Eight Weeks Out from When

by Mark Bitterman
I was sitting in the window of our shop on 23rd Avenue as tumbleweeds and bewildered tourists rolled down the deserted streets when I spotted a close friend strolling by.  He came in and we had a talk that went beyond the common conversations of the moment. Wayde is an entrepreneur and glass-half-full fellow through and through. He is also a great quoter of great minds.  It didn't take him long to drop one into the conversation: "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity." 


We are in crisis.  It is deepening faster than we can measure, much less parse. Many small business owners I know are overwhelmed. How to gain perspective on the moment?  It's tempting to look to the "end" of a crisis, a return to normal, as a goalpost to reach.


When will this thing end?  The numbers from China suggest eight weeks, some say. Others, myself included, disagree.


And regardless, I think this kind of reckoning is largely beside the point.  Instead, one of the most important things to look at when in this crisis is assessing not just the crisis as we face it today, but the social and business landscape that will emerge from the crisis in the months ahead. 


In other words, it's not about  what will a “return to normalcy” looks like because normal evolves. To me there is little doubt that there will be a new normal, Or at least successive waves of weirdness that slowly dissipate into what we will think of it as normal.


At bottom is one recent New York Times article that tries to explain why we will not be going back to "business as usual" in weeks, or even months.  I think it creates a good mental image of the future. It it is off base in terms of the "8 weeks" timeline because we do not know where we are on the curve we are as a population in terms of contracting cases, much less testing people. And while many cities are taking strong and decisive action, we cannot begin to guess at the effectiveness of our remediation (social distancing) efforts until we understand which populations are most infected and which of those are acting in meaningful ways to slow/stop transmission.


What the article does explain compellingly, I think, is that COVID-19 is going to usher in sustained period of oscillations.  The needs of the public and the needs of private business, the viral remedies of the medical establishment and the economic remedies of the political establishment.  This is not a place we have been before but it is not an entirely unappealing future. Change is coming, and it won't just happen TO us (as it feels for many of us now) but will happen WITH and THROUGH as well.  We will have a hand in the new social and economic normal.


So, I agree with my strolling friend. We will have exciting opportunities ahead!  If we can’t just yet gauge the “when,” we can at least start imagining what that “when” will look like.  "When will the coronavirus crisis end?"  Maybe that's not just an unanswerable question, it's the wrong question. It's like asking, "when will winter end," when you've never seen spring. 


In business as in life, often the "end" is really a new beginning.


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