“I don’t know what is ahead, but the Covid-19 variants are not done with us.”~ Dr. Michael Osterholm, co-author of Getting to and Sustaining the Next Normal: A Roadmap for Living With Covid
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”~ Attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche
“The same way the U.S. invests in and prepares for national defense, it must also prepare for another pandemic. Though the next viral outbreak cannot be prevented, the next pandemic can — but only with better preparation.”~ Dr. Andrew Plump, STAT
Welcome back to my series on Pandemic Lessons Learned. This is the last installment. If you missed any of the previous Parts, you can access them here: Part Five: The Worldwide Worker Walkout Firestorm, Part Four: The Economic Impact Of Covid, Part Three: Working / Schooling From Home, Part Two: The Lifesaving Brilliance of WWW-IQ, Part One: Vaccines, Testing and Treatments
We’ve come a long way from when COVID-19 first gob-smacked us. And as noted in the previous five Parts of this series, we’ve learned a lot about this virus. But, as the experts point out, we’ve a lot more to learn as we cope with transition and change. Most importantly, we’ve learned how to prepare for future pandemics.
We’ll deal with both the coping and the preparing in this final Part.
Coping With The Next Normal
There will be many “new normals” in our lives. That’s the reason I like the term, “next normal,” because as we emerge from the pandemic we must continually cope with what’s next.
At this point, COVID-19 has killed more than one million Americans and an additional five-plus million people worldwide. But while the pandemic continues globally, in the U.S. we’re slowly and somewhat erratically resuming next normal activities. As Dr. Fauci explained, and clarified in The Washington Post, “We are certainly right now in this country out of the pandemic phase…we’re really in a transitional phase.” So, what’s next?
Well, COVID-19 still poses a threat and is on the rise in nearly every state, in particular due to the Omicron variants. One of the tragedies is the long-term effects. These have included quality-of-life issues such as loss of taste and smell to more serious and possibly life-threatening conditions such as Goodpasture’s Syndrome and lung damage. Even mild symptoms can produce so-called long COVID. So, even the fully vaxxed and boosted who feel some level of security need to continue being cautious. Washing hands, using hand sanitizers as well as masks in certain situations are important for everyone, but especially for older and / or immunocompromised individuals.
Hence, our next normal might continue to evolve in to multiple states as COVID variants struggle to take on new lives at our expense. Here are challenges we face now and in the future:
- COVID is still with us. While the “acute component” of the pandemic phase in the U.S. might have receded, Omicron viral mutations remain in various strengths across our country and continue to put many people at high risk.
- Testing remains important. Currently, the federal government has approved a third round of free test kits that are available just for the asking. Go to covid.gov/tests to order a new supply. In addition, the FDA has just authorized a new test that detects COVID, the seasonal flu and RSV — all in one. You will be able to purchase a test kit online or in a store without a prescription, swab test at home and then send the swab to a lab for results, per directions; keep an eye out for this. Keep several test kits on hand to use prior to visiting someone or attending an event.
- Vaccines save lives. The CDC has a handy tool for determining whether you or your child should get a first or second booster: CDC Booster Tool. The vaccines vary somewhat, and what I found interesting is that while the Moderna booster shot contains only 50% of its initial injection and Pfizer contains 100% of its initial injection, Moderna’s potency is three times higher than Pfizer’s; so even though the Moderna booster is half of potency of its initial injection it is still higher than Pfizer’s booster. Some experts, however, say that it is the number of vaccinations one receives rather than the potency that is effective. On the kids’ front, Omicron has changed the game, including for little ones under five years old., hitting them harder than original COVID-19. The good news is the FDA has approved and CDC is recommending a Pfizer booster for kids 5-11, and a vaccine for those under five years old is on the horizon. For everyone, Moderna and Pfizer are working on a seasonal mRNA flu vaccine that can be combined with their COVID vaccines that might be ready by fall of 2023.
- Congress has stalled on approving continued funding for COVID testing, vaccines and medications (such as monoclonal antibody treatments) to treat the viral mutations that are expected to surge this coming fall and winter. The clock is ticking because the Executive Branch must contract now for vaccines and medications so they are ready by fall. If Congress does not approve funding soon, the U.S. might well be forced to purchase vaccines and medications from China.
- Masks help protect us from catching the virus, but confusion and conflicts continue. Take the lifting of the airline mask mandates: while some passengers and crew celebrated, others worried about the spread of virus in packed, enclosed cabins. Masks may still be worn, but they are not mandatory. Flight attendants have been mixed in their responses to the ruling. Some are relieved that the mandates have been lifted, not because they believe that masks are unnecessary but they are exhausted from dealing with unruly and dangerous passengers who express their opposition to mask-wearing by assaulting airline crew members. Others are worried about viral spread. But because these anti-masker flight passengers have posed danger to other passengers and flight crews – despite the fact that attacking flight crew members is a federal offense and even interfering with crew members is a civil offense. Moreover, legislation has been introduced to create a no-fly list for unruly airline passengers. Note that some international airlines based in certain countries still require masks on their flights; always check with an airline before you book your flight. Anyone who feels more comfortable doing so should wear a good-quality mask and avoid those who don’t. Masking or not masking has less to do with freedom and individualism and more to do with plain old common sense, problem-solving and empathy.
- Misappropriation in some states of federal government COVID relief funds has been a problem, including: directing funds to self-serving and pet projects instead of delivering COVID relief to the intended parties and projects; corruption at the federal and state levels; and outright theft. The DOJ advises those who suspect fraud on any level regarding COVID relief funds to contact the “National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) at (866) 720-5721 or file an online complaint at: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/webform/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.”
- Social inequalities were sharply revealed. People of color and the economically disadvantaged and those living in particular areas generally experienced health inequity. This resulted in a much tougher time in coping with the virus, job loss and finances and even keeping a roof over their heads or putting food on the table. As well, many lacked healthcare coverage or were not equipped to work or school their children from home because they lacked Internet access and computers. We can be grateful that the Infrastructure Bill recently passed provides for future expanded Internet access.
- Resiliency versus mental health problems illustrate the dichotomy among survivors. The pandemic touched nearly every American as well as our fellow humans worldwide. Many have emerged stronger, more enlightened and empowered, have survived their ordeals, moved on and even helped their fellows along. Others have suffered from mental health issues that surfaced in the face of trials and tragedy, ranging from isolation, loneliness and separation anxiety to financial woes, illness and the death. The latter might have turned to alcohol, drugs or harming themselves. The Biden Administration has taken steps to provide help to those with mental health challenges, as contained in the American Rescue Plan. We should all to try to connect anyone we know who needs help to a proper resource. And here are some tips on managing our own mental health issues from the Cleveland Clinic.
- The economy is bouncing all over the place! The good news is that there are lots of jobs, companies are hiring, wages are up and businesses are investing. The bad news is that the pandemic exacerbated existing supply chain problems to which worker shortages and increased consumer demand for products during the pandemic contributed. For example, during the pandemic, instead of going out to restaurants and taking vacations Americans spent their money on increased consumer goods for their homes, thereby overwhelming an already fragile system of supply chains. This has resulted in shortages of many commodities, including computer chips, lumber, aluminum (needed for cans that contain human and pet food, beer, paint, and numerous other products), meat products, cars, baby formula — and on and on. Compounding the problem, businesses tend to maintain low inventory on many goods to keep costs down, and they were caught short when pandemic spending soared. Then there are the high gas prices, which spiked globally last year due to rising oil prices as we began to come out of the pandemic; Americans and others worldwide were driving more and increasing demand. That was followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine that resulted in sanctions against Russian oil exports. This perfect storm has resulted the inflation we are now experiencing. In trying to slow it down, the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates a bit, and that has caused stock prices to fall — we hope only temporarily. To further help curb inflation, the Biden Administration is considering canceling the Trump China tariffs to lower consumer costs. President Biden has also released oil from the nation’s reserves to ease the price of gas at the pump and reportedly has encouraged U.S.-owned oil companies to drill on public lands that already have infrastructure. (Yes, this is contrary to what many of us want for the environment, but this is an emergency and should only be temporary). He has also warned the oil companies against price gouging American consumers during this economic emergency. These are all good steps; however, increasing cases of Omicron continue to threaten our economic recovery.
Preparing For The Next Pandemic
If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that we must be much, much better prepared for future pandemics. As Ben Franklin is supposed to have famously said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Please tack that quote up somewhere — on your fridge, bulletin board, mirror, wherever — so you see it every day and never forget it.
While COVID-19 was the first global pandemic of its kind in a century, the next one might not be so far off. A virus known as Monkeypox has recently appeared in the U.S. It’s related to smallpox (which was eradicated decades ago through vaccination). Monkeypox is a serious disease, and protocols, including isolation, might be required to stop it. Right now, it does not seem to be widespread, but stay tuned.
The silver lining is that after what we’ve been through we should be fully prepared for the next epidemic or pandemic.
Employers and employees learned that in most cases working from home can be just as productive — and in some instances even more so — as working at the office. WFH can help employees achieve work-life balance more easily and save money on meals, commutation, gas, clothes and other expenses as well as have more personal time. Employers can reduce overhead by implementing either full or part-time WFH and eliminating some office space in favor of office-sharing. Employers might also be able to eliminate some office equipment and supplies and reimburse employees for using their own equipment and supplies, or the latter can declare them as expenses on their tax returns. Seems like a win-win to me.
Because WFH and schooling from home became the mainstays for business and education continuity during the pandemic, this is where the bulk of future pandemic planning should be for individuals. Ensure that your home remains ready with work and school space. This makes sense in normal times, as well, because on a regular basis grownups are taking work home and kids need to do homework.
And because we have learned that shortages quickly occur in times of emergency, having a cache of emergency supplies on hand is wise. That should include office and school supplies, bottled water, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, liquid hand soap, etc. Everyone should have a good supply of masks by now; hang on to them for continued and future use.
Many households have multiple computers and Internet connectivity, but those that don’t should invest in a spare laptop to have on hand, and sign up for Internet service when it becomes available.
If you do not have adequate health insurance coverage for yourself and your family, look into fixing that now.
If at all possible, put aside a pandemic savings fund — AKA a rainy-day fund. Just in case.
Perhaps most importantly, be an informed and active citizen and contact your elected representatives with your opinions, and vote for candidates that can best deliver for you with regard to managing this and future pandemics.
They…being our government and medical and scientific sectors and the business community. Clearly, they were all caught short by this pandemic. So how do they prepare for future pandemics and other national health emergencies?
The Government and Medical and Scientific Communities
According to the NIH- National Library of Medicine, “We have an ethical obligation to learn as much as possible quickly to develop effective health policies, drugs and vaccines. Clinicians, researchers, administrators, ethics committees, regulators and sponsors have a duty to ensure that this is done without delay.” Add to that a ramp up in production of PPE for healthcare workers to ensure adequate supplies in an emergency. And, of course, scientists must continue to modify existing vaccines and develop new ones quickly.
Congress has an obligation to pass universal healthcare. Because I prefer to have more than fewer choices, I like the public option version that would provide all Americans and residents with a choice of government-run healthcare coverage or private coverage. In addition, Congress should make telehealth without restrictions a permanent option. In any case, our healthcare system needs improvement without further delay.
Our elected officials must also ensure now that enough money is put aside in an emergency fund to provide relief during the next pandemic efficiently, and to avoid unproductive squabbles as to how such relief will be paid for (let me count the ways!).
As for the medical community, it has a duty to develop a decent, workable plan to attract and retain top-notch clinical workers by establishing DEI policies that are supported and enforced, establishing reasonable schedules, and creating teams that engage rather than divide and discourage workers.
The Business Community
As someone who has some experience in this area, I was shocked that so many American-based businesses lacked preparedness for this pandemic. One of the hats I wore at my company was that of disaster recovery coordinator and liaison; as such, I have first-hand knowledge of what business continuity and disaster recovery preparedness looks like. Under the guidance of the corporate team, I oversaw the planning and training for the home-office sector staff as well as the sector regional and international offices.
This Forbes article offers a broad-stroke approach: How To Prepare Your Business For Another Pandemic. Large corporations and mid-size businesses should have a department or team dedicated to disaster recovery and business continuity planning and training. Small businesses should have an outside consultant to help them set up and update their plan periodically, and assign the appropriate staff member to act as coordinator.
Businesses owe it to their employees, customers, consumers, shareholders, suppliers and other business partners and relationships to keep them safe physically, emotionally and financially during an emergency.
People Who Need People
There is no doubt that we need more etiquette, ethics and empathy in our lives. Because there are so many times when we — as individuals, couples, families, employees, employers, front-line workers, citizens and members of various groups — cannot go it alone. We need to pull together to help — and sometimes save — each other. A pandemic is one of those times. Just as the practice of etiquette is about the comfort of others and creating a pleasant environment for all, pulling together in a pandemic is about the survival and wellbeing of others as well as ourselves and creating a good outcome for all. Division over masking and vaccinating and clearing store shelves of stock that everyone needs — remember the toilet paper and sanitizing wipes shortages at the beginning of the pandemic?! — and hoarding baby formula now, are not helpful — and some question if they are even ethical — in managing an emergency. The approach should not be everyone for themselves but rather the all-for-one-and-one-for-all principle.
Many years ago, my husband and I — city folks born and bred — were visiting my country cousins when one afternoon, left on our own, we decided to take a rowboat out on the river. We were inexperienced and soon realized our mistake, and for a while struggled with uncoordinated rowing, spinning around and getting nowhere. Once we regrouped and began rowing in tandem, however, we were a powerful team and our little boat sliced through the fast-moving waters to shore. Lesson learned: when you are in the same boat, row together in rhythm and in the same direction if you want to make progress!
In business, the military and other organizations where there is a mission to be accomplished it is imperative that everyone work together as a unit. In society, however, where democracy allows each individual to make choices (well, in most cases, but more about that later), it can get messy. Unless a law is passed or an executive order issued, people make their own individual decisions on how to behave and the result in an emergency is often counterproductive.
In that light, perhaps the most important lesson we have learned is that we need each other for our own survival and that of our nation. As poet Richard Blanco so eloquently put it, “We’re the promise of one people, one breath declaring to one another: I see you. I need you. I am you.”
Therefore, survival depends on being united in our missions and in our processes. Because we have not been united during this pandemic, COVID-19 is still with us and restoration of our economy has stalled. We can blame our government, the medical community, other countries and each other; but when the dust clears, it is we American citizens who determine how we will behave and through our invaluable right to vote we select who will represent us and make decisions for us. In doing so, it is the responsibility of each of us to choose whether to advance solutions or worsen problems. Let’s hope for both the present and the future, those choices will be thoughtful and wise.
Until next time,
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