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CORONAVIRUS Mark Tulay: Is the new normal a great mistake?

Drastic responses to crisis may be doing more harm than good

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Much has been written about the human toll and toil resulting from the Coronavirus crisis and yet the opportunity cost for the dramatic actions we have and will take to curb human interactions has yet to be measured.  How do we know if we are taking prudent measures if we fail to ignore the opportunity cost to innovation and impact resulting from our draconian actions to curtail gatherings?  Is it acceptable, for example, to have the new normal be to meet only virtually for public education? 

Is it acceptable to have to sit behind our computers and convene only virtually while trying to solve the world’s most intractable challenges, such as climate change?  How do we know if we have gone too far too fast in changing our fundamental ‘operating system’ as a human species – and responsible investors – for solving problems, making money and fostering resilient financial markets?

And why haven’t we adequately addressed the impact for our actions on those that do the heavy lifting in our service-based economy – those making minimum wage or less? 

What’s to come of these hard-working individuals that power our service economy that have little or no safety net? Against this backdrop, how much change is desirable or needed now?  It doesn’t seem like the safety net is holding up for those in most need of safeguarding.

We turned a blind eye towards this pandemic in the US at the beginning and are now seemingly overreacting to an extent that could cause colossal economic hardships for far too many for years to come.  Facts are stubborn things.  Coronavirus may well be viewed 20 years from now as the next Y2K hyperbole — not because it’s not important and devastating to those impacted, but because the impacts of recent measures to curtail how society works at its core seems likely to dwarf any short-term accruing public health benefits.  We need a more measured response to the crisis.

The risks to succumbing to this virus are far less than driving, flying, or walking across a busy street. What’s more, the virus’s effects are highly regionalized but the public policy impacts are becoming increasingly nationalized.  Recently, the Governor from Ohio said it is not implausible for public schools to be cancelled through year-end 2020. How would we measure the adverse impact from such a decisions across the globe?  We are being caught up in the moment and politicians, however well-intentioned, do not have all the right answers. Our lens for measuring the true risks to society from the virus seem to be outsized. The resolve to push back must come from the ground up, to restore some sense of normalcy in public gatherings as a fundamental right and necessity, and to usher in a new math for measuring public health risk and a company’s pandemic preparedness.

I suggest we take a deep breath, pause and assess what the resulting actions to the Coronavirus will do for the climate crisis and sustainability movement. I hope I’m wrong, but I believe we may be doing more harm than good in taking these drastic actions to cancel events and meetings aimed at solving much bigger long-term issues.

Perhaps most people can accept living with a 1% risk, but what about a 99% chance that we will delay actions on addressing climate change, sustainability issues, biodiversity concerns, and the like? 

I fear we are driving like Thelma and Louise accelerating our way toward a sustainability cliff. Time to pump the brakes and look at the risks through a clear objective lens that can distinguish between ensuring public health and safety while avoiding excessive measures driven by hyperbole and hysteria.

 

Mark Tulay is Founder and CEO of Sustainability Risk Advisors (SRA) and has held senior roles at the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR), Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, RiskMetrics and Institutional Shareholder Services and KLD.