The jury is out on whether we are living into a dystopian or utopian novel, but it seems apparent that the future will necessarily be different than the past. The “how” remains TBD.
Like many, I watched the Bill Gates TED Talk on pandemics five years after the fact and was simultaneously fascinated by its prophetic nature and wistful that we as a collective society did not insist that such preparations be a major topic in the 2016 election and since. Had we all been so forward-thinking this great loss of life and livelihood could have been greatly mitigated.
But since we can’t go back, what now? How should we be forward-thinking today? Those of us who live in the American Midwest and American South are familiar with storm shelters, and I am toying with that concept as a public policy metaphor for the future.
For those unfamiliar with storm shelters, in parts of the country where the terror of tornadoes is a constant threat, many homeowners install a storm shelter, an underground safe room for retreat when tornadoes suddenly appear (see the picture from Pinterest above). When the haunting tornado siren cries out, the family (and often neighbors) rush in, secure the door, let the storm pass, and emerge to survey the damage—and if all is well, get back to life as normal.
We may need to consider a similar idea for the entire planet. Let me explain.
It may be a couple of years before a vaccine for this particular coronavirus is confirmed, but regardless, there will be others, and as a result there will inevitably be more opportunities to practice social distancing for weeks at a time. It seems wise that governments, businesses, schools, churches, and families are much more prepared for those times. Like a proverbial storm shelter, we could build plans and budgets so that we can quickly pivot when we face the next biological storm.
I avoid talking politics publicly anymore for a thousand reasons, but I do wish we could understand and agree that our economic system is neither pure command nor pure market. Experience has taught us that both extremes are dangerous and there are times when it is in the best interest of everyone to ensure that certain basic things are provided to everyone—things like electricity, water, and roads, just to name a few. So for example, this brave new world might lead us to consider modifying the list to include things like WiFi and computer access for those occasions when the world needs to shelter in place. (And, despite your political party of choice, surely the pandemic can help us see the need for a better conversation about health care in general.)
I’m not trying to engage a debate. Instead, I am simply trying to imagine the future in the hopes that we are better prepared next time. For there will be a next time.
It is one thing to build a shelter to jump in when a storm rushes through. It is quite another project to consider how the entire world might do that for weeks at a time—but that might be worth considering.