COVID-19 is like a major jolt to our systems. Unlike a fire, flood, hurricane or other natural disaster, what is being destroyed here are human-to-human connections due to social distancing and our health and economic systems. Ironically, one is protected and preserved from the same behaviors that deteriorate the other.
We all know and understand the trade-offs of our health in exchange for economic viability. In this case though, our economic system is being destroyed as if by rapid fire. Property is not destroyed, no buildings burned, no cars flooded, no trees uprooted by high winds. We did this to ourselves to flatten the curve, and we can undo it in good time and in a manner that won’t jeopardize our health.
Resilience Relies on Complex Systems Coming Together to Self Repair
So what does COVID-19 teach us about our living systems, especially in the tourism business? Specific to resilience, when we look at resilient systems, the question is how quickly can they self repair. When you think about a fire, how quickly does a forest regenerate. I remember visiting Yellowstone National Park after the great fires of 1988, and while the forest was a desert of charred dead trees all silver and black, the ground was greener than it had ever been and full of life. Not all the trees were burnt. Where small trees couldn’t find new light, now they had plenty of sun to grow big and strong.
I was in North Carolina after the devastation of Hurricane Hugo, and the morning after the storm, as we walked around surveying the damage, the sound of chainsaws cleaning up the damage was already echoing all over.
We know that living systems can self repair. They do take time and energy. They may not be exactly as they were before the devastating event, but they do bounce back.
Build in Redundancy and “Save for a Rainy Day” (Disaster)
How quickly a system bounces back is an important question to ask ourselves about the systems we are part of. How can we make them more resilient in the future? For example, in the case of the U.S. medical system’s capacity to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, we had to flatten the curve because we did not have enough respirators, hospital beds and hospital personnel to handle the volume of cases that was expected. What are the points of failure in the system and how can these points of failures be strengthened? What would happen if we had more ventilators, had more beds on reserve, could bring up a reserve of health care workers?
If we had to flatten the curve to reduce the impact on the healthcare system, where that line is on the graph might alter how much the economy really needs to be impacted. The healthcare system and the economy are individual systems, which are inextricably intertwined. So building in redundancy reserves and “dry powder” in one system reduces the impact in the other, impacting the entire system.
Planning, Preparation and Disciplined Deployment
COVID-19 in particular is a shock to the human-to-human system. As we can see from Main Street and Wall Street, this crisis affects some businesses more than others. Businesses that rely on people coming together are particularly impacted by COVID-19, including events (sports, music, festivals, conferences), restaurants, bars, and especially travel. Who wants to board a plane full of people to breathe the same air when someone might be infected? Who wants to go to a hotel where they will be in close proximity or in the same room as someone with COVID-19?
This is where we need to take lessons from some countries in Asia that responded with aggressive testing and contact tracing. In this case, technology was used (and good old fashioned detective work in some cases) to limit the impact and allow for a more balanced approach rather than severely disrupting the economy through quarantining the population at home. Countries that had recent experience with other viruses (like SARS) had developed systems for rapid response.
COVID-19 teaches us that planning, preparation and disciplined deployment can make a huge difference in limiting the effect of a disaster on systems.
Flexibility, Reallocation, Creativity and Pivot
When watching how we in the U.S. are responding to COVID-19, what has been most interesting are the “feel good stories” and how much we rely on good news to get us by. A common thread in many of these stories is how a factory that once manufactured X is now making Y, which is needed more when global production and trade are also impacted. Flexibility, creativity and responsiveness are also key lessons.
When considering our hotel on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Playa Viva stopped hosting guests as travel came to a halt for our international and domestic markets, but we kept our farm fully functional. The key was to maintain production in a manner that kept our workers safe and food production hygienic. While the hotel rooms were vacant, the chickens were still laying eggs, the pigs still needed slop, buds were coming out on the trees, and veggies still needed to be harvested. Having this related but tangential business allowed us to keep our staff employed and fed while we focus more energy on the farm, while other areas of our business can wait. By relocating resources, one system could be strengthened while the other sits “idle.”
While hindsight is 20/20, and it will be more so after the events of 2020, we can learn some quick lessons from COVID-19 that we can all hopefully apply to our endeavors.