Chief executive officers and boards are navigating tremendously difficult decisions in response to COVID-19 with regard to how to keep employees and customers safe while remaining financially solvent. Yet other big decisions loom on the horizon—namely, what are the unintended consequences of slamming the economy to a halt and asking healthy people to remain home? And how long can we do it? Inarguably, the rapid response of business and local government to shut down and help flatten the curve is the right thing to do, yet another set of hard questions and trade-offs lie in wait.
Warren Buffet has a saying, “When the tide goes out, you find out who has been swimming naked.” With exceptions of places like Singapore, which has kept spread low, COVID-19 is quickly illuminating our “naked” vulnerability and lack of global preparedness for a pandemic health crisis. With no readiness precautions, the U.S. and local communities are doing what most groups of people do when an existential threat emerges, which is get to safety, hunker down, focus on critical needs, gather experts, protect those close to you, and wait to understand options.
What emerges after an immediate threat subsides is you start to lift your head up, look around, and weigh your options. In this instance, some people will look up and start to question the collateral damage of shutting the economy down. Although we are protecting public health, we are creating a different type of crisis where vulnerable wage workers and small businesses won’t survive. In attending to a legitimate fear and concern for personal health, we are creating another set of issues by increasing the financial threat to the economically vulnerable. This scenario raises important questions that the government and business leaders will need to face in coming weeks. Very hard questions will emerge—with no good trade-offs—but they are worth pondering:
• At what point can you/we no longer justify keeping healthy people away from their economic livelihoods?
• When is the rate of new infections low enough to send people back to work? What other decision criteria ought we be considering?
• What are the emotional, mental, and social costs of creating financial vulnerability combined with social isolation? How long can your family, workforce, and others tolerate that decision?
• Are there ways we can redeploy our workforce to expedite our way out of this crisis?
• What have we learned so that we do not get ourselves in this position again?
As with most difficult questions, there are key trade-offs, and the sooner leaders can clarify their own points of view, the better prepared we will all be. The human soul is restless, and in the weeks that come, leaders will be faced with pressure to lift bans and restore order. Without clear guidance, it is not difficult to imagine people taking it into their own hands to stimulate an underground economy like they did under Prohibition. Leaders will want to think ahead and understand decision criteria now. What information and personal values will guide you? Who are the experts we can trust to help guide us? Big decisions are looming.