If there is one thing COVID-19 has taught us, it’s how interconnected we are. When suddenly people began staying home, living their own private lives, restaurants, movie theaters, gas stations, hotels, schools, convention halls, suddenly had no more business. That meant that the food companies and fuel providers and all the connected businesses behind the scenes lost business too. And, in turn, the truckers who carried goods, and the farmers, who ended up wasting thousands of tons of food (before some enterprising social good startups figured out how to connect unused food with hungry people).
People depend on grocery stores and delivery workers to follow safe practices. Healthcare workers depend on everyone to keep themselves and others safe from the virus so that doctors and nurses can actually go home and see their families, rather than work endless hours in a veritable petri dish. Parents who work from home depend on managers and co-workers to understand how they’re juggling their responsibilities…. It goes on and on.
The Black Lives Matter protests made this interconnectedness even more clear. While protesters generally form a united front, counting on each other to protest peacefully while masked meant sharing responsibility for everyone’s safety, which was threatened on many fronts.
We don’t always see how connected we are to people we may rarely encounter or think about. And at work, we may not consider how decisions in one department of a company can impact employees in another. Or how one company’s choices about their employees’ safety can affect what happens in companies all along the supply chain. Or how behavior that stems from ignorance about others’ struggles can make those struggles worse. This is a moment for us to pay attention.
We don't always see how connected we are to people we may rarely encounter or think about. And at work, we may not consider how decisions in one department of a company can impact employees in another.
Coronavirus makes that connection clear; but it was always true. Emotions are contagious. Opinions and trends are contagious—or social media wouldn’t be so successful. We’re all connected to threads that pull other threads that can change the lives of people we don’t even know. When someone panic-buys toilet paper, the fact that there’s a shortage of toilet paper makes the next person feel anxious and panic-buy, and the next thing you know, you can’t find a roll anywhere—even though there was no actual need to worry about toilet paper supplies. If everyone had been thinking about the needs of the group instead of just their own, it probably wouldn’t have happened.
“The most amazing thing about that is that this should reveal to people how interdependent they really are,” but most people don’t see it, said Shade Shutters, a research scientist I interviewed at Arizona State University who specializes in complexity science. “It’s hard for people to grasp networks they can’t see. They can understand networks of power lines and roads and draw it and map it and see it.” But visualizing maps of contact and relationships and impact is more abstract.
[Related read: Business isn't always about commerce; it's also about community]
We’re nodes in a complex network
Complexity science examines systems and problems that are dynamic, unpredictable and multi-dimensional, with many interconnected relationships and parts. In a global economy, everything's connected. This makes everyone more vulnerable in some respects; the system can support nodes that are weak. In an article Shutters co-wrote called "Coronavirus and the Public Good," he notes that where there are mechanisms to protect everyone's health, a community is more likely to have positive health outcomes.
Some types of communities protect the weak nodes to protect the safety of the whole. Everyone can go to the doctor, get tested, and be supported while they stay home if they are sick. The U.S. doesn’t really have that. Many people can’t afford healthcare and don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. These people are less likely to go to a doctor or take sick days when they don’t feel well, leading to an overall less healthy community. Regardless of how you feel about whose responsibility healthcare is, having unsupported weak nodes in a complex system weakens the entire system. And we are all nodes in a system whether we like to think about it like that or not.
"It's hard for people to grasp networks they can't see. They can understand networks of power lines and roads and draw it and map it and see it," [said Shutters.] But visualizing maps of contact and relationships and impact is more abstract.
Coronavirus probably started when somewhere, at some point, someone disturbed a bat habitat. When that happens, it stresses the bats out and makes them more likely to shed viruses. So when bats bite animals and people eat the animals, people get sick. From there to now, hundreds or thousands of individual decisions led to one person after another falling sick; communities shutting down; businesses failing, and so forth. It happened far away and traveled all along the network; and we get to decide what we pass along the network next.
This is an opportunity for us to take a moment to ask ourselves what our decisions mean to others. If I choose this course of action versus that one, who might be impacted that I never thought about before? Who are the people in my sphere that I touch in some way, and what form does my influence take?
[Related read: Why corporate sustainability is a mainstay in 2020 and beyond]
Interconnection can be a gift
In nature, interconnectedness happens organically. Social insects like bees and ants work together and protect each other, creating food for the group. When a killer hornet invades the hive, they swarm around it and cook it with their body heat. Trees send each other nutrients through their root tips; one scientist even discovered a tree stump up to 500 years old that the other trees continued to feed. In the winter, they channel carbon from leafy trees that are bare and don’t need as many nutrients toward cone-bearing trees with needles that do. When trees are attacked by a fungus or other threat, they send out chemical signals to warn the other trees.
Humans, unless they live alone and off the grid, are also part of communities with others. (And if they live off the grid, they’re in a community with nature and can help or harm the environment around them). We think we’re operating on our own—as the loneliness epidemic makes clear—but actually we are a living part of our own network and able to impact the lives of everyone around us. It is every day, small contributions to the community we live in that creates the community, whether we’re at work or home.
We think we're operating on our own-as the loneliness epidemic makes clear—but actually we are a living part of our own network and able to impact the lives of everyone around us.
So perhaps now is the time for companies to take the time to understand the impact of their products and services, and culture and operations, on all the suppliers, employees, customers, industry, and community. The interconnection has always been there, and it will be there when Coronavirus is gone. This is just a chance for us to give it the attention it deserves.