7 Lessons Learned from COVID-19

Cataclysmic world-wide events, like COVID-19, often prompt people to reflect in life-changing ways. Long-forgotten assumptions surface. New perspectives emerge about well-established habits. Forced behavioral changes may foster novel and healthier responses to everyday events. Consider the musings and life-style questions below that we might glean from this pandemic:

  1. High transmission speed can be a killer. Many epidemiologists consider the speed with which COVID-19 spreads its most novel and deadly characteristic. Yet, we live in a world where speed trumps almost all; consumers demand the fastest download speeds, instantaneous information searches, and quick decisions. Pausing to think about the perils of speed can prove illuminating. There are downsides to lightning-quick decision-making and speedy access to information. Some decisions need to be pondered, not ordered up like 1-click shopping. Quickly attained top-of-the-search-engine information may crowd out more reliable reports. In fact, studies show that fake news transmits at an even faster rate than more reliable information. These insights might prompt us to ask these related lifestyle questions: Am I reacting too quickly to the news I hear? Am I unreasonably demanding overly speedy answers to tough questions? Should I allow more thinking time before I form a solid opinion?
  2. Vulnerabilities greatly vary. The virus disproportionally ravaged older citizens and those in certain socio-economic strata. Similarly, our vulnerabilities shift as we age; for instance, maintaining our health takes on different dimensions as we age. Likewise, people on all steps on the socio-economic ladder experience differing types of risks. Considered these related lifestyle questions: What unique health risks do my family members of different generations face? How are my personal financial vulnerabilities different from my peers in different socio-economic strata?
  3. Location matters. Our likelihood of exposure and infection to COVID-19 varies greatly depending on the population density at a particular location (e.g. New York City) and whether we attend super-spreading events (e.g. soccer matches in Italy or mega churches in South Korea). We’ve all become more mindful of where we live and with whom we congregate. This insight might prompt us to ask further questions: Am I geographically positioning myself to optimize exposure to the right people and family members? Do I live and work in the right community for my mental health?
  4. Predictions are inherently uncertain. The predicted COVID-19 mortality rates in the United States varied from less than 100,000 to upward of 2 million deaths. Action plans varied greatly because decision-makers were using different models. So what? We should embrace the uncertainties and always be skeptical about totally trusting just one model. Instead, think in terms of probabilities and contingent responses. Consider these related questions: Am I making plans based on an outdated mental model in my professional life? Could my mental model about how to maintain a healthy lifestyle be replaced by new COVID-induced changes (e.g. walking more)? Do I have the right contingency plans in place to deal with significant deviations from my current personal finance plan? (e.g. What if social security raises the age for retirement benefits?)
  5. Super-spreaders have an outsized effect. One study estimated that 80% of COVID transmissions were the result of 10% of the people with the virus. Likewise, we should be skeptical of those few people who influence a large number of others. They could be wrong or misguided. Our personal and professional networks matter a great deal because they heavily influence our exposure to healthy and unhealthy ideas, perspectives, and role models. Related lifestyle questions: Am I sufficiently skeptical of the super-information spreaders that I’m routinely exposed to? Are my leisure and entertainment activities overly influenced by a few high-profile opinion leaders?  Are my political views overly influenced by super-spreaders instead of thinking through the issues myself?
  6. Barriers and social distancing works. Countries that have been the most successfully at “bending the curve” encouraged social distancing and used rigid travel restriction barriers. New Zealand, for instance, severely restricted international travel and is now virtually COVID-free. This might prompt us all to consider these kinds of lifestyle questions: Do I have the right barriers in place at home to distance my family from unhealthy eating behaviors? Do I limit interactions from people who are toxic to my mental health? Am I maintaining the right psychological barriers in my personal and professional life to protect me from harmful associations, toxic perspectives, bad ideas and unnecessary stress? 
  7. Antibodies take time to develop. COVID-19 survivors eventually develop resistant antibodies. The global community anxiously anticipates a vaccine that will help everyone cultivate similar antibodies without experiencing potentially fatal reactions. Yet testing and producing these vaccines take time. This unfortunate face implies a broader and fundamental lesson: When something novel or innovative widely spreads, it takes time to develop resistant antibodies. This principle holds even if the innovation is greeted with welcoming arms, such as the cell phone, phone cameras and social media. Consider these related lifestyle questions: Do I have the right immunities to resist all the hype, nonsense, and fake news that’s spread on social media? Do I have the rhetorical antibodies to fend off attacks to healthy values like freedom of speech and religion?

If there are any benefits from the pandemic, they will emerge not only from new science and treatments, but also from a renewed sense of some basic truths that can help us all to become clearer thinkers about a future filled with extraordinary promise and potential peril.