09 / 09 / 2020

We’ll Get through the Pandemic (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Get Back to Work)

Think these are scary times? Think they’re unprecedented? Then you haven’t been paying attention to history.

Carey Smith | Founding Contrarian

“We’re all in this together, we’re all in this together, we’re all in this together.” Really? Well maybe. But after months of watching the media cover the “feardemic,” a.k.a. COVID-19, I’m pretty certain that the “this” they present is a very different one from mine.

Before anybody jumps on me, pointing out that my life hasn’t been turned upside-down by layoffs or at-home schooling, not to mention the loss of someone dear, let me say that I totally sympathize with everyone who has experienced those things. They’re real. The problem I have is with the Chicken Littles of the world who would have us believe that this pandemic is somehow more frightening than anything that has come before.

Believe you me, it isn’t. It’s simply the latest crisis. It’s different, because every crisis is different. We somehow manage to get through them all thanks to people who stay positive and search for solutions, people who are entrepreneurs in spirit, if not occupation. Meanwhile, wringing our hands and saying, essentially, “woe is us” night after night accomplishes nothing. Yet that seems to be all we hear. 

Everybody knows the news expression, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Death and destruction used to be the exclusive domain of tabloids and local news broadcasts. But now, even stalwart publications known for keeping calm and carrying on have joined in the relentless drumbeat of fear that’s always in the background, and always has been.

When I was a kid, Russia had missiles positioned 90 miles off the Florida coast. For a few days, people talked as if nuclear annihilation was imminent, even where we lived in rural Arkansas — where the greater threat then and now was tornadoes. We all survived the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, before long, the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD) put the brakes on the arms race, at least between America and the Soviet Union. But then along came other crises: assassinations and protests in the streets. If you believed reports, they signified the end of law and order — maybe even civilization. Then came Watergate — the presidency in peril! — and then the oil crisis. Was it the end of the world that people had to wait in line for gasoline? You’d think so, if you followed the news. Oh, and I almost left out killer bees, swarming our way from Mexico. Today we have murder hornets, and I have déjà vu.

In terms of health scares, in the ‘70s there was paraquat. The lung-seeking poison was sprayed on marijuana growing in Mexico as part of the war on drugs, and people became afraid to smoke pot. Then came toxic shock syndrome, and women became afraid to use tampons. You no longer hear of either one these days. In the early ‘80s, AIDS surfaced, a scary enough disease on its own made even scarier by the press coverage of every rumor. We were told it might be spread by mosquitoes. Gradually, though, cooler heads prevailed, and through research and understanding, we learned to manage that scourge. And in just the last 10 years, we’ve overcome outbreaks of SARS, MERS, Ebola and Zika.

The story of human existence reads like one harrowing calamity after another. Even if we ignore man’s inhumanity to man, diseases like the plague, smallpox and yellow fever have wiped out millions. Tuberculosis patients once filled sanitariums, venereal diseases ravaged body and soul, and parents anguished over a host of childhood threats. Much of the world faces far more serious problems than COVID-19 every single day. Yet I’m tempted to paraphrase Maya Angelou and say, “And still we rise.”

Humans inevitably manage to tackle every challenge. And we don’t do it by gnashing our teeth and being fearful. We do it by setting out to solve problems. It won’t be long before this pandemic too shall pass, and we’ll look back at our response and shake our heads, the same way we look back now at our early handling of the AIDS crisis.

Someday, maybe we’ll learn the lesson that every new threat will be different , and that the best thing we can do is not overreact when that new threat comes along, but just be prepared as best we can. When cooler heads prevail, things have a way of working out. Not surprisingly, I look at it from the perspective of a business: It’s important to always stay nimble and stay alert for potential problems. Most of all, stay optimistic, and don’t be driven by fear.

FDR is not someone I quote very often. But he hit the nail squarely on the head in 1933 — when a quarter of all Americans were out of work and the Great Depression was at its darkest — that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It was true then, and it is true today.