In recent years, I’ve heard a lot about the power inherent in the concept of failing fast. Basically, this philosophy stresses learning from your mistakes, adjusting quickly and not repeating the same mistakes in the future. It’s a sound principle to operate from, even if I think very few people actually encourage failure – whether it happens quickly or not.
So what happened with our country’s response to COVID-19 – shouldn’t we have learned from our initial failures and made key adjustments based on experience? Most areas of the country have had three chances to minimize our mistakes and limit the repeatable pattern of increasing positive cases leading to more hospitalizations and then ultimately deaths.
The first wave of COVID-19 came in March and hit a limited portion of the country. The second wave came in mid-summer and affected a much wider swath of the United States. We’re currently in the third wave, and it looks to be much worse than either of the previous outbreaks. In fact, we might have a surge on top of a surge!
All of this means that we’ve had two chances to learn from past failures and didn’t do it. Here are a few reasons why this happened. I think they are instructive in specific (COVID-19) and general aspects for our lives.
Five common COVID-19 responses (often occurring in this order)
Hubris – It won’t happen here, so I’m not going to worry about it.
Thinking emotionally, not logically – I don't want to wear a mask. I don't want to stay home.
Ignoring that people need boundaries – Trust me to do what’s right. I don’t need rules.
Lack of respect for expertise – I know just as much as that infectious disease specialist does.
Resolution – There’s nothing we can do. It is what it is.
To learn from experience and solve just about any problem requires setting aside all of these self-defeating attitudes. Perhaps expecting us to learn quickly from failure was too much to expect for a large-scale, societal change like COVID-19. Yet, we’re now nearly nine months into the pandemic with perhaps another nine months to go before we can get the vaccine(s) widely distributed. To minimize the loss of life and economic impacts, we must resist making the mistakes we’ve already made. That’s the only path forward.
A few related thoughts on leadership
One of the more disappointing realizations from COVID-19 has been how often our leaders have also fallen into the pattern described above. Or they simply acted as if they were above what was happening (do as I say, not as I do). Even the best, and generally most responsible, of our country's state governors have shown this attitude from time to time.
Moving forward, we need our leaders to also embrace learning by experience to help us avoid a four wave, fifth wave and so on until some point next year. There is no reason we have to repeat our past mistakes and our leaders can help guide the way.
The good news is that they - and we - know what to do. We know what works to stop the spread of the virus: masks, social distancing and testing. We have to lean into that knowledge and accept that it won’t be easy; however it’s the only path forward until we have a vaccine that is available to at least 70% of the public.
Learning from experience isn't always easy, fun or fast; however, it offers us the best path forward in 2021. The alternative is unacceptable.