The COVID-19 virus presents us with an unprecedented global crisis. It is what many of us call a “black swan” event. We know they’re out there, but rarely seen. Perhaps ominously, my wife and I saw a black swan in early March while on vacation.

During my eight years with President George W. Bush, my responsibilities encompassed responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the Financial Crisis — and assorted regional natural disasters along the way. My friends called me the “Assistant Secretary of Disaster.” Of course, within a couple years of moving to Michigan, the Detroit municipal bankruptcy was upon us. Perhaps black swans are more common than we thought.

Having dealt with a number of large-scale crises in my career, I have come to learn that while they are all different, they share common attributes.

First, they are called a crisis for a reason. The threat posed, the disruption that ensues, the cost paid and the trauma inflected are all very real. A true crisis alters how society thinks and behaves going forward — our values are forever altered in some fashion.

Part of the reason a crisis is a crisis is because there is an element of unpreparedness to the experience. Let’s face it, if we were prepared for the advent of the crisis, it wouldn’t amount to much of a crisis.

In the COVID-19 crisis, our society seems unprepared at just about every level. Hospital staff look to administrators; administrators look to local or state governments; states look to the federal government; and in this case, our national leaders have looked outside our borders. A lot of fingers in the pointing position, which, human nature tells us, is completely understandable.  

What's hard is that financial and political incentives to over-prepare for future catastrophes do not exist in society. The pressure on our elected leaders is to address the demands of the day, not for the black swan whose timing and nature cannot be clearly anticipated. 

Neither the public nor private sectors have the proper incentives to commit the resources in advance for this level of crisis.

And bold preemptive action is rarely rewarded. For example, if the federal government had required the flying public to take off our shoes, not pack liquids, eliminate toenail clippers and Boy Scout knives from our carry-on before 9/11, the public may have rebelled. The same is true if stay at home or social distancing orders had been issued before COVID-19 started having visible impact. We may wish for this dynamic to be different, but it is reality.

The reality of crises is that all of us — individuals, families, communities, enterprises, governments — must be resilient and flexible. When a black swan swims our way, we must be prepared to act quickly and in new and different ways than business as usual.

This is what I see in Michigan. 

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There is strong leadership by our state’s chief executive, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Our health care leaders are putting their natural competitive spirit aside to collaborate in addressing the crisis. Our signature automotive industry, and others, are re-tooling production to meet the moment. Families and individuals are honoring the governor’s stay at home order and finding ways to maintain social connectivity while being temporarily physically separated.  

The final common trait of major crises is that we always recover. While this is of little comfort to those families and businesses that are suffering today, our society and economy always recover, and usually stronger and a bit smarter.  

We will get through this. We always do.  

Sandy K. Baruah is president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. He served as assistant secretary of commerce and administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration for President George W. Bush.

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