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Mitigate the crisis. Effect positive social change

By Dave Marvit

“Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.” – Isaac Newton, The First Law

To state the obvious, COVID-19 has disrupted not only lives but existing personal and institutional practices. Even practices that one might expect to be removed from the pandemic’s direct effects operate in a context that had been impacted. Put simply, everything is up for grabs. While unimaginably costly in human and economic terms, this dissolution of pre-existing systems makes change possible–even rapid.

Many systems will become more efficient. Commute times vanish as “policy requirements” for needlessly being in the office give way. Fights over corner offices will seem even more absurd and bills for office space will drop as ever greater numbers work from home, diminishing demand for square footage. People will connect across borders for meetings in virtual space, without the brutal intermediation of airports and overcooked chicken on plastic trays. And online education will (finally) play a vastly overdue role in preparing the next generation.

In the same way that sending a hand-written letter has taken on new meaning in an era of email, in-person meetings (and the travel that often accompanies them) will be recognized as special—reflecting unique importance and care merely as a result of the form. Even eating out with friends or colleagues will be something a bit more significant. All of this is as it should be.

That said, each of these changes has a dark side. Something is lost when casual in-person encounters at the office are no longer routine, kids spend less time in each other’s presence, or a meal out is freighted with fear of contagion. Disruption always brings both good and bad.

We will settle into a new state–optimized for life in a pandemic but sadly outlasting it. As the virus fades, it will once again become hard to effect change. Systems will ossify and resist improvement. But we have this unique moment when the cement has, temporarily, unset. We should use it.

Of course, we should focus on making it through the pandemic—minimizing the enormous human and economic pain it has brought. But as we think about implementing new systems and practices to help us make it through, we need to recognize that many of them will stay with us long after the pandemic is a distant, if painful, memory. It is hard to take a long view in the midst of a crisis. Even so, let’s consider the practices we want to persist and put them into place now – while we can.

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