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COVID 19 – simply a punctuation mark in our history

What decision will you own?  Will COVID 19 be your comma, or full stop.  A pause in where you are, or the beginning of a new sentence?

The COVID-19 virus has left commentators, journalists, scientists and economists lost for superlatives and comparators.  The unparalleled combination of global mobility, information sharing, industrialisation, urbanisation and the most aged population in our history has created confusion, terror and a shortage of toilet rolls.

Taking a step back, when all around you are talking steps forward to look busy and ‘tackling the crisis’, isn’t always an easy thing.  But it is a necessary thing.  

I sit on the Boards of, and in some instances Chair, a number of companies.  If you combine the workforces of these businesses, then there are well over 10,000 people on the payroll and probably a million customers. Some of these companies have lengthy China based supply chains to manage, other run complex financial platforms and systems.  One common denominator: right now each one faces potential economic value destruction in every email I open. We are taking tough calls every day.

Perhaps worse, I Chair the Board of a not for profit school with 1000 of the poorest students in South Africa, who can least afford a break from school either educationally or nutritionally. However difficult, I took the decision to close that school this week before the Government took it for us.  Own your response.

I know from the inside out what is going on.  I am not an armchair commentator. I am one of those stepping forwards to tackle the crisis, not least of because it makes me feel better.  Doing something, however small or potentially unproductive, feels better than doing nothing.

Yet take that step back for a second.  This furious level of activity all around is simply fueling the hype, the level of energy creating multiple new whirlpools of despair that start to suck out the more sane and positive ways forward.

Tough to comprehend today, but COVID-19 is a slight punctuation mark in our history.  It is not a full stop.  

The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs’ 350-million-year history was a full stop.  A complete and total end to an era. The Ice Age was a full stop. Ended an era for good.

COVID-19 is not a full stop.  Reflect for a moment on some uncomfortable realities.

The bubonic plague killed an estimated 100 million people in the 1350s.  20% of the then global population. That was a semi-colon. Trade paused, intra-country travel and economic development slowed.  Took stock. Things moved on, but in different ways. 

The Taiping rebellion killed 20 million people in China in the 1850s.  An estimated 5% of the then total Chinese population. Yet it barely mentions in most history books.  Perhaps a comma. A pause for breath.

Spanish influenza killed a 100 million people in the 1920s, and infected 500 million from a global population of 1.8 billion. Over a quarter of the world caught Spanish flu.  Tragic for sure, but no long-term impact on humankind’s development. Hardly worth a comma?

World War II – 80 million people killed.  Terrible loss of life yet marked by the strongest period of invention and new manufacturing muscles that continue to power the worlds’ economy today.  A colon. A hard pause in a sentence. New ways forward that took time. But not a full stop.

‘Net new deaths’ is possibly the most horrible phrase I have yet heard in connection with the virus.  It refers to deaths of people without ‘underlying health conditions’ (another euphemism that has become part of our new lexicon) from COVID 19.  This number is mercifully tiny. In total it is smaller so far than the number of people killed in a single day on the roads of the US (which, by the way, averages at 3287 people per day).

Even the most extreme models for COVID 19 show the total of per capita deaths well below any of the events I mention above.  People have died. More people are going to die. That is tragic and sad. I write as someone with parents over the age of 80 with ‘underlying health conditions’ who are self-isolating.  I know the fear. I understand the terror.

It is not a full stop.  Mankind will recover. The global economies will recover.  More quickly than we appreciate.  

However, the more we subscribe to the whirlpools of despair, the more we invest in the senseless energy of being busy without being productive, the longer it will take to reopen that school.  The longer it will take to refocus the businesses we run. The longer it will take to create structure and order to the recovery we need.

COVID-19 is the faintest of commas.  Use it as a pause to take the next breath.  And craft the next part of mankind’s history carefully, and in a better way than the last era.  

Own that response.  Don’t let someone else’s response own you.