Opportunities in the time of COVID-19 (original version published on April 8th 2020 in the eBook “Surviving the Coronavirus Lockdown and Social Isolation”)

Cora Lynn Heimer Rathbone

In times of great uncertainty, what do WE humans most strive to protect? What do we worship? It seems the answer is the “I”!

From 1964, the word “I” has vastly increased in frequency over the “we”. Where do community and “the greater good” stand? Where does staff loyalty to employers, employers’ loyalty to staff, stand? How do compassion for people AND compassion for business concurrently converge?

Historically, when societies go through adversity, “WE” dominates. When affluence reigns, “I” ascends. In times of affluence, when “WE” doesn’t return, civilisations disintegrate. (Think Ancient Greece and Rome.)

Our greatest opportunity, in this time of COVID-19, is to reset the needle – to build community and loyalty, to think and talk more “we” than “I”. There is hope! When I see that China sent PPE (personal protective equipment) and doctors to Italy to help doctors there combat the spread of C-19, I feel hope (the courage that things can get better) even if not optimism (the belief that things will get better) – because we can hope in the absence of certainty.

Perhaps our greatest opportunity, in this time of COVID-19, is to refocus ourselves and our businesses on what matters most – “WE” and community.

A second more immediate opportunity is to stay positive through this challenging time.

David Rock’s SCARF model says that as humans we seek to protect five things: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relationships and Fairness. Which is most important for you?

For me, even though Certainty and Relationships matter hugely, FAIRNESS is almost primeval – especially as it comes close to a sense of JUSTICE.

Let me elaborate with a very personal story.

In November 1960 my parents fled Cuba with my brother and me. My brother was due to be 7 in January. Ostensible, to eliminating illiteracy, the Castro regime had legislated that children, from the age of 7, would board in state-run military academies. Parental contact would be minimal. My parents decided to get my brother and me out.

We had already lost the family coffee farm in the hills of Somanta and the coffee roasting plant in Guantanamo City – legacies of my mother’s entrepreneurial father, a penniless émigré from northern Spain. We’d received notice on our 18-bedroom family home – which housed four generations and staff.

My parent’s plan was to deposit my brother and me with family who had already left Cuba and begun to settle in Puerto Rico, return to Cuba to set their affairs in order, and rejoin us until such time as (they hoped) the Castro government toppled.

The day after we left Cuba, the US broke relations with the island-state. We couldn’t return.

With exile from Cuba came total material loss. I remember one Friday evening, circa three months after we left Cuba. We’d just arrived in St Thomas VI where Pappa had been transferred to work for the US Federal Government. Pappa, my brother and I sat on the steps of our tiny two-bedroomed house, in the hot dust-bowl of the island. Pappa, speaking softly, said; “Let’s pray that the Father provides for us because we have run out of cash, have no food in the house and my first paycheck has not landed in our bank.” We prayed the “Our Father”, loudly said AMEN. When we opened our eyes, we saw a five-dollar-bill floating down slowly to land at Pappa’s feet. “Let’s go quickly before the shops close!” cried Pappa as he pocketed the bill. Holding hands, we march to the nearest open market. The next day Pappa’s salary hit the bank.

With exile from Cuba also came isolation from the extended family. Nuclear units went where they could find work. Even as a four year old, I remember the sense of isolation – different language, different culture, different economic situation.

BUT – WE WEREN’T ALONE. The situation was happening to all Cubans who disagreed with Castro’s regime. Even those who stayed in Cuba lost all private property – without recompense - “Para la Patria!”, For the State!

Fairness, in a sense, prevailed – even if it didn’t feel terribly just – as did trust in God. WE – and all of my extended family - prevailed and rebuilt OUR lives – as did many other Cubans.

Fairness once again prevails. Rich and poor are impacted by COVID-19. WE’re #inittogether. Paradoxically, however isolated, WE’re all practicing isolation together! Though it will undoubtedly be tougher for those in more confined “home” spaces, WE’re all impacted –even the PM of the UK.

And though some businesses are partially protected (FANG companies?), with a handful thriving (Netflix, Zoom?), almost all will be impacted– however temporary this time is.

As for me, in service of the WE, I will strive with all the energy God mightily inspires within me to rise to the opportunities to do acts of kindness, to show compassion – to people and to businesses -, and to add new and greater professional value at and beyond this time of COVID-19.