There are different ways to understand a big event. One is to ask: what is the story, the history of whatever it is? The other is to ask: what is it like? Or, how is it different from things we have seen in the past? Answering these questions helps you figure out where to go next and is especially useful in addressing a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, as a long-time VI observer, the good news. Hurricanes, it turns out, are a great preparation for this kind of crisis.
Having been through “this,” whatever the “this” is, before, Virgin Islanders don’t panic, and people come together as communities in ways that are often hard to achieve on the mainland. The lack of toilet paper hoarding and the stocked shelves of supermarkets may be the great symbol of this strength in the face of adversity and danger. This may be the first time that toilet paper can be seen as a symbol of a healthy community.
Based on press reports, the steps being taken in the territory seems to be on exactly the right track. But – always that “but” – what follows are some lessons learned from the responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the September 11 attacks, as well as the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. These “lessons” become clearer and more compelling by the day.
In my now long life in New York City, there have been three events that people measure time by. The first was the city’s fiscal crisis in the mid 1970s, an event that brought the self-proclaimed world’s greatest city to the edge of the abyss. Then there was the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Looking back, in each instance, what happened was foreseeable, even if not predictable. As the man said when asked what shapes our history, “Events, my boy, events.” And now we are in the middle of another huge, historic event.
Of these events, the HIV/AIDS epidemic bears the greatest similarity to the current pandemic; most obviously because it was a health care crisis that was global in its reach. And, not unlike today, in the United States, the response to the AIDS epidemic was politicized. Because AIDS was seen as a gay disease, several years of indifference passed at the federal level before concerted action was taken, all at a cost of many lives. With COVID-19, the destructive politics revolve around the cult of personality built by President Trump and its negative consequences. There is also a major difference, the reality that the corona virus is far more contagious than HIV. In both instances, the pervasiveness of fear has become a basic fact of life, a reality that is likely to intensify in the weeks ahead.
Going back two and then almost four decades, I was the lead planner for New York City, New York State and the leading non-profit AIDS agencies in the early phase of the epidemic, and for the September 11 Recovery Fund. Those experiences provide some valuable lessons in how to organize a response to a crisis of this nature.
Let’s start with a basic assumption: things are inevitably going to get worse, possibly much worse in the immediate future, and at this stage, there is a need to focus on finding the best possible outcomes. “Best” defined as “least worst.” Clear and accurate definitions of problems and of realistic choices, solid, fact-based action planning, telling people the truth with a single voice and no happy-talk or lies, and effective implementation are the keys to success. None of those things are simple.
Another starting-point premise. This is a time for forward-looking problem solving, not the time to point fingers or try to fix or avoid blame for past errors. There will be plenty of time for that later, and there can be little doubt that there is going to be an ugly reckoning in our country when this is over.
In all of these things, the role of the leader is critical in getting to the best possible outcomes. As complicated as this is, the leader’s primary responsibility is to build trust and to get everyone moving in the same direction. The leader, in this case, the Governor, defines the culture and behaviors that will drive this effort. In any crisis, leadership counts.
In this crisis, there are two fundamental challenges. The first is that, from everything we have seen to date, the most effective responses to the virus have two qualities: they are fast and they are aggressive. Actions that may have been unthinkable just two weeks ago now appear too timid.
That is how quickly community spread occurs. Here is a metaphor. There was a pond. On the 1st of the month, a quarter of the pond was covered by an invasive species of lilies. The lilies doubled the area that they covered each day. On what day of the month would they cover and choke the entire pond? Answer: the 3rd day. The rate of spread of the infection isn’t quite that fast, but you get the picture.
Fast and aggressive. The two challenges are that, at the time, these actions seem like overreach, and, because of that, they generate resistance and rumor-mongering. They also challenge basic norms in a democratic and often self-absorbed society, i.e., “don’t try to tell me what to do.” The most important message in this situation is a simple one: “We are telling you what to do. Do it! Now!” Delay and compromise responses only fuel the epidemic and increase the risk of overwhelming systems.
These fast and aggressive actions are also a kind of a no-win for the decision maker. “Flattening the curve” is absolutely critical to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed. But, as someone who believes that people who make predictions are mostly stupid, here is a prediction: if the curve flattens, those who have made the difficult decisions that prevent the collapse of health care systems will get no credit. Instead, the message will be, “See, it wasn’t really all that serious.” Especially in our fractured culture, the leaders who take the needed steps, even at the risk of appearing to overreach when they did all of the right things, will not in the end get the credit that they deserve.
Back to trust and its partner, clarity. As we can see at the federal level, once trust is lost, you can’t get it back, except for those who want to believe the lies they are being told. A steady stream of useful information about what to do today and this week from a single source, in this case the Governor supported by his team, can drown out the misinformation and eliminate the ambiguity.
Clarity: What is open? what is not? What size groups are permitted? What is “critical”? What isn’t? When does something go into effect? Clarity also means that others, such as senators and community activists, should not muddy the waters with their contrary views and opinions. Not exactly democratic, right? But necessary in the current crisis.
Without getting into the blame game, the federal response has failed on each of these counts and will someday be a case study in what not to do. Effective response at the local level means tuning out the President of the United States and his lies and self-serving statements. For the Virgin Islands this means that, except for money, don’t expect much from this administration, aside from money, one other possible exception being help in getting Personal Protection Equipment. As in other jurisdictions, the territory will be pretty much on its own. But, getting money into people’s pockets will be one of the most important goals in the weeks and months ahead, and that money can only come from Washington.
Another relevant lesson from HIV/AIDS crisis was the need to simultaneously think short-term and long-term. Immediate actions need to be based on the assumption that, like hurricanes, this is not a one-off event, and that we need to build structures for the future to respond to similar events. But, unlike hurricanes, we don’t know when this will end, or even what “ending” means. The understandable response is to say, we don’t have time to give someone swimming lessons while they’re drowning. But the reality is that doing those two things at same time is exactly what’s needed. For example, if there is a need to bring back retired health care workers, there needs to be a permanent system to rapidly mobilize and organize them, keep them safe, and not start from scratch each time.
Finally, there is a surprising Virgin Islands parallel with the situation that we face in New York City. There is a wonderful film, Local Hero, in which a Texas oil executive goes to a small town in coastal Scotland with the mission of buying the town to build a huge, ugly refinery. He quickly falls in love with the place’s beauty and its quirky people, all of whom are eager to sell the place for the refinery. When he says that he can’t understand why they would give up this beautiful place, the local hotel owner says, “Mac, you can’t eat scenery.” All true, not only in Scotland, but everywhere else in the world.
So, when our city is largely closed up and health and economic fears are pretty widespread, many people in recent days have said, “I’ve never appreciated Central Park as much as I do right now.” “You can’t eat scenery,” but in times like this, there is an opportunity to appreciate what we all get used to, in this case, the unparalleled beauty that surrounds Virgin Islanders and the message of hope that this beauty provides in a dark time.
Frank Schneiger was executive director of the Federal Region II Children’s Resource Center, which trained a generation of V.I. children’s services workers. He subsequently founded the St. Thomas/St. John Youth MultiService Center. In the past two decades, he has served as planning consultant for a range of Virgin Islands organizations and has been a columnist for the Virgin Islands Source. He is the author of two books, “The Arc,” under the pen name of Roberto Vincent, and “The Purge: The Future As History in the Age of Trump,” available on Amazon.