Community Recovery in the Time of Covid

Sometimes things fall apart so that better things can fall together.

Marilyn Monroe

Our communities are going through tough times right now. All have seen disease and death damage their social fabrics. Some are experiencing physical devastation due to nature’s wrath and men’s anger. Sadly, we know that more death and destruction is inevitable. Our response to this has led to economic and educational chaos, and stunted lives.

But we also know that eventually these will ebb and end. We will stand on the rubble and realize that our communities must now recover – must now reach toward a New and, hopefully, Better Normal. We know that for some, recovery will require more resources than they have to give. Communities will look to state and federal governments to provide them the resources they lack. But what resources will our communities actually need?

Unfortunately, there’s no single answer. The damage done to many of our communities covers the spectrum from their physical environments to their social fabrics and their economies. Just as the damage experienced by communities will vary so to will the resources needed for recovery. Some communities will reach for any funding that they can, and sort of haphazardly aim to rebuild what was lost. But for those with the greatest damage, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” This time the magnitude of the damage is too great. For them, trying to rebuild the past has no future.

Other, more resilient, communities will recognize that the changes wrought by Covid and our response are so great that they require almost a reinvention. They will make the tough decisions to rebuild their communities to be “Future Fit,” ready to face whatever adversities the future may bring. They will take responsibility for their own recovery and develop plans to reach a New and Better Normal. And through their planning most will recover more rapidly than those who don’t plan.

While those plans will vary in detail, on another level they will have in common a focus on functionality, infrastructure and assets. In terms of functionality, they will likely start with an assessment of the damage to the community’s infrastructures. They will then look at how the existing infrastructure and assets will be used to achieve recovery. While these plans are likely to differ in the terms they use, I think it’s useful to look at their common focus through the lens of the Seven Capitals.

Social. In the US, our social fabric (our social infrastructure, if you will) has been badly frayed, especially in many of our major cities. Rioting, aided by masking and lockdowns, have prevented our social networks from the message-passing that is so vital for recovery of our communities – as I’ve said before, “Resources won‘t flow where messages don’t go.” And I’m not just talking about PPE and medical supplies. Although we don’t talk about it enough, most people depend on their networks of friends, neighbors and acquaintances to find out about job opportunities.

Unfortunately, while academia has established the importance of social capital, the damage to it is being ignored by many politicians. Recovery will require opening the places we gather as quickly as possible, so that we can reestablish our personal networks. That means churches, libraries, schools, parks and recreational venues. That also means getting rid of masks as soon as we can – they facilitate anti-social behavior. And most importantly, getting rid of those barriers that are keeping families apart.

Human. Even before Covid-19 reared its gnarly snout, our educational system had some serious problems. Educational “attainment,” especially in our de facto segregated inner city schools was so bad that it would have had to improve to be abysmal. Look at Baltimore – proficiency in reading and math hovering just slightly over 10%, but with a 70% graduation rate. And DC bordering on the criminal – a whopping 20% proficiency in reading and math among eighth graders, while spending twice the national average per pupil.

But just getting back to that “Normal” is proving challenging. While the “hybrid” model (part in-person, part online) sort-of, kind-of works for middle class kids, inevitably the disadvantaged (esp. in rural areas) will fall behind. We need to get the schools fully open now. But that will not absolve us of fixing the damage the lockdowns have already caused. If you can’t read and can’t do basic math, you can’t get a job to support yourself, let alone your family. One way to approach this is to task the federal Senior Corps with providing educational mentors for those who are struggling. This may also be a business opportunity for some of those out of work.

At the same time we’re taking care of our kids, we need to take a hard look at the skills of our out-of workers. These folks, in general, have developed the life skills to hold down a job. Most of those eventually will find similar work. But many won’t – a lot of jobs are gone, especially those in small businesses. We need to beef up our infrastructure for coaching, redirecting and retraining these once-and-future assets to our society.

Economic. Overall, the US now has a “90%” economy – about 10% of our labor force is out of work. Our goal should be careers, not simply jobs. That means businesses aimed at today’s and tomorrow’s needs, and workers with skills to match. Local government has a small role to play (as I discuss below) but ultimately economic recovery will be accomplished through the actions of innovators and entrepreneurs creating careers, and workers willing to learn new skills.

But that’s not to say that businesses, especially small businesses, don’t need help – many do. Professional and business associations should play a major role. First and foremost, small business owners need coaching as they make the tough decisions about whether and how to relaunch. Damage assessment is a skill that they seldom need, yet it is crucial to these decisions. It may indicate that the customer base isn’t there, or that a new business model is needed. Small business owners also often need help with the paperwork for SBA loans. Most professional associations already are providing guidelines for protecting the health of customers and employees, but they can do more.

Cultural. Anyone who watches the news has to be worried about the cultural chasm that seems to be widening in our country. We’ve always had the elitists who believe that government can solve all of our problems. We’ve always had the anarchists who believe that the only answer to our problems is the complete destruction of society as we know it. In past decades, the sensible middle – those who recognized our problems and worked to implement practical solutions – was strong enough to hold us together in this ideological tug-of-war. I’m not so sure that’s true any more.

If we are to recover our culture, we must first once more define it for ourselves. That means rediscovering our common values – freedom (and its homely twin, responsibility), family, the rule of law, equality of opportunity. That means regaining confidence in our own ability – that of each one of us – to make a difference in our world. That means recapturing our history – America the Aspirational – and our ability to dream. That means looking clearly and critically at our world, not through red- or blue-tinted glasses, but through the lens of our common values. And when we see situations not consistent with those values, once more working for the common good.

Doing all of this requires time and starts with small steps: opening churches, museums, art galleries, recreational venues and, yes, even bars. Rebuilding our culture will require that we reestablish our social networks, especially our ability to repair and extend those networks. The task of community rebuilding and recovery, if done well, will strengthen the sensible middle, and thus strengthen our cultural bonds.

Institutional. It is clear that many (most?) of our communities are going to need rebuilding (if not reinvention). That effort is going to require planning and resources. Since entire communities have been impacted, the whole of these communities needs to be a part of recovery planning, not just government. Further, all must recognize that while there likely will be more federal and state aid, ultimately recovery of the community will depend on how well the community can mobilize its own resources – financial, human and social.

For some communities, some sort of long-term recovery committee will move the community to a New Normal. Ideally, the committee will include all of those who can mobilize resources to get things done. Its most important job will be to “define victory” – determine what a successful recovery is for the community. It will integrate local (not just government!), state and federal resources. A part of this will be finding “patient capital.” It will act as an information hub, letting the public know what businesses are open, and where there are job openings. It will act as an economic gardener, focusing its attention on new and existing businesses looking to grow. Working with both local business and local government, it will flatten some of the regulatory barriers (e.g., licensing/permitting, unnecessary zoning restrictions, environmental reviews) to the birth of new businesses. The committee will also report on progress to the public. After a disaster of this magnitude, recovery will take years not weeks, so keeping the public informed is essential.

Built. Some locations have experienced significant damage to their infrastructures (e.g., from wildfires in the western US and tropical storms in the southeast). We know the drill for recovery – sort of. But if the New Normal is to be better than the old, then we may need to rethink the physical infrastructure, particularly in our bigger cities. I’m not a big fan of Governor Cuomo, but his ideas for making New York City both more livable and “socially distance-able” make sense. But what the events of the last few months have really highlighted are the infrastructure needs of our rural communities. Many of our responses to the pandemic have greatly stressed our – already fragile – rural health care infrastructure. And as I’ve noted above, we need to expand our internet coverage to include everyone, especially those in our rural areas.

This post is much longer than normal (I apologize!) but I could have written even more for each of these. Recovery from the pandemic will be a long slog. We cannot claim to have recovered until we’ve rebuilt all of our infrastructures (the assets of our community capitals) and have them functioning again. While government has a role to play, our communities’ recoveries won’t depend on government’s actions (although failure to recover may). Ultimately the recovery of my community, or your community, will depend on whether you and I – all of us – work together to achieve a New Normal. Our goal must be “Future Fit” communities, ready to face whatever adversities and to seize whatever opportunities the future may present.

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