Harnessing the challenge — and power — of the coronavirus disruption

For 25 years, at least, I’ve been hearing about disruption. The internet was a disruptive technology. Streaming video disrupted the entertainment industry. Wikipedia was disruptive. Anybody use encyclopedias anymore? In 2016, Donald Trump ran for president as the candidate of disruption. He drew support from people fed up with Washington, promised to “drain the swamp,” and if nothing else displayed the kind of irreverent, swashbuckling behavior that appealed to people who wanted to overturn the whole apple cart.

And, having ridden disruption into office, he has remained a disruptive force, on Twitter, in press conferences, you name it.

Enter the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, the greatest disruptor of American life since World War II. In two months, it has ground the nation to a halt. Behaviors have been changed. The economy has been shut down. A record 3.3 million new unemployment claims last week stand as testament to the brake applied to the nation.

For Trump, who has found a way to disrupt and conquer for much of his presidency, COVID-19 presents a potentially unscalable wall. Because there is no short cut to taking it out. A different playbook will be required.

While he’s talking about cranking things back up by Easter, the virus is tearing through New York City, where officials think the peak of the virus is still three weeks away.

In short, there’s not enough disruption in the world to make people forget about the unseen threat outside their doors. This one is one that is going to have to be beaten the old fashioned way, with medicine, patience and common sense.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and an adviser to every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan, was asked by CNN about a timeline for American life to get back go normal.

“You don’t make the timeline,” he said. “The virus makes the timeline.”

Later in the day, in Frankfort, Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear said, “I’m reticent to give a timeline, because it’s going to take how long it takes. It’s going to take however long it takes to beat this thing the first time. Let’s be committed to winning on the very first time.”

In other words, we’d better perfect our ways of handling the disruption. You can’t throw a switch and order the virus to stand down so that life can resume.

But more than that, I wonder what will be changed when life resumes.

Some are experiencing a cruel disruption. Serious sickness or even death. Medical workers, who are just beginning what promises to be a long haul, will come away changed.

Even those of us sitting in our homes, hoping not to spread or catch the virus, will be changed when we wander back out. Our children will be changed. How families relate to each other will be changed.

There’s no telling what will come of six weeks or more of families being compelled to share small spaces.

I expect sports will be changed, in some way or another, when things come back.

All of these new ways we are finding of working, of communicating, of eating out, of being entertained – these things aren’t just makeshift changes. Many of them will stick.

And we will find out who in our communities is willing to work for the good of all.

People who have lost jobs already, who never imagined applying for an unemployment check through no fault of their own, will come away from this changed.

I suppose the message here – and I acknowledge it will be much harder for some who read these words than others, if you’ve lost loved ones or jobs or other things – how can we come away better for this disruption?

It’s something we should be asking ourselves. It’s something I’m asking myself — even as, I’ll admit to you, I worry about the threat. I have enough anxiety that it can make me short of breath if it isn’t managed. And every shallow breath, especially after spending all day in the news of this virus, leads to more anxiety over whether it has arrived.

I thought New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s words Thursday about this chapter in American history and its impact on children, and the rest of us, were particularly inspiring, and I want to share them, in their rather considerable entirety.

Generally, I use the end of these columns to give some kind of positive last word. Tonight, I’ll give the stage to Mr. Cuomo. With my own exhortation: Don’t miss the moment of this life disruption. Regardless of circumstance, spend a few minutes, at least, thinking about how we might use this rupture in life to create something worthwhile in our own lives.

“This is a life moment,” Cuomo told reporters on Thursday. “It’s a moment in the life of this country. It’s a moment in the life of the world. It’s a moment in our family lives. It’s a moment for each of us. Each of us is dealing with it in our own way, and my observation has been that when the pressure is on, is when you really see what people are made of, in a personal relationship in a business relationship.

“You know, people can be great when everything is great. The question is what does a person do when things aren’t great and what does a person do when the pressure is on them? And that’s when you can see a little crack in the foundation of a person. But when the pressure is on that little crack, that little crack can explode and that foundation can crumble. Or, you can see the exact opposite. You can see them get stronger. But you get to see what they’re really made of and you get to see the best. You get to see the worst. You get to see the beauty in people. And you get to see the opposite.”

“The outpouring of support for the people of New York has been so inspiring. Not just from New Yorkers. I’m telling you from across the country, from across the world. You would be amazed at how many phone calls we get. How many offers of support. How many creative ideas from everyone.

We’ve asked medical staff to volunteer. Retired medical staff who are no longer practicing — 40,000 have volunteered. We now have 12,000 people in one day volunteering to helping on the medical staff. We asked mental health professionals to come forward to volunteer. To offer free mental health services for people who are dealing with the stress and trauma of this situation. We had 6,000 people. We now have 8,600 people. We’re getting mental health professionals from other states calling up and saying they’ll provide mental health services electronically, through Skype or over the telephone.

“It gives me such strength and such inspiration. But I don’t want to sugarcoat the situation. The situation is not easy, but easy times don’t forge character. It’s the tough times that forge character, and that’s what we’re looking at right now. People say to me, people are getting tired of this situation. They’ve been home, it’s going on a couple of weeks. They’re getting tired. Well, the truth is this is not a sprint. This is a marathon. We always said, this is not going to be over quickly. I understand people are tired, but I also understand that people in this situation are really stepping up to the plate and are doing phenomenal work.

“So the next time you feel tired and believe me I feel tired, but when I feel tired I think of the first responders who are out there every day showing up. I think of the police officers, of the fire fighters who are up there every day, the grocery store workers who are working double shifts just to keep food on the shelves because people are buying so much food because they’re nervous; the pharmacists who have lines going out the door and they’re showing up every day, day after day; the transportation workers who don’t have the luxury of feeling tired because they have to get up and they have to drive the bus so the nurses in the health care professionals can get to work; and those health care professionals who are dealing with a virus that they didn’t even understand — they still don’t understand. They’re there working, many of them seven days a week.

“So yes we’re tired but look at what others among us have to do in the challenge they’re under and how they are stepping up. And who am I to complain about being tired when so many people are doing such heroic efforts?

“I also think this is going to be transformative and formative for society. You think about our children. I have my daughters here with me. This is the first time they faced a real national adversity. You have a whole new generation who have never lived through anything like this. They never went to war. They were never drafted. They never went through a national crisis and this is going to shape them and I can tell you just from having my daughters with me. Yeah, they’re hurt, they’re scared, but they are also learning through this and at the end of the day they’re going to be better people for it and they’re going be better citizens for it. I believe that because they’re rising to the occasion. As we go through this let’s make sure that we’re teaching them the right lessons and the right response and those lessons and that response are the lessons that we get from our better angels.

“During this difficult time let’s listen to the voices of our better angels as individuals, as families, as a community, and as a society. We’re going to get through this. The only question is how we get through it and when we get through it. But let’s make sure at the end of the day that we can say we are the better for it and our children are the better for it — and I believe they will be.”