Oh, Mary

Collective Amnesia

June 22, 2020
Roger van Oosten

This is our third post on COVID-19 and its effects on business. See Going Viral and Communications in Our Distant Age.

In the early 1970s, historian Alfred Crosby found a statistical anomaly in life expectancy rates in the U.S. Somehow, life expectancy decreased in 1918, 1919, and 1920. There must have been some major event that had dramatically lowered the average age of death. Crosby went looking for answers. 

At first, Crosby thought it might be casualties of the First World War, but that war had ended in 1918 and American war deaths totaled 53,000 men, not nearly enough to drop the death rate. He scoured history books and science journals, but there was no information. However, local newspaper records had countless mentions of massive flu deaths in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other major cities. 

Crosby had heard of the outbreak of Spanish Flu, naturally, but historic records hadn’t collated the death count. Over several years, he counted up the deaths as recorded in newspapers and hospital records. The total he found shocked him. In those three years, Spanish Flu killed 605,000 people. And, while there is no 100% accurate list of deaths around the globe, the low end is that between 50 and 75 million died. 

Those horrible numbers weren’t what concerned Crosby, nor was it the way that the virus easily spread to every single corner of the globe. What surprised him was that this pandemic had largely been forgotten. Indeed, when he published a book about it in 1976, he titled it, “America’s Forgotten Pandemic.” He just couldn’t figure out how and why people didn’t remember such a deadly pandemic. 

One hundred years after the Spanish Flu killed roughly 5% of the world’s population, and smack in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, we have an answer to Alfred Crosby’s question. People forgot about the death and horror of 1918 because they wanted to. That same thinking is happening right now. We are forgetting COVID-19, because we want to forget it. 

That is certainly true of our current administration which has disbanded the coronavirus task force and unleashed a torrent of bizarre statements, tweets, and press conferences all directed at forcing us to forget that a deadly virus is burning through the country. Just a few days ago, the President and Vice President held a press conference and outright lied about the severity of the risk in states where the virus is currently on an upward trajectory of cases and deaths. 

This purposeful forgetting is being driven by politics. The party in power rightfully understands that the virus and the resulting economic shutdown make reelection far less likely. States with governors sympathetic to the party in power, such as Texas, Florida, and Arizona, have rushed to reopen their economies only to see cases and deaths spike. Yet, they are actively denying that cases and deaths are rising. Florida, in fact, fired a health data scientist for not manipulating data to show that it was safe to open more activities.  

People with a vested interest in the current party staying in power are even denying that there ever was a pandemic or that anyone died from it. Delirious desperation has an insanity all to its own.  

For the record, COVID-19 is still active, still dangerous, and still deadly. The Spanish Flu killed 605,000 Americans in three years; COVID has killed over 120,000 Americans in just 16 weeks. Projections are that there are more casualties to come. 

Against this background of scientific reality and delirious magic thinking, companies are deciding if they should reopen and how they should do it. These are questions of survival for many companies. 

While many companies, particularly in the direct sales or customer service industries, cannot afford to stay locked down, opening up has its own problems. States that have opened up early, have not seen business return to anything close to normal. Some of that is due to limits on customers and social distancing requirements. However, the truth is that many people, the vast majority according to polls, are still focused on personal safety. As that wise sage, Yogi Berra, said, if the people don’t want to come, nothing will stop them. 

And companies also have to worry about liability. Should a business reopen and become a vector of disease transmission, there will be lawsuits, perhaps even to the point of permanent closures. Choosing between a bankruptcy by long shutdown or from lawsuits is a hellish choice. 

Fortunately, there is solid, practical advice for businesses who open up in the midst of this pandemic. Start by respecting the virus and understanding it. We’ve seen that prolonged proximity to large groups is the primary vector of COVID-19 transmission. Being in a crowded and confined space puts people at a higher risk. So, in an office setting, move desks apart, and think about rotating small groups into the office on alternating days. 

Over index on safety and cleanliness. Have PPEs available and enforce use in office or store settings. Clean common areas, like kitchens and bathrooms after every use and regularly, perhaps every half hour, during the day. If at all practical, have team meetings outside or, if it must be inside, make sure people are well separated. 

For restaurants, don’t be afraid to do regular cleanings that other diners can see. Make a show of cleaning, it will help build confidence in your customers. A week ago, my wife and I went to a restaurant and dined on their deck. The tables were nicely spaced, and when a party paid their bill and departed, a cleaning crew came in and doused the table and chairs in bleach. It was almost funny, but I can assure that we will return. Nothing could have survived that much cleaning. 

Update insurance policies to include possible outbreaks of the virus in your coverage. Whenever possible, open windows. Avoid using circulated air systems, unless the system is updated to include screens that filter viruses. Be willing to change direction or adapt to new situations quickly. Recognize that customers or visitors will have high levels of anxiety. Instruct your team to display confidence. 

COVID-19 has disrupted life and business in every corner of the globe. It’s not the last time this will happen. In the past 20 years, there have been an increasing number of novel virus outbreaks including SARS, MERS, West Nile Virus, Hantavirus, H1N1, and Ebola. Through good science and policy, none of those ignited a pandemic, but each one could have. In the future another one will. 

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. So, remember 2020 and this coronavirus. Don’t let anyone tell you to forget.