How the coronavirus response began and how we can win it

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New York, NY, March 31, 2020 — The USNS Comfort arrived in New York Harbor to support the national, state and local response to the coronavirus (COVID-19). Photo: FEMA

Disaster responses, much like wars, are “Come as You Are” parties. Their premise is simple. You get a phone call. The phone actually rings, so by today’s social standard you know it is already something out of the ordinary. It is the invitation. You are invited. You were chosen. The time, the place, the people — the party itself — chose you.

No notice.

There is one more catch; and this is important. You must come as you are. As you are, in this moment. You cannot go home and change. You cannot scramble to find something cuter to wear. You can’t go clean up first. You can’t go shave real quick. You might be in gym gear. Perhaps you are in your jammies. Maybe you were fiddling under the greasy car hood or layers deep in the garden. You can’t start planning, because the call means the party just started. Let’s face it, you probably already had plans.

Maybe I’ll get invited to a social version of this someday. The only “Come as You Are” parties I have been invited to have been a hurricane, a flood, a wildfire, an industrial explosion or a winter storm. Now, a global pandemic. The rules are the same; no notice, no new planning, no wishing for more time. You are where you’re at. You’ve got what you got. The party has started and the theme isn’t changing.

It is the reality of disasters and disaster response. We are never as suited up as we would like to be and sometimes we are less ready for the party than we have ever been. This pandemic is precisely that party.

What we can do is recognize that and get right to it. We can make the most of those plans we meant to dig into a little deeper, of those ideas that we meant to test, and quickly befriend the people on the guest list we have been meaning to get to know.

We have dealt with hurricanes, floods and fires. We capture the lessons learned after each one because they make us better for the next one. They are inevitable and frequent. Nevertheless, when the phone rings we will still be caught off guard but more ready than we were the time before.

COVID-19 is special. It is different. The chances of us applying the lessons we will learn during this pandemic on such a grand scale again in our lifetime are not impossible, but they are unlikely. For all its differences from the novel coronavirus, we are constantly referencing the Spanish Flu of 1918 of more than a century ago. Some countries have been at this for months, but the U.S. response is only in the matter of weeks. We will get some things wrong. We will get a lot right. We can’t kid ourselves about the harsh reality that the lessons we learn today will do us little good if we do not apply them immediately. We have to be shrewd and implement the lessons learned the hard way by those who have been in hand-to-hand combat with COVID-19. We have to set our egos aside and freely share the hard lessons we learn with those who are responding elsewhere.

We only get one shot at this.

The war analogy has been used often in the fight against coronavirus and it is appropriate. So, let’s treat this like a war. It’s winner take all. It certainly is that for those that are fighting it in hospital beds and their loved ones that can’t be at their side to fight alongside them.

So who got the call and who is on the guest list? Our doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals are the ones on the frontline and in the trenches doing the hand-to-hand combat. Our public health authorities are the planners and the strategists. Emergency managers are the ones translating between both of those worlds, rallying the citizenry, looking ahead for the gaps and seizing opportunities of the day.

No matter how prepared we were when we got the call for this “Come as You Are” party, there are some things we can all do to win more days than we lose:

Throw everything at it

Including the kitchen sink to wash your hands. Personally, take it upon yourself to protect yourself. No matter what government does the single greatest thing that will determine our success is what you as an individual do. If you protect yourself you are also protecting those around you. You play the biggest part in determining if you will be a casualty or not.

Be flexible

Do not play by the rules. Issue every waiver. Break what rules you can. Marshal every resource. If you can’t find a resource, get creative. Expand the team; we aren’t the only experts. Don’t stop at the hurdles, knock them over. By and large, I have rarely heard “no” when I have asked someone to get out my way because it was important to this cause.

Be creative

There are millions of people sitting at home wanting to do something. Give them something to do or they will find something to do on their own (which is not always a bad thing). In government, we come up with a good idea and then we have to run it by somebody. Then someone has to approve it. Chances are, it will be a watered down version of what it was envisioned to be. The more we can delegate out the need for creative and bold solutions the more they will come back robust and unbridled

Sacrifice

There are tough choices to be made. Make them. Make them sooner rather than later. Any community that is farther along in this than you are will tell you they should have made the tough calls sooner. This response requires shared sacrifice; the kind of sacrifice that hurts to the core. Many places will have to break their economy and society to save it.

See what you cannot see

In a hurricane, flood, or wildfire you see the destruction. You see the impacts to those most devastated. Coronavirus is different. Because of isolation and necessary restrictions, we are in our own cocoons. We only see what is immediately around us or what is on the news. Our economic and social pains engulf us. Yet, we aren’t seeing the worst of it. We can’t see into the hospital rooms because of patient privacy. We can’t see the heroes at work in the emergency rooms because we are not allowed in. We can’t see lives hanging in the balance and the fight to save them. Don’t let the isolation and social distance blind you to what is really at stake. There are rare stories told by physicians and patients. Seek them out and see it through them.

Come as you are

In sheer numbers, we are all going to be impacted. Some worse than others. We are all invited to this “Come as You Are” party. Don’t let how prepared you were for this when it started be what defines how you respond. You have something to bring and contribute, even if it is just keeping yourself and others healthy. After all, that is the most important contribution you can make. So, get to it.

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A man in China’s Hubei province may have been the first person to have contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus spreading across the globe. That case dates back to November, 2019.

Francisco Sanchez | @DisasterPIO

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