Every crisis has three phases, which can be understood in nautical terms. Let’s say your boat has hit something below the water line and is taking on water, or that some people in your community have come down with a mysterious disease, are crowding into the local hospital, and are dying. 1st Phase: Man the Pumps! – this is the all hands on deck phase where we bail water like crazy and do everything we can to stop the spread of the mystery illness. Some of our frantic actions are costly. Others may not be effective or sustainable. Still, acting is better than letting the boat sink and dying. 2nd Phase: Fix the Problem/Patch the Hole – this phase doesn’t begin until we have slowed the rise of water or sick people. We have to reach the place where we are no longer in imminent danger. Then we can talk about the cost to benefit ratios and begin to make our patch look more shipshape. 3rd Phase: Return to Our Course – We hoist anchor and return to sailing, or we go back to our jobs and places of worship. The new course or mission, however, may be different than what we had before.
May Day 2020, where are we in the coronavirus crisis? With over 60,000 deaths (3,000 in the last day) and escalating hospital admissions, we are still taking on water. To get to the second phase, we will need to learn a lot more about the transmission of this disease. That means testing and contact tracing. Rushing to build ventilators and provide PPE is like manning the pumps. If the healthcare system is still overwhelmed, then we must continue to do everything we can to stop the spread, even if these efforts aren’t economically sustainable.
The fact that the drug remdesivir reduces mortality and the length of hospital stays is good news. It doesn’t move us out of phase one. The water is still overwhelming our pumps. Today in America, the disease is still winning. The biggest concern in “Man the Pumps” phase is public hysteria. The captain must be firm and trustworthy and keep both essential workers at their tasks and the rest of us wearing our masks. The escalating curve of the disease must be rounded before we can move on.
When we move into the second phase, we will have to pause and ask serious questions. Why does the boat still lean to starboard? Why are people of color dying at a higher rate? Why did so much of the bailout go to big businesses and sports teams? Where is our healthcare system failing us? Who is being neglected? We are all in the same boat. What we learn may cause us to forsake some beloved things; cruise ships, hot dogs, and baseball games. The biggest concern in this second phase is armed rebellion. If people can’t afford food. If they start to see a racial disparity in who lives and who dies. If the right is pitted against the left. Then, it will be a long hot summer.
Everyone who understands naval disasters, epidemics, and other forced transitions, knows that we won’t simply return to our old lives. Phase Three involves getting under way and charting a new course. Good leaders will think ahead, carefully considering the lessons learned in Phase Two. Bad leaders will want to rush the process and stop any investigation into what went wrong. They’ll give us false hope and feed our need for nostalgia. This means going back to the normal that made us vulnerable to the virus in the first place. But for now, man the pumps, wear a mask.