The Conversation We’re Not Having About the Pandemic

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but I think we’ve been deluding ourselves. For the past months, perhaps since shortly after we settled into our new life of quarantines, masks, and physical distancing, we’ve all been fantasizing about what it will be like after the pandemic ends. For me I’ve most eagerly looked forward to getting back to crowded sweaty germy dance floors and shoulder-to-shoulder packed events. Perhaps you too have been dreaming about what our return to “normalcy” will bring back into your life.

With the arrival of vaccines dawns a new hope that our fantasies may become reality in the near future. Articles announce the approaching end to the pandemic and a return to summer as we once we knew it. Cue the summer montage scene and the mad dash to beaches, movie theaters, and yes, even the office.

Let’s not be too hasty. Because there’s a conversation we’re not having and a question we’re not asking. What if the pandemic continues for another two to three years?

It’s okay….breathe….breathe….everything will be okay.

This is not just an alarmist sentiment aimed at getting a reaction and sparking fantastical notions about survival in a zombie-like COVID apocalypse. There is a distinct and non-zero probability that this may actually occur. Let’s consider a few thoughts.

First, a cursory search shows that roughly 55% of global pandemics over the last two millennia have endured for longer than two years. The Antonine Plague lasted five years from 165 to 180 CE. The most deadly pandemic in modern human history, the Bubonic Plague (Black Death), lasted four horrid years. The many multi-year waves of the Cholera pandemic lasted five to ten years a piece. Counting the number of calendar years an epidemic is active on Wikipedia’s list of epidemics, the average length of an epidemic is 4.3 years not factoring HIV/AIDS (an outlier in length) and 6.3 years counting HIV/AIDS. Using this logic, the Sars-COV-2 pandemic which started in 2019 will end in late 2022 at the earliest. Perhaps the vaccine gods and modern technology will save us this time.

Second, many of these pandemics occurred before globalization and the massive entanglement of global commerce. Despite lockdowns and travel bans, humans (and thus germs) are still circulating the globe more quickly than ever before. It’s a big planet from a virus’ perspective with plenty of terrain to slip by our best efforts. Commence the ultimate high-risk game of whack-o-mole with our ever evolving hydra opponent.

Third, we’re spoiled by modernity and it’s on-demand delivery of everything we want. We’re like the J.G. Wentworth commercials “I want my freedom and safety and I want it now. Call 877-GONE-NOW.” Nature’s timeline works entirely differently. How quickly we forget the scale and scope of nature and her history. A few years, hell, a few decades is a blip on the evolutionary radar. We’ve proven vaccination technology can eradicate viruses and doing so in 2021 would be an absolute coup and wondrous feat of humanity worthy of the biggest worldwide blowout party we’ve ever seen. But we must remember…we are a part of nature, nature herself, not above nature. Full control of such a miraculously complex system is an illusion.

Fourth, and perhaps most startling, is that as community spread continues to run rampant in some parts of the world COVID mutations that are not stoppable by our current vaccines have a greater chance to emerge. Tentative results already suggest reduced vaccine efficacy with our South African, Brazilian, and Indian variants. Research published in Science suggests “the full evolutionary potential of SARS-CoV-2 has yet to be revealed.” Put simply, right now we should count ourselves lucky that it hasn’t mutated more but that reality can’t be ruled out yet. Heavily immunized places like Israel and the United States may not be out of the woods yet.

Admittedly, this is an uncomfortable conversation. Yet it is an inquiry that we must explore. It is our weakness and impatience that begs a quick end to all of this. Our emotional fatigue and our cabin fever. The very real impacts in the living of our everyday lives. The evidence suggests we might have a few more years ahead of us. Will this happen? Your crystal ball is as good as mine.

It’s not surprising that it seems we’re avoiding this conversation. We crave certainty and avoid uncertainty like the plague (literally). This willful avoidance of the conversation stems from the fact that the pandemic sucks. Sure, we can be optimistic and talk about the many silver linings. We can discuss how our personal and evolutionary resilience is higher. But a longer timeline means more uncertainty, risk, and unknowns. It means we’ll stay in the domain of the complex and chaotic far longer than we are individually accustomed too. This is great practice for the future, a world in which increased complexity brings more volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and a necessity to thrive by being antifragile.

Many questions emerge, prime among them is what would you do differently if you were 100% sure the pandemic will last another 24 to 36 months? Will you hold off on having kids or decide you’ve waited long enough and go for it? Will you opt to buy, sell, or move (good luck in this red hot real estate market)? Maybe you might decide now is the time to take more career risk and see this as a window to take the leap? How might you make different business investment decisions? A myriad of personal and professional questions offer an array of possibilities in this new decision set. We must think about these business and societal consequences.

No one among us is 100% sure of COVID’s course. This is where our individual and collective sensemaking becomes critical to our decision making and the actions that follow. Sensemaking is our ability to evaluate the information available to us, observe and account for our personal biases, and create a coherent understanding of this complex situation. How one makes sense of the probability that the pandemic continues on, and does so with their human networks, is dependent on a variety of factors. Let’s make sure wishing it wasn’t so doesn’t cloud our judgement.

My dance floor awaits.

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