By chance, in early January, I watched a Netflix series called “Pandemic,” so my sensors were attuned early for the virus news from China. I was initially surprised that people were slow to give it credence and that financial markets blithely reached all-time highs Feb. 19.
Soon enough though, as virus news swept the globe and scientific modelers created grim visions of the future, the country lurched from “What, me worry?” to panic. Uncertainty reigned, and we found ourselves in a very dangerous position—firmly in the hands of the medical and media establishments, the former tending to create extreme caution and the latter extreme fear.
By late March, state governments were issuing lockdown and stay-at-home orders, forcing businesses deemed “non-essential” to close, throwing 30 million people out of work, and creating an instant depression.
Through it all, it’s been difficult to tell how dangerous the virus really is. Nothing is certain, but it seems to seriously threaten the elderly, those with co-morbidities and the obese, which is, of course, a lot of people.
But a few questions remain open: Did governments react appropriately in order to protect us, or have we just witnessed history’s most destructive episode of mass hysteria? And what will we learn from this?
Whatever your view, it’s clear that we’ll pay a high price for the shutdown for a long time. Treasury, Congress and the Federal Reserve have committed roughly $10 trillion to offset the damage and largely take over the financial markets. It also seems clear, to me at least, that regardless of whether the virus resurfaces in a big way in the fall, Americans will not so easily tolerate a similar shutdown again.
My oldest son speaks Chinese and told me that the Mandarin word for crisis is Wei-Ji (pronounced Way–Gee). It has a double meaning—the first word means danger, the second means opportunity. It’s an interesting and, I think, healthy way of viewing the situation. The Western equivalent is attributed variously to Machiavelli and to Churchill: “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.”
If it is indeed an ill wind that blows no good, then we have to find that good. What that means on a personal basis is for each of us to decide. Certainly some good has come out of this crisis, whether it’s spending more time with family, helping others, or having the time to consider what’s really important.
But we can look at it on a larger level as well.
When this all hit in early March, we had just published our Spring issue, which was largely dedicated to creating a more dynamic future for Pittsburgh. We had all sorts of things ready to go, including podcasts with local visionaries on creating “Pittsburgh Tomorrow” (you can read them on pittsburghtomorrow.com) Of course, it all got washed away at least temporarily—along with everything else—to the point that we didn’t put the stories on the website until late May because my family counseled me that no one had any appetite to think about anything other than the virus.
Currently, Pittsburgh’s leaders are busy with the triage of attending to the wounds inflicted by the economic shutdown. It’s understandable. There’s been tremendous damage, and we’re all caught up in the drama of looking after immediate needs.
But we have an opportunity to do more than just tend to our wounds and play defense. This region also needs leaders who are able to lift their heads above the work that’s right in front of us and see the bigger picture—to recognize and seize the opportunities that the virus crisis presents. That’s real leadership, and no place needs it more than Pittsburgh.
In sailing races, the skipper who constantly has his head inside the boat, tending the rigging is not the skipper who wins. The crew’s job is to tend the rigging. The skipper who wins has his head outside the boat, peering ahead to see which way the winds are blowing, and then changing course to take advantage of the inevitably shifting winds.
This is the time for our leaders in the crucial sectors—government, business, education, health, and philanthropy, and, I would add, responsible media—to put their heads together and make a crisis-inspired plan.
If we don’t, here’s what’s going to happen in the near future. Pittsburgh will look better than other regions during this recession/depression, as we always do, because our economic growth was never strong in the first place so we won’t fall as far. For a year or two, we’ll pat ourselves on the back saying, “Look how much better we’re doing than other regions.” Then, as the national economy returns to life, the other cities will surpass us, people will continue to move elsewhere for more opportunity, and we’ll sink back toward the bottom in most economic measures.
Is this what we want? Or do we want to actually take advantage of this ill wind and find/create the good that blows from it? Instead of saying we’re too busy to think about anything else right now but getting through the virus, let’s realize that, as community leaders, this is exactly the time we have to look to the future.
I listed 10 possible projects in my Spring editor’s letter, but here are two that can come to life as a direct result of this virus crisis.
If, as everyone says, “We’re all in this together,” then let’s put that into practice. We’re going to have people out of work for a while. Let’s harness that power and offer everyone an opportunity to help Pittsburgh. During the last depression, FDR created the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Let’s do it here. Get people involved in beautifying this region, cleaning up garbage and vacant lots, adding amenities to trails, painting murals, planting trees, shrubs and perennials—you name it. Let’s build some civic spirit for our city and get tangible results. We have the money. Do we have the leadership to act quickly and make something happen?
The second is the holy grail of Pittsburgh projects that everyone knows is necessary but which everyone has hitherto declared “impossible”: government consolidation. Allegheny County has more municipalities than anywhere in the galaxy (130), and the disparities and inequities in municipal services and schools are glaring. Because of this virus, scores of teetering municipalities will likely become insolvent. Why not seize this moment and move Pittsburgh ahead by merging the city and county and absorbing the failing municipalities? Doing so would not only take us from being the nation’s 65th biggest to the 10th biggest city—it would signify to ourselves and to the world that we’re getting our house in order and ready for the future.
Uncertain times are difficult. When everything’s uncertain, we have no choice but to see things in a new way. And if we’re open to the opportunity that brings, we can recreate our world.
Let’s embrace the challenge.