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The COVID-19 pandemic has created a global public health and economic crisis. Whether it is on the news, through your social media networks or simply noted in your daily life as you attempt to access goods and services, your personal and professional life is likely upside down right now.
No one knows what the ‘new normal’ is going to look like. What we do know, however, is that our present state is not what it was last year, last month or even last week. Many of us are teleworking, while others are fighting on the front lines of the crisis or trying to innovate or simply trying to survive.
Perhaps unnoticed before and quite amplified now, is an underlying ‘epidemic’ facing the United States and other countries (i.e., the United Kingdom): the epidemic of loneliness. As millions of Americans spend their time either at home or social distancing when they are in public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those that were already facing chronic loneliness at home and in the workplace are left to fight their individual battles. Similarly, countless small businesses – deemed non-essential – have been shuttered, and their employees laid off, leaving household incomes decimated, and the marketplace for goods and services greatly diminished. In both cases, people and businesses (business owners, specifically) are effectively isolated.
Interestingly, recent research at Purdue University offers some evidence of how certain factors can play a critical role in promoting resilience in the face of a disaster (in this case, Hurricane Katrina). In their Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (2019) article, “Does social capital pay off? The case of small business resilience after Hurricane Katrina,” the authors (Drs. Torres, Marshall, and Sydnor) find convincing evidence that bridging and linking social capital serves to promote resilience amongst small businesses. Why is this important? It suggests that businesses are better prepared to deal with situations such as the present if they have strong connections to community-based resources and unconstrained access to institutions (i.e., FEMA, SBA, state agencies, local Chambers, etc.). The approach needs to be inclusive, transparent, and beneficial to all parties involved. In other words, robust business support networks can strengthen local economies by fostering resilience amongst their constituent businesses.
In terms of individuals, approaches to treating loneliness include one-on-one interventions, mentoring, peer support groups, and community-level interventions. One could argue that these approaches have analogs in the world of small business: one-on-one interventions (i.e., Small Business Development Centers), mentoring (i.e., SCORE), peer support groups (i.e., B2B networks) and community-level interventions (i.e., Chambers of Commerce, Main Street programs, etc.). In either case, people or businesses, the discipline of community development plays a central role.
While the current situation portends to be grave, the pandemic will end, and the economy will eventually move towards a brighter future. However, the time is now to begin to address this situation, from both the people and business perspectives. As suggested above, communities that are actively working towards reaching out and connecting with households and businesses are going to be those that recover more quickly and will be more resilient in the future. This probably means doing things differently and connecting with individuals and businesses that you haven’t connected with previously, either at all or in an impactful way.
The well-known author, Malcolm Gladwell, sets the stage for us in his recent book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. Gladwell walks the reader through numerous examples of how strangers effectively or ineffectively interact. It essentially boils down to three concepts: default to truth (people are honest…not always), transparency, (one’s demeanor is directly related to one’s character…actually, they can be mismatched), and coupling (behaviors are linked to conditions…in less than obvious ways). Let’s consider these tenets in the context of the current situation and the role of community development.
If you are going to create an inclusive and adaptive system (network) that will foster resilience and countervail isolation, then you cannot default to what you ‘know’ to be true. You must question your past approaches and innovate so you (and your collaborators) can serve everyone effectively and efficiently. You will need to stop relying on conventional wisdom and recognize that communities and economies are not transparent, and you cannot take things at face value. You need to do your due diligence. Lastly, you cannot assume that the way people and businesses act is solely related to their conditions. You must understand the incentives and disincentives that are at play in your community, even when they might not put your community in its best light.
So, as you sit in your home thinking about the coming weeks (possibly months) and contemplate how you are going to make a difference in your community now and once the pandemic is over, take note of Gladwell’s insight: “the right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”
Michael D. Wilcox, Jr. is Purdue Extension’s Assistant Director and Program Leader for Community Development and a Community and Regional Economics Specialist in the Department of Agricultural Economics.