At times, and now is emphatically one, when America is challenged we seem to take forever to get up off our haunches and begin the process of trying to wrest back control of the chaos and turn back the threat. Our response is spastic, uncoordinated, at cross purposes one with another.
Why can’t we be more, well, authoritarian about these things? Why can’t we just lock down, say, a city of 8-million people, order that a few handy hospitals be built from the ground up in 72 hours, mandate taking everyone’s temperature as they enter or leave their homes and whisk away those with a fever, like it or not? Other countries can and do achieve all those things while we’re still fixated on whether swapping fist-bumps for handshakes is an “overreaction.”
And it’s true: At first the authoritarian system beats us out of the gate, through the first turn, and down the backstretch.
But then the counterintuitive genius of a distributed, decentralized decision-making system gets into gear. If the federal government seems inept or uncaring, state governors and city mayors fill the breach by closing public schools (a decision now affecting the majority of schoolchildren in the US), limiting bars and restaurants to takeout or delivery, and shifting resources to hospitals to prepare for surge capacity. Churches and synagogues suspend services-in-person and go to livestreaming worship. National sports leagues call off their seasons and many national retailers voluntarily close their stores.
Non-profits ranging from colleges and universities and other private schools, the New York Public Library, all cultural institutions and theaters in New York, closed days before any regulatory restrictions were imposed.
On the research front, the private sector has stepped firmly into the front lines: Walmart is dedicating its parking lots to drive-through testing facilities, Quest Diagnostics is working on rolling out high-capacity, automated testing capabilities nationwide, Big Pharma and biotech firms are throwing their resources into finding treatments and eventually a vaccine, universities from Boston to San Diego are collaborating on deep research, and prizes have been announced for relevant progress.
Even in the world of BigLaw, where some souls lacking in imagination might think we can do nothing, some firms are stepping up. I heard from Brad Karp, the Chair of Paul Weiss, this morning about what they’re doing [this from an all-hands internal email to the firm, which I have permission to excerpt here]:
We have coalesced as a firm to support the millions of Americans, especially hourly workers, who live paycheck to paycheck and whose lives are being irreparably threatened not just by the potential health impacts of the coronavirus, but also by the ravaging economic impact it will cause and the disproportionate effect it will have on those most vulnerable members of our society. As you know, over the past 24-48 hours, our local, state and federal government officials have begun the process of making available emergency resources to help mitigate some of these potentially devastating consequences.
To meet these unprecedented needs, we formed a swat team on Saturday, comprised of nearly 400 Paul Weiss attorneys, to review the various relief proposals, prepare template application forms for each program for those individuals who qualify, prepare FAQs, and man hot lines to answer the scores of questions that inevitably will arise. We have established seven different teams … each staffed by several partners and numerous counsel and associates. We already logged almost 1,000 hours this weekend, as we embark on what assuredly will be the most sweeping pro bono initiative in our firm’s history.
In other words, sometimes chaos spontaneously resolves into remarkably potent order. And I’m confident you all have strong preferences about which type of society you would choose to live in.
Humanity is powerfully inclined towards reinforcing community bonds, and as our society and economy have globalized, our higher natures have embraced wider and wider notions of “community.” You don’t have to go beyond your family or your immediate (and I mean immediate) neighbors and colleagues to participate and contribute. But start.
And in closing: In times like these, there is management and there is leadership.
Embody the latter.