By Eric George
When you a see a problem in the street, you don’t run away from it. You go after it.
This phrase carries special significance to the role of an entrepreneur, investor, or leader. Adversity calls for courage, action, and ingenuity, especially when the challenge threatens an entire community.
In 2005, this phrase carried special significance. New Orleans had just suffered the worst natural disaster in recent memory. Hurricane Katrina struck our community and left in its wake confusion, panic, and disrepair. I speak for many when I say it challenged my understanding of the world. Never did I imagine such devastation reaching our community, entering our homes, and upending our lives. Never did I prepare for the unthinkable, which up until then only seemed to affect remote places featured in the news.
The key to emerging from the crisis was not to run from it, but to “go after it.” We came together as a community of politicians, entrepreneurs, investors, professionals, and citizens. We problem-solved, innovated, sacrificed, and collaborated. We began to actively nurture and heal our once-vibrant ecosystem. The federal and state government instituted tax credits to stimulate development. Investors and entrepreneurs capitalized on these incentives, funding projects and developing businesses that revitalized infrastructure and real estate, while creating jobs in the process. It also helped restore services and companies that were vital to the health of the hospitality industry as well as others, the pillars of New Orleans’s economy. We didn’t welcome the problem, but we certainly didn’t run away from it.
Besides, running away from Katrina wouldn’t have worked. Nor will fleeing from the current pandemic. In fact, I would argue that now, more than ever, we need swift, intentional, and coordinated action. We, as a global community, need to see the problem and go after it.
COVID-19 is different than the disasters of our past. Unlike Katrina, its reach doesn’t reside within a single region while the rest of the world remains unaffected and therefore capable of marshaling and delivering support. Rather, it affects all of us, no matter our home. The timing may vary, but our vulnerability and dependence on the same set of scarce resources—personal protective equipment (PPE), hospital beds, ventilators—remains the same. It has also weaponized a necessary and beneficial aspect of modern life: our close connection as a globalized community. COVID-19 has turned us against ourselves, using one of our greatest resources—social interaction—to wage a war that ultimately resides in our power to control.
COVID-19 is a different problem requiring a different solution. We not only need a vaccine and healthcare resources, but we also need to rethink our crisis planning and response at every level, starting globally. We need to develop systems that enhance our ability to adapt, including how entire industries operate, organizations work, teams collaborate, and individuals perform.
Yet no matter what unique challenges COVID-19 presents, we must also rely on the fundamental elements that have worked to solve every largescale crisis, Katrina included. We need our government to enact legislation that incentivizes economic development. We need investors to supply the essential capital to stimulate projects, fund companies, and fuel innovations. We need entrepreneurs to start businesses that improve the human condition while creating jobs. And we need professionals to enter the workforce and contribute their time, talent, and expertise to solving problems or meeting needs.
This is happening. The Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), recently signed into law, provides $2 trillion in economic stimulus to heal the anxieties and difficulties experienced by every stakeholder in our economy. We are also starting to see some investors (those with strong liquidity) prepare to provide debt and rescue financing to businesses in need. We see some businesses prospering in the current environment (e.g., healthcare providers and vendors, suppliers, retailers of essential goods), serving as a source of jobs at a time of necessity. And we see crucial innovations tackling the problem: devices that can make ventilator use for multiple patients safe and possible, new processes for expediting the production of PPE, and experimental drugs. We also see many businesses taking active measures to protect their workforce, such as furloughing or cutting salaries, which improves the chances they can recover. Still, much progress remains, and we can’t turn our backs on COVID-19 for the foreseeable future.
Natural disasters, global pandemics—these deadly, uncontrollable forces do serve a purpose. They remind us of the frailty of life. They humble us. They teach us that our collective differences are mostly unsubstantial and insignificant. And most importantly, they show us our deficiencies and tell us what needs improvement. And if we can learn anything from the current pandemic, we are significantly unprepared to deal with a universal crisis.
How we come together and solve this problem will not only determine its ultimate effect on our world, but it will determine how we deal with our next crisis. Whether brought on by climate change or another pandemic, we can’t turn our backs—not now, not ever.
We run after problems because they don’t go away on their own.