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Unintended lessons from COVID-19

COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus, is having a huge effect worldwide.

Tragically, the pandemic has killed nearly 30,000 people so far and the number of infected people is still growing exponentially.

At this writing, nearly 600,000 people have been infected. Monitor how the virus is spreading on this world map. Refresh the screen daily to see how the numbers are growing and how much needs to happen in order to "flatten the curve."

The good news is that over 135,000 people have already recovered from the virus and many cities have figured out how to properly practice social distancing.

But it will be a while before the infection numbers crest and the situation starts to improve.

There are in fact, three kinds of people in the world:

  • People who have been diagnosed and are officially infected

  • Un-diagnosed people who are carrying the virus

  • People who are at risk

Although all of us have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, there are some unintended lessons for us.

Lesson #1: Fear motivates

Anyone who pays attention to world news saw the coronavirus coming a mile away.

If you live in America, you saw it coming 7,000 miles away. On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) was notified of an unusual illnesses cluster in Wuhan, the capital of Central China's central province.

This missive turned out to be a dire warning for other parts of the world. Most countries didn't take notice of the threat for many weeks.

But COVID-19 certainly has our attention now. Countries have closed their borders. States are prohibiting crowd sizes. Many businesses have been forced to close. Municipalities have enacted "shelter in place" scenarios.

The United States Government has passed an unprecedented $2 trillion stimulus package to help citizens and businesses get through this.

Lesson #2: Fear sells

Yes, fear is very persuasive.

One of the leading indicators of the deepening crisis was an early and inexplicable run on toilet paper, of all things.

Diarrhea wasn't initially reported as a primary symptom of the virus, so the hoarding of Charmin wasn't fear of the illness, it was fear of an apocalypse. People who emptied the shelves of toilet paper sensed that things were going to get really bad before they got better. They knew this before the lawmakers did.

When people are fearful, they take action.

Lesson #3: Thoughts influence emotions

Emotions can play havoc with humans. But in order to understand how feelings like fear play into the larger scenario, let's consider where emotions come from.

Psychologist, Albert Ellis, developed the theory of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) a few decades ago.

Ellis postulated that what we think about helps program our emotions and that how we feel to a large extent determines how we act.

That's why it's important that we communicate clearly with a minimal amount of misinformation, especially during turbulent times.

It's common for people to think of the words "pandemic" and "panic" as related, for example, but they are not. A pandemic describes a disease that has spread over a large area. It comes from the Greek word pandemos. Pan means "all" and demos means "people."

Panic is also a Greek word, but in this instance, Pan refers to a god who specialized in causing terror.

Yet, because we think the two words sound alike many of us lean toward panic when the government announces a pandemic.

I was speaking at a large leadership conference in Minnesota just before everything started getting cancelled by coronavirus. A doctor came on stage to remind everyone to wash their hands frequently. He also urged us to stop touching our faces, something he said the average person does up to 90 times per day.

That's where Ellis's REBT concept breaks down. Humans often do things we don't actually think about--like buying toilet paper to deal with a virus that does not cause diarrhea.

Truly understanding how thoughts and emotions are related to behavior is one key to dealing with people, as well as pandemics.

Lesson #4: It pays to think ahead

After the 9/11 attacks, many wondered how we could have missed all the signs such as the chatter monitored in terrorists cells and a sudden surge of Middle Easterners enrolling in flight schools.

History is a great teacher when the students are paying attention.

In 1967, astronaut Frank Borman was asked why NASA had not been prepared for the catastrophic launchpad fire that killed three of his fellow astronauts. It was "a failure of the imagination," he said. That's what will cost us dearly during the coronavirus pandemic: a failure of the imagination.

Most people go through life playing checkers, rather than chess.

Chess is much more challenging. Each player has 16 pieces and 9 of them move differently. Good chess players often think five and six moves ahead.

Battling COVID-19 is like a chess game, but there are lots and lots of players--possibly up to two billion of us.

Want to know what's going to happen next with COVID-19 in the U.S.?

Just look at what's happened in Central China and Italy. America might be able to avoid some bad news, but you can expect a prolonged slowdown, modern monetary theory (governments throwing tons of money at the problem) and sadly--more fatalities. Unfortunately, arrogance and geo-centrism will continue to plague us even after the virus is gone.

Things that aren't supposed to happen, happen every day. Get used to it.

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