The impact of COVID-19 is clearly deep and substantial. But our policymakers seem content to argue only over immediate decisions, without agreeing to one, fundamental and important fact: this crisis is more than just a temporary or multi-year journey. Much like its rare predecessors of World War II, the Global War on Terror, or the regional crises of SARS and Ebola, the coronavirus epidemic is poised to change the way we, as a society, move forward. There are few times in humanity when mass-impact events change the way consumers behave and society operates permanently. This is one.
We need not be passive bystanders, though, simply reacting and adapting to what permanent changes lie ahead. We can be more than just the haphazard sum of private enterprise innovators and state-by-state policymakers responding in real time. Simply put, acknowledging the scale of what’s happening allows us to put a framework behind it—a system to understand how the public will behave, what they need, and how they will respond. That framework then gives us a useful, practical tool to move beyond the justifiably tragic headlines ad reaction-oriented decision-making to avoid an even more tragic future. It gives us the power to lead, not follow.
By distilling the globe-changing crises of the past, a framework emerges that is deceptively simple but critically important: the “Six Stages of Societal Change.” When used to map against the current COVID-19 crisis, these Six Stages allow us not just to see the smartest response to the problems we face now, but to look down the road and chart a path towards a future we can control.
Stage 1, the start of any game-changing event, begins with “Initiation.” People react slowly and in disbelief. They need accurate information and informed perspective through clear, concise, and direct communication from trusted sources to help them understand and process what’s happening.
Stage 2, “Reaction,” is the start of change. In this stage, people have realized the severity of events, and commence their reactions, often illogical (panic and grocery store runs) or rash (immediate strikes in the Global War on Terror or the Neutrality Act prior to World War II). In the case of COVID-19, this period included the first steps of social distancing and self-quarantine, matched by mass hysteria.
In this stage people tend to experience a forcible shift in their behavior that can be quite disturbing and stark. They need reassurance above all else. They need support and confidence in their authorities, who should provide them information and empathy. The more people’s needs are fulfilled, the sooner they can move into a stable Stage 3.
Stage 3 brings “The Temporary Normal,” a stasis of revised lifestyle and behavior. In this period, we’ve realized what’s happening to us, and we’ve made significant but temporary changes to the way the world operates. Most people have come to accept those changes, but only because they believe they are temporary and necessary for the resolution of the crisis at hand and restoration of a better future. There is an underlying uncertainty about what lies ahead, which causes friction, and so people need support and understanding. More than that, as things stabilize, people also want diversion, entertainment, and escape to cope.
Stage 4 is whenall crises must come to an end in “The Fade.” The Fade is the period from when we see the light at the end of the tunnel to the time of true conclusion. More than a positive sign, it is a tricky space to navigate, as anticipation of an end to the crisis increases pressure to accelerate it, often in unwise ways. The longer this stage lasts, the more challenging it becomes to balance this pressure and the needs of the crisis. The best thing we can do is provide clarity as to what’s happening and reasonable timelines for exit, while continuing to use diversion and entertainment to release anxiety and alleviate malaise.
Stage 5 brings “Memorial & Celebration,” the marked end of a crisis. In this stage, people need acknowledgement both of the losses incurred and the collective emotional journey everyone has gone through. However, a celebration is also important to focus them on the positive of the future. A delicate and careful mix must be achieved to help people move on.
We will eventually reach Stage 6: “The Altered Future,” where the world as we know it goes forward permanently changed. The Civil War brought about the end of slavery and the permanent demarcation of “the South” in society and culture. Ebola had smaller but larger changes to societal behavior in West Africa, while World War II ultimately brought about the permanence of women in the workplace and, eventually, integration and technological innovation that paved the way for the modern age.
There are millions of people, including many elected leaders, who want nothing more than to “go back to the way things were.” But accepting that our future is forever altered, and that we will go through these Six Stages to get there, is a critical and transformational shift in both our policymaking and in our public’s perception of the crisis at hand.
We must stop simply focusing on the headlines and “getting back to the way things were,” no matter how critical policy decisions like Safer At Home orders are and how tragic the loss of life. Instead, we must concurrently deal with the crisis at hand and accept that the future is different. We must use these Six Stages of Societal Change to take an active role in shaping what lies in front of us. Until we accept that conclusion and its accompanying framework, we will forever be battling over immediate decisions without regard for their long-term impact, let alone their short- and intermediate-term effectiveness.
COVID-19 is a globe-changing event. But it is more than passing phase, however impactful. Only when we accept that fact, and develop a common framework for our choices and the public’s needs, can we talk about meeting those needs in the smartest ways and preparing for the best future. The old adage remains true: planning today makes a smarter, better future. The Six Stages of Societal Change are designed to be the framework that allows us to process that information, and make informed decisions for the betterment of all. With COVID-19, the permanent altered future is still unclear, but this framework gives us the opportunity to shape it. It’s essential in order not just to embrace that understanding, but to use it to sculpt the tomorrow we’d like to see.