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Winning the peace

Throughout this public health crisis, we have faced immense challenges and unimaginably sad losses, but we must either learn lessons from it or risk wasting the sacrifices we’ve made.

Most, if not all of us, are ready to be done.  We’re ready to go back to work, to school, to the old routine. We’re ready for a sense of normalcy, a return to the good old days.

Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen. But that may not be all bad.  Let’s consider that “the good old days” were not so good for everyone.  People without healthcare.  People who were disenfranchised from the prosperity many of us enjoy.  People who were working multiple jobs and still struggling to pay the bills.  But what if this crisis turned out to be an opportunity to create a new and better future for all of us?

First, however, we have to realize that we’re still fighting this coronavirus pandemic. As Bill Gates said in a recent article, “People are ready to get going again. Although we have the will, we don’t yet have the way.”  Many of us are understandably tired and are experiencing a sense of loss for what we thought we had. Whether a financial loss, the loss of a business, a career interrupted, a graduation without a job or the fact that some of us are grieving something much more important — loved ones lost to the virus.

There is a general sense that our world has turned upside down in a way that none of us could have ever imagined. Many of us are beginning to understand that life won’t ever be the same. Similar to 9/11, some of us lost someone and all of us lost something that day.

Estimates are that more than 100,000 Americans will perish from this pandemic, a tragedy unlike anything we’ve had to deal with in America.  Another tragedy will be the long-lasting economic damage done to a country that has led the world in working, in creating, and in the vision that better is possible, but instead has been put on hold while sheltering in place.

However, the longest lasting consequence of Covid-19 may be the mental health impact on those of us who have lived through it. Most of us have only read about the Great Depression, but we are now realizing how quickly everything can change and that feeling of loss will likely have a long lasting impact on our psyche.

In his poem, “Servant of Servants” Robert Frost wrote, “Len says one steady pull more ought to do it. He says the best way out is always through.”

So, do we have one more steady pull?  We simply have no choice. There is no way out but through. The curves are flattening but without patience, the casualties and challenges will return.

We’ve seen new heroes emerge. Beginning with our physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Like the soldiers, police officers, and firefighters before them, our healthcare professionals ran directly towards the threat, not without fear, but with a sense of purpose, of responsibility, and courage that has awed so many of us.  Thank you.

We watched entire hospital teams cheering on a single patient leaving the hospital after beating the odds and recovering from Covid-19, all with a little help from her friends.

We learned from “ordinary citizens”, like our Italian sisters and brothers who cheered on their healthcare workers from their porches and cheered up their neighbors from their balconies and windows. Beautiful solidarity and spirit. Nothing can beat that. Not even a virus.

And then, something else special happened. More heroes emerged from the most unlikely place.  People we had traditionally taken for granted — stocking shelves, delivering groceries and packages, and working to produce food — have now become essential workers. As we watch these workers selflessly caring for our communities without the opportunity to shelter in place, we realize how important everyone’s role in a community really is. This is a long overdue and lasting lesson for all of us. I hope we take it to heart.

Our vulnerability has brought us closer together, perhaps with a new sense of humility, purpose, and empathy. If one of us is sick, that’s a risk to all of us. We now see the importance of caring for each other.  So, when we get through Covid-19, together as a country, the question is, will we remember the importance of empathy? I don’t want to return to the way it was. The old way of life wasn’t equally enjoyed by too many of us. Together, I want to create something that is new and better.

Recently, I was forwarded an email from Steve Johnson, the CEO of Health First, a hospital system in Florida.  The subject line was: Planning for the Peace. It read: “I’m really looking for feedback and direction. How do we defeat this enemy and continue the enormous challenge of our time to make our communities well and make it all more affordable?  As crazy as it sounds, I feel blessed to be on point at this critical time.  I’m simply not sure at all that I know the way and want to share that uncertain journey with others.”

After reading these words, I know that I would follow a leader like Steve pretty much anywhere.

Steve went on to say: “Our current circumstance and challenge has been analogized by many, including the President and the Governor, as a war.  Indeed, in many respects it is.  But we must be mindful that war is consuming and focused on the moment, on the battle by battle, as it should be.  While we must be present to win, it is we who are charged with planning the “peace.” We must plan for the future we want and begin now.  We are accountable for the well-being of our community today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now.  The honor falls on us.”

Many people remember Winston Churchill for his famous quote, “Never let a good crisis go to waste” and, indeed, we should use this crisis to create something better.  But what most people don’t remember is that after his heroic leadership in helping win the war, Britain voted Churchill out of office and brought in the Labour Party with its commitment to a national health service and taking care of the people who had sacrificed so much.

Throughout this pandemic, we have faced immense challenges and unimaginably sad losses, and I trust we will learn a lot from them. Many of these lessons are painful, but we must either learn from them or risk wasting the sacrifices.

Our country has been introduced to a new digital future that would have taken years to otherwise accomplish. We are finding new and efficient ways to communicate, educate, shop, and, most important, deliver health and care in a more safe, convenient, cost-efficient and equitable manner.  But perhaps the most important part of this difficult journey will be our understanding that we are one community in health.

How can we leverage this difficult time to ‘win the peace’, build upon the healthcare system we have to create a system of health and care, led by our physicians, nurses, and other health leaders, that delivers quality care for everyone in our communities?  The only way out is through.

Steve captured our challenge perfectly: “I think it’s the greatest honor in the world to be alive right now, ready to create the health and care system of the future.” But it is now up to us. All of us. As one of my colleagues loves to say, “Better is Possible.”

Let’s get to work.

Photo credit: Livongo