We are all adding new words and phrases to our vocabularies in this time of the coronavirus. That word is one of them. Others are COVID-19, self-isolation, social distancing, flatten the curve and new normal. It is that last phrase which may have implications long after the pandemic has eased. Will this deadly virus permanently change the way we interact with each other? Or the way we conduct business? Or, ominously, the way we look at life and death?
Those are hard questions being considered on many levels even as the battle to defeat the virus rages. Talk is beginning to emerge in non-stop media coverage of COVID-19 that it could even spell the end of the common handshake. How might we greet each other from now on? Fist bumps? Elbow touches? Will we all adopt the traditional Native American greeting of simply a raised hand? Or, when all is said and done, will we forget how contagious handshakes can be and revert to the age-old habit of gripping right hands to say, It’s a pleasure to meet you?
In self-isolation, many of us are already learning new ways to communicate. Video conferencing has been a useful corporate tool for several years. But, all across the land, people who heretofore have looked at the digital age as some off-worldly creation are now becoming computer savvy. The neighborhood guys with whom I share restaurant coffee every Thursday morning now meet online, as do countless other friends and neighbors.
Rock bands and choral groups have figured out how to self-isolate and still rehearse or perform together online. Studies are underway to determine just how well businesses, big and small, are communicating, online or otherwise, in this so-called new normal.
For example, the communications firm Peppercomm (www.peppercomm.com) has partnered with the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) to study how the pandemic is impacting corporate infrastructure and business models. They surveyed 300 communications executives and senior business leaders to get a better understanding of how prepared businesses were for COVID-19 and how they are handling the impacts. According to the study, “83 per cent are ‘moderately’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about the potential impact of the virus on their companies, suggesting the virus and its effects are not going away anytime soon.”
Peppercom and IPR are continuing their study to take “a deep dive into employee communications and engagement” in this difficult period. The results of both studies might help determine whether the new normal will sustain once the virus pandemic is over. Will people who occupy the corner offices come to the conclusion that communicating remotely is really more cost effective while being equally productive? Will working from home become the standard business model? Self-isolation during this difficult time may be massively inconvenient, but it seems to be an operational “test lab” for the corporate world to determine how to best conduct business moving forward.
Moving forward means restarting the country at some point. While there currently is wide disagreement among government and medical leaders on when that restart should occur, nearly everyone agrees it will have to happen eventually. An article in the New York Times magazine focusing on moral choices in this crisis includes a headline asking, perhaps, the most sobering question of all – “Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do It?”
The article features a transcript of five experts discussing that very serious matter in a video conference. As they pondered the impossibly difficult alternatives for restarting America, Peter Singer, Princeton University bioethics professor, offered a breath-taking observation. He was talking in the “context of the well-being of the community as a whole.” It’s a linguistic context that presupposes that the economy and, therefore, the future of the country is being severely damaged, perhaps irreparably.
“I think the assumption,” Singer said, “that we have to do everything to reduce the number of deaths is not really the right assumption.” He wonders about trading off loss of life against loss of quality of life. Singer acknowledges what many say is the stark reality. “We can’t really keep everything locked down until there won’t be anymore deaths.” He concludes the supposition thusly: “How do we assess the overall cost to everybody in terms of loss of quality of life, loss of well-being, as well as the fact that lives are being lost?”
Is this where Darwin comes in? Hard questions hardly begin to describe what lies before us.