only the most necessary, closing non-essential businesses and organizations, and limiting meetings and gatherings of people are all critical to slowing the growth of the virus. These practices were actually put in place during the Spanish Flu of 1918 (in many, but not enough communities). Where they were well-implemented, the death rate and the impact on the health delivery system were significantly reduced.
In recent days, I have read and heard people say that since they believe the virus will be mild for them, they are not going to worry about it and go about their normal activities. The problem with this thinking is that it is not just about you; it is about the larger community. You may individually be okay, even if you have the virus, but you will spread it to others, and they may be more medically compromised.
An argument against the above precautions is that there will be a significant hit to businesses and organizations, and many will not survive. Unfortunately, if we try to keep business and daily activities as usual, we will be giving COVID-19 more of a “green light” to move forward faster. There may be even more damage to businesses and organizations; our healthcare system will experience a stronger surge of patients and will be unable to handle all of the other medical conditions.
Another aspect of taking action is to reach out and help others who are not able to do things themselves. Delivering food and medicine to the elderly will be critically important as the shelter in place continues.
Also, reaching out to our family, friends, and colleagues is critical. Loneliness, depression, and anxiety will be experiences we will all have as we limit social and physical contact. Communications with others will be very helpful. Taking action and reaching out not only are beneficial to those we contact, but also to ourselves.
Yet another element of coping is taking the opportunity to consider what positive changes and innovations can be made as a result of this experience. Businesses and organizations have been hit hard. We are seeing the importance of improved internet communications, as well as the home delivery systems for food and other critical services. Are there lessons learned that can be used post-COVID?
Our current COVID-19 emergency will likely fundamentally alter how we work, making Zoom and Skype meetings, and online work more generally, routine. In my field of expertise, telemedicine will change healthcare delivery. Out of necessity, remote office visits might skyrocket in popularity as traditional-care settings are overwhelmed by the pandemic. Virtual reality systems may get a boost for medical education and positive psychological health interventions. They may also help with socialization and mental health. The unintended benefits of this shift will be to keep people out of the transit system, out of the waiting room, and away from patients who need critical care. Online K-12 education, partial homeschooling, and virtual universities may get a boost. Science, expertise, good e-governance, and domestic supply chains may make a comeback. Of course, there will be costs such as isolation, less socialization, and more polarization as the memory of the pandemic fades.
My final thought on coping is to keep in mind that this is not “forever.” We will get through this. We can slow the spread; we will develop vaccines and pharmaceutical treatments. There is already evidence of being able to bring the virus under control. China has been experiencing a leveling off since early February. South Korea has been able to limit its growth; several weeks ago, it was in the top three countries in the world for confirmed cases, but as of March 22, it has dropped to eighth.
It is necessary to be realistic, which will create fear, depression, and anxiety. Move beyond this by taking action, both for yourself and others. Be mindful of the opportunities and learnings that are present in troubled times. Finally, maintain your optimism and hope. We will get through this together!
Michael J. Peterson is former COO and former interim CEO of Stanford Healthcare and a member of the Business Advisory Council of the College of Business at CSUMB.