A month ago I predicted that the world would shut down in a bid to slow the spread of the Corona virus, partly because health leaders did a very poor job explaining why it was important to shelter in place. In the absence of a compelling message, government leaders would have to use force to close everything.
It was not a particularly bold prediction, but it was accurate.
So here is my next prediction: we will soon face a huge conflict about when and how to reopen.
In some ways, shutting down was the easy part. The virus was clearly a problem, it was essential to bend the curve, and the only way to do that was a shut down.
The next decision will not be so easy. To understand why, let’s look at our options.
One thought is that we need to remain locked down until we have a good vaccine, so no restaurants, no in-person school, no sports, no events, no elective medical procedures.
This might take a year, but more likely it will take two years.
Is this a feasible option? No.
It is technically possible, but not realistic. The longer people are locked down, the more issues we will face: economic disarray, poverty, food-chain disruptions and mental health issues.
Another thought is that we should declare victory and get back at it, so we should open the schools, get back to work, reopen the restaurants, reschedule concerts.
Is this a feasible option? No.
The problem is that reopening activity will certainly lead to a significant spread of the virus and this will put us right back where we were a month ago. The healthcare system would again be in crisis. It isn’t a remotely feasible option.
So the obvious answer is that we need a middle ground. We need some way to resume life even as the virus is part of our daily activity.
The problem is that it is not at all clear what this life looks like, or what trade-offs come with it.
People talk about testing, but that isn’t the answer, since many people with the virus are asymptomatic. We aren’t anywhere near being able to test everyone every day. That would be great but it won’t happen soon.
Consider universities, for example. It is possible to reopen universities in the fall, but then what steps are required when a case develops? I work at Northwestern University in Evanston. If a student, staff member or professor comes down with the virus, what should happen? Does Northwestern shut down? Is so, well, the school cannot open at all for in-person learning. The cost and disruption that will come with that likely scenario is not acceptable.
We are then heading for a time of conflict because the middle ground isn’t clear. Some will argue that allowing the virus to spread at all is unacceptable. Others will argue that locking down is unacceptable. There is no easy answer and no perfect solution. This week’s protests in Michigan are just the start.
One thing is very clear: everyone cares a lot about this, and the intensity will quickly ramp up. History tells us that bad things happen when people are under severe economic pressure.
It is time to gather healthcare, business, government, religious and, yes, marketing leaders together to develop a middle ground, a plan that will let life proceed with a reasonable amount of cost. People need to see the path forward. There needs to be hope and a benefit after all the sacrifice.
It will be a world with more space, less touching, more masks, more cleaning, and a certain amount of illness from the virus.
We have to figure out the path together, and quickly.