Saturday, April 4, 2020

Is There a Bright Side to the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Risk. Uncertainty. Fear. Panic. Welcome to 2020.

We are in the midst of the COVID19 global pandemic and at times like these, it is natural to re-evaluate one’s life and world view. The fear of this virus has become overpowering and unavoidable. There is literally nothing else being reported on in the mass media, stoking even more fear and desperation. Governments are executing massive stimulus programs, sending bucketloads of money out the door to people who have lost their jobs (and there are many), parents, seniors, but also large and small businesses across the country. Governments at all levels have sent us home into quarantine and closed schools, daycares, most businesses, parks, playgrounds, and restricted all social gatherings. Though few of us have experienced wartime outside of Hollywood epics, that’s what it feels like right now (without all the shooting). To make things worse for Canada and other resource extracting countries, the price of oil has dropped to below $20/barrel due to a supply war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, devastating the entire industry. The price is closing in on lows set in 1998 – over 20 years ago, and they hadn’t previously hit that level since 1947.

People are dying from this and more people are going to die. Many more will lose their jobs, houses, and other possessions as they start liquidating assets to bring in cash to spend on the necessities. Some of these people will crack under the pressure and commit suicide. Relationships will fall apart. Mental health issues will skyrocket. Many will give up hope. All of this is awful.

There is going to be plenty of carnage to go around. But one thing to remember is that when chaos reigns, opportunities abound…if you look for them. Many people plant seeds for future wealth during times of uncertainty. They are greedy when others are fearful. They take chances when others are running for the exit. Governments too have made their greatest and most significant changes during bad times, and the effects of these last for decades or longer. Let’s take a break from the doom and gloom and look for some opportunities.

1. Deal with climate change

Look at the world pulling together to combat an imminent threat. It is truly amazing what we can do in times of emergency. But it seems that this Herculean effort is only possible when the fear of death or total collapse is present. We are slowly roasting our planet by unnecessarily burning fossil fuels and we need to stop doing it, otherwise millions of deaths will be caused and our way of life will truly change for the worse, and impact the poorest of humankind the most. Let’s find a way to extend this spirit of global cooperation to seriously tackling climate change. Like Greta Thunberg recently said, “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Maybe this virus is part of the Earth’s plan. I imagine the conversation going like this:

Earth: Could you please stop burning all my energy resources, it is really causing a lot of problems and making it tough for me to hold the whole system together.

Us: Fuck you.

Earth: Ok then, if you are not going to do anything about it, then I will. And you’re not going to like my solution.

Has it occurred to anybody that there could be another virus that pops up right after this one, but maybe it will kill 50% of the people who contract it and will be more contagious than the coronavirus? Maybe the combined problems of human overpopulation and warming temperatures are causing ever more deadly viruses to occur ever more frequently. Nature is all about balance, nature is complex, nature works in mysterious ways. We ignore her at our peril.

2. Improve the school system

In Canada we claim to have a world class school system, and judging by international standards, it is good, but could absolutely be improved. Is the money we are putting into the education system delivering the anticipated results? Canada's ranking in global comparisons of education systems has slipped in recent years, and this is not for lack of funding. Perhaps we've reached the point where incremental changes are no longer improving results. The recent strikes in Ontario have been difficult to the public to understand as the unions, who wield an enormous amount of political power, pushed for increased pay and benefits, and pushed back on some progressive reforms such as online learning and higher class sizes for high school students both of which seemed like rather tolerable changes to get the overall cost of delivering education under control, but which would have resulted in fewer teacher positions, despite the government's guarantees that these position cuts would be delivered through attrition and not job losses. As a result, teachers across all systems went on strike, resulting in lost school days, terrible disruption for parents, and disappointed kids. In the end, it seems the unions came out ahead, as most of the proposed changes were tossed and yearly benefits will be increased by 4% while pay will be held to 1%.

Our provincial government is facing major spending challenges as the provincial debt and deficits have exploded in the past fifteen years. Cuts must be made and systems need to become more efficient. How can we educate children to become productive, innovative, creative citizens but at a lower cost? As we are seeing during this crisis, health trumps everything else and the bill is going to be massive, which will give the government much less room for future compensation increases for public sector employees.

Governments should take advantage of this time to reset the rules. First, in a time where people everywhere are losing their jobs, losing their businesses, and losing their minds, teachers and many other public sector workers (me included) are effectively sheltered from all of it. It is time to reset expectations. Public sector salaries and benefits cannot continually rise when private ones get decimated during the inevitable crisis times. Paying public sector workers more than similar private sector jobs and offering incredible pensions that go far beyond anything in the private sector does not make sense and it is not fair to taxpayers.

Deep structural changes such as consolidating the four different types of school boards, implementing accountability systems that affect pay for unionized workers, or somehow reducing the political power of the unions are tough, if not downright impossible. But this is a perfect opportunity to embrace the idea of using technology to enable remote or online learning. If teachers and students can effectively learn remotely, then whenever the physical schools are closed because of bad weather or a crisis, we can switch to the online model and keep the system running. And we can continue to develop the idea from here for the benefit of students. This seems like something that everybody should be able to agree on.

3. Get government spending under control

This is all so predictable that it’s almost laughable. Over the past ten years, Canada has been going through nearly uninterrupted boom times. Yet all levels of government run massive deficits every year. It’s in the name of “investment”. Or to solve burning social issues. Or to keep us competitive. There is always a reason. But the fact is that during the good times governments should not be overspending because the next disaster where massive stimulus spending will be needed, is always right around the corner. Doesn’t a crisis tend to happen every ten years or so? Why do we think these won’t continue to happen? Permanent deficits are bad policy and an awful example to regular citizens who simply follow their lead and spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need.

The aftermath of this crisis will be massive levels of government debt, which means taxes will rise and future spending will be cut. At least the math would suggest this is what should happen, but in these times, we can’t count on any governments to spend and tax responsibly, because we keep electing ones that don’t.

4. Let kids learn in a different way

I’m not going to lie. I have really been enjoying this time. I realize we are very fortunate in that my job seems to be secure, and really hasn’t changed much at all, besides working from home 100%. Ana’s job is safe for now, so we still have money coming in. I know many are not in this enviable situation, so it is good to see governments stepping up to help get people through, because people really need help right now.

This time of the four of us at home, together, has created a huge opportunity to experiment with learning. When the schools closed, Ana and I put together a plan for the kids. It was simple. They must spend 4 hours per day learning new things. So we created a list of interesting topics, ideas and activities. Here are a few of them:

- learn calligraphy
- practice wood carving
- learn touch typing
- develop a carbon reduction plan for the family
- learn how to cut up a whole chicken and how to fillet a fish
- learn to sew
- make bread and do baking
- research what the Koran is and why is it important
- what is the Big Bang?
- use,, or any of the thousands of self-directed learning websites

The kids can choose any of these, or come up with their own, but the idea is to use this incredible and probably once-in-a-lifetime gift of time to explore things they are interested in. No teacher telling them what to do, no deadlines, no pressure, and no test. Deliverables from their day’s activities are discussed during dinner and if they have put a presentation together, they deliver it after dinner in the family room, and then we discuss it together.

Are we the kind of people who could do home schooling? I don’t think so. But this time has given Ana and I an incredible chance to explore this style of learning with our kids. And it has been working out very well. The kids have embraced the system and are probably doing more than the 4 hours each day as they are enjoying the things they are working on. They are also allowed to choose their own times. Stella loves to stay up late and sleep in, so she has been doing just that and starting her work day at 10 or 10:30. Magnus sometimes sleeps in, and sometimes is up at 6, so we have put them in control of their time and their learning.

5. Take a break from Consumerism

We buy stuff all the time. It seems that nearly every day we carry something into this house. Something we bought somewhere. I know because I track every dime of our spending and review every receipt, and by the end of the year I have a box absolutely crammed with these scruffs of paper, which I look at and think what the hell was all this stuff?? Well, we’re certainly having a nice break from that. We have bought nothing else besides food for the past two weeks and it has been beautiful. Actually, that’s not quite true – Ana and Magnus went to the Dollar Store yesterday and bought scrubbie pads for doing dishes, some new steak knives, and a few other bits and pieces. I know we needed some of it, but I think it was really more like a pressure relief valve for all the pent up “retail constraint” that has been steadily building. I don’t know. I usually play the bad guy and complain whenever a new bag of stuff comes through the door (thankfully, the things we bring home are usually used and from Value Village, thrift stores, garage sales, etc.) but I do realize we need things to live and I passionately hate shopping so it’s probably better if I keep my mouth shut and just purge things from the house when nobody is looking.

6. Reconsider the use of a rainy day fund

Financial experts used to recommend having 6 – 12 months’ worth of living expenses in savings available in case of an emergency. I think they eventually quit saying it because nobody listened. And in these days of instant and accessible credit, it is quite easy to get money if you need it – from a home equity line of credit, from a credit card, or from a bank loan. At least it is in normal times. When crisis happen, credit often dries up. Back in 2009, the banks effectively stopped lending. This was not kickstarted until the government stepped in and provides massive injections of money and guarantees. The same thing has not yet happened during this crisis, so credit remains available, but there’s a catch: many bank branches are closed, hours are limited, and the telephone lines are overwhelmed with calls so it is virtually impossible to speak with your bank. This means that if you run out of money, and max out your plastic, you might be calling the Bank of Mom and Dad.

Having a nice buffer of savings gives you piece of mind that you can ride out the storms that inevitably occur. Plus, and I hesitate to say this, but these crises usually present some incredible deals on “toys” when people living on the financial edge are forced to start liquidating. In the coming months you will be able to scoop up snowmobiles, atvs, side-by-sides, boats, cars, and trailers at great prices…if you have cash.

7. Transform the working world

Remote working has been with us for a long time, but primarily in select industries or occupations, such as call centres and consulting. Now, we are pushing the boundaries of this and if you have the sort of job that is possible to do remotely, then you likely are. This working model has many advantages that extend far beyond the workplace. First, commuting. Driving to and from work every day produces carbon emissions, wastes time, and exposes both drivers and pedestrians to injury and death from traffic accidents. Commuting requires us to have more and bigger roads, more traffic control systems, more emergency services, more road maintenance equipment. And it causes more localized pollution. These are costs and deaths that could be avoided, and I can’t wait to see the studies that come after this crisis showing how many lives were saved due to fewer traffic accidents.

Second, effective time management. My normal working hours are 8:30 to 4:30, a paltry 7 hours per day making me one of the lucky ones in the public sector. My day is filled with meetings, impromptu hallway conversations, phone calls, and all the regular stuff you find in an office environment. Now, I have been starting at 6am, which gives me over two hours to focus on the tasks that require quiet and concentration without disruption. Then I do my online meetings and calls throughout the day, but I take a much longer lunch to spend time with the kids, go for a walk, play some guitar, or do some writing. Then I get back to work for the afternoon with a clear head. Structuring the day this way has increased the quality and quantity of my output.

Third, having the infrastructure to support remote working makes an organization much more resilient. Being able to rapidly switch to this model in times of crisis reduces downtime and will result in a much better service to the public. This time it’s a virus, but next time it could be a weather disaster, a chemical spill, a bomb threat, or a building failure. Instead of being fragile, let’s be antifragile.

Now do I think that we should all work from home all the time? Absolutely not. But I think we could adjust schedules to allow people to work from home on certain, coordinated days of the week. For example, all meetings happen on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. People in appropriate jobs can work from home Tuesdays and Thursdays. This would allow employees to schedule the tasks that required focus during the home times. Let’s face it, meetings should and do result in action items, and if you have an endless stream of meetings, there’s no time left to do the damn work!

So there you have it – a few ideas to make the most of these troubling times. I strive to be optimistic, and it’s tough when the world seems to be falling apart. But I try to remember that crises will always happen, and they will always end. And though it can be hard to see at the time, some good outcomes will always come out of difficult events.