More than just health: This pandemic has caused hidden crises we need to start grappling with
Virus has spurred crises of system disruption, collective psychology and consumer confidence
This opinion piece is by Shawn Moen, the co-founder and CEO of Saskatoon's 9 Mile Legacy Brewing. He holds law degrees from the University of Saskatchewan and Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.
There is a decal on the front of our taproom. It's roughly two feet by two feet, black and yellow, and bears the word "SASKATOONING" in large block letters.
We put it up in anticipation of the JUNOs coming to Saskatoon. That event became one of the first interrupted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Much changed that week.
I've told our staff the decal will stay on our window until the pandemic is over. The removal of the decal will mark the end of the public health crisis.
Like many of you, I've spent a lot of time unpacking what we are actually going through together.
I see this as much bigger than management of a virus. While the public health crisis is obvious, the virus has also spurred crises of system disruption, collective psychology and consumer confidence.
COVID-19 has drastically altered how we relate to one another and deploy our resources.
Our commercial and social systems are not operating normally. This has created a massive disruption in how we do things.
Some systems have been rendered temporarily obsolete: office space, airlines, hotels, cross-border tourism.
Some require massive and ongoing adjustment: traditional sales and distribution channels, use of retail spaces, education and restaurant service.
Some are overtaxed and over-relied upon: digital sales and social channels, postal and delivery services, and (of course) our health care system.
How these systems work will be forever altered, for good and bad.
The real leadership task is not to prevent the disruption (we can't), but to identify what has become obsolete, what can be improved through lessons learned and what requires greater investment.
I suspect some changes are permanent. The brewing industry has shifted towards packaged product and creative sales channels. We've seen it in the restaurant industry as well, with creative takeaway options. The music industry is seeing a birth of livestreamed concerts. Universities are livestreaming lectures.
The advantage to all of these things is they are scalable, meaning that you can reach more people with what you do. For industries with tight margins, shaky funding arrangements or delivery models subject to external variability (such as weather) – this can be a boon if embraced.
Conversely, I have a hard time believing corporate travel and conferences will return to what it was. Companies have found cost savings and convenience with platforms such as Zoom. Remote communication isn't the total answer, but it will result in a permanent shift of a big chunk of that business.
Not all of this is negative, but all of it requires adjustment, forward planning and courage.
As a small business that has operated throughout the pandemic and "pivoted" until we've felt like a team of twirling ballerinas, we are mentally very tired. We sense this fatigue in many of our fellow business owners, our customers, our friends and our neighbours.
In March and April, many of us came to terms with the idea that we or people we love may die from COVID-19 and that there may be mass civic chaos. We rallied around each other and continued doing what we do - reporting for work as a front-line health care worker, a retail operator, a delivery driver. Others made massive adjustments to their daily routines and decided to "work from home."
In Saskatchewan, none of those apocalyptic scenarios have manifested, but the effects of the changes we made linger. As terrifying and challenging as it was, that early period was also exhilarating and exhausting. The months that followed have been spent grappling with those early adjustments and figuring out how to operate going forward.
I think we've yet to recover from the mental toll that this period took from us and won't fully understand the full effect for a long time.
We are psychologically tired, exposed and desperately in need of a holiday. Our collective nerves are raw. It will require a great deal of empathy, conversation and hopeful leadership to get us through this crisis.
The virus has caused a general hesitancy to engage in many activities that have built our modern communities and economies.
Who among us is eager to hop on an airplane or visit a restaurant with a group of friends? We now perceive these activities as dangerous, even though there is good information about the effectiveness of air purification equipment on airplanes and many of our restauranteurs have risen to the occasion, providing flexible services with safety front of mind.
Many of us continue to have well paying jobs and are financially secure, but we've changed our behaviour and either avoid our usual spending habits or act in ways that border on the irrational (early hoarding of toilet paper and bread yeast comes to mind).
This has real, lasting impacts on our local economy and will contribute to a shift in the continued viability of many businesses and industries. It is critical to continue to "buy local" and be intentional with spending.
What to do next
I don't pretend to have conclusive answers, nor can any of us, but my general sense is that we cannot continue with business as usual.
We are in an incredible moment, balancing a public health crisis — which directly impacts lives — with an economic crisis — which directly impacts livelihoods. It's critical to understand that these two things are not isolated. You can't have a healthy community without a healthy economy and vice versa.
Business owners face conflict between generating enough income to care for their employees, stakeholders and suppliers, and ensuring people in their care — particularly employees and customers — are safe. I feel all of this.
I welcome public health restrictions that are evidence-based, well-explained and based on forecasted benchmarks. This allows me and my fellow business owners to prepare and adapt our operations. And we are really good at adaptation. Of course, this capacity is not unlimited.
I have a much more difficult time when public health measures are not well-communicated, internally inconsistent or simply leave people wondering "why can't we do X"?
People need to understand why they are being asked to change their behaviour from both a rational and emotional perspective. Having unclear direction, shifting rules or poor explanations only results in mistrust, anxiety and conflict.
Saskatchewan people are smart. We must be empowered with clear and cogent information from trusted and credible sources. As my old math teacher told me, it's important to show your work, even if you got the answer right.
Building toward a season of hope
Announcements on early vaccine trials provide hope, but we are still at least months away. We still have time to build a meaningful strategy to address all of the crises this virus has caused. We can adapt to the disruption of our systems, heal our collective psychology and restore our economic confidence.
It will require sincere, informed conversations recognizing the diverse and interlinked interests at play. We must recognize that the problems we are facing run deeper, are more complex and may be longer lasting than the immediate health effects of the virus.
Our business has irreversibly changed since we placed that JUNOs decal on our window. We have had to rebuild sales channels and imagine new ways of doing what we do. I expect we will be better for it when the pandemic is over.
Similarly, I firmly believe that Saskatchewan can be comparatively healthy when the pandemic is over. If we do this right — and concurrently address all aspects of this crisis over the next several months— we will remove our JUNO's decal feeling renewed confidence in our approaches to community, collective psychology and commerce.
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