We Have Been Here Before
Surgeon and businessman Dr. Eric George offers a message of hope.
History offers timeless lessons. For our community, it also provides enduring hope.
In our not too distant past, we faced one of the worst natural disasters in our history. I speak for all when I say it challenged our understanding of nature and its capacity to inflict grave harm. Hurricane Katrina entered our homes and upended our lives. It not only disrupted our sense of normal, it called into question whether our community would function the same again.
Reflecting on memories from 2005, I recognize many patterns with today. History repeats itself, the saying goes, and while it may not replay events in precise detail, it certainly reproduces themes that carry the illusion of déjà vu. And in my déjà vu, I find comfort in the knowledge that we have stood at the base of this mountain before with the impossible task of reaching the summit, all without comprehending the duration or difficulty of the journey ahead.
The key to overcoming the crisis in 2005 was not to run from it but go after it. We came together as a community and problem-solved, innovated and sacrificed. The federal and state government instituted tax credits to stimulate development. Investors and entrepreneurs capitalized on these incentives, funding projects and developing businesses that revitalized infrastructure, real estate and other sectors of our economy, while creating meaningful jobs. Professionals continued to re-enter the workforce and contribute to improving the human condition. We didn’t welcome the problem, but we certainly didn’t run away from it.
As a community, we carry a special responsibility when it comes to forces beyond our control. We face threats on two levels: reality and perception. As reality goes, we must improve the actual conditions of our community, healing whatever ails us. In the way of perceptions, we must convince the world that New Orleans is open for business and remains a safe vacation destination. We face the thorny task of addressing real and artificial problems, while managing the dance between them and reconciling the differences that emerge.
And that’s where COVID-19 creates more difficulty. Unlike disasters of our past, the virus eliminates an important tool in the arsenal of our recovery: an efficient and accurate feedback loop. It takes weeks before we learn the outcome of our perceptions and subsequent actions. A fast and accurate feedback loop makes all the difference in battling a threat of this magnitude. Without feedback, we can’t settle the dispute between reality and perception, which creates unique challenges for our community.
The absence of feedback clearly highlights the challenge of our task. Without a vaccine or anti-viral medication, our only defense is to double down on the fundamental approach we took to recover from Hurricane Katrina. And by we, I mean everyone. From the top down, we need infectious communication, collaboration, unity and problem-solving. We need courage to reopen our economy and diligence to keep it safely working. While we have made significant progress in easing the spread of the virus, our work is just beginning. If Katrina taught us anything, surviving the storm proves easier than recovering from it.
I believe positive change can come from this pandemic if we stay vigilant. With challenge comes opportunity, and given the nature of the virus, we can reinvent ourselves. While rebuilding our economy, we can begin diversifying it, easing our dependence on tourism and hospitality. As we return to work, we can reimagine how we work. We can also revisit our crisis-planning and -response systems, improving their resiliency for global catastrophes, which overwhelm crucial support systems.
Natural disasters, global pandemics—these deadly, uncontrollable forces do serve a purpose. Most importantly, they show us our deficiencies and tell us what needs improvement. How we come together and solve this problem will not only determine its ultimate effect on our region and the world, but it will determine how we deal with our next crisis, whether caused by climate change or another pandemic. As we demonstrated after the hurricane, we need to see the problem and go after it.
If history foreshadows our future, we will serve as the standard for the rest of the world. Let us embrace that responsibility.