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COVID-19 Crisis: What is Essential?

Essential Workers + Infrastructure + Connection!

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, expected to affect every country in the world, businesses have shuttered, economies shuddered and people are scrambling to fill basic needs in a more physically distanced social order. At this writing, it is becoming clear that American consumers view ‘essential’ products and services to include aspects of life well beyond food, shelter and water, to encompass entertainment, the arts and social connection aspects of society that develop after basic physiological needs are met. In this first of three parts, we’ll look at the government’s definition of ‘essential’ workers and infrastructure and review data on the number of jobs and people involved in ongoing work efforts for an America sheltered in place. Parts two and three will dig deeper into the activities, challenges and learnings of specific essential sectors, with examples from companies involved.

In the United States, our federal, state and local governments have classified as ‘essential,’ those workers, companies and organizations and permitted continuous operation, to be those which manufacture, process, support and deliver what human beings require to physically survive.

Essential services then, would be industry sectors and companies contributing to the safe manufacture, processing and distribution to satisfy the physiological needs for human survival. Food and water come first to mind, followed by shelter and clothing. Shifting gaze from the products to the workers, companies and broader supply chains involved in bringing each of these from concepts or materials to products consumed in homes, the ‘essential’ list expands to include the material inputs, processes, facilities and technologies needed to safely manufacture, process and distribute them. These include utilities, communications infrastructure and sanitation services as well as manufacture, transportation, warehousing, storage and fulfillment to retail and consumers of vital medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, paper products and cleaning products as well as the perhaps more obvious food and beverages, medicines and medical equipment.

In a world economy comprised of 195 sovereign nations, and a proliferation of security threats from non-state actors, there are also underlying essential services that support ‘providing for the common defense,’ protecting the environment (to ensure that air and water remain breathable and potable) and the safety of those businesses and workers. The United States’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) laid it out as follows in its initial COVID-19 related directives to industry, defining which workers are critical at this time:

Of course, each of these infrastructure worker categories has its own extended supply chain of people involved in creating, maintaining, continuously improving the technology, processes, materials and physical facilities and product flows involved. How many workers are regarded as ‘essential’?

The US has a total population of 330 million people and a labor force of 157 million. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019, 70% of US jobs are in service industry sectors, led by Trade, Transportation and Utilities at 27.8 million. Outside of the private sector service industry, about 22.5 million Americans worked in government in July, with nearly two-thirds at the local level. For perspective, nearly 12.9 million Americans work in manufacturing. There have been 17 million unemployment filings in the three weeks leading to April 9, 2020 (3.3 million followed by 6.3 mil and another 6.6 mil last week), which translates to nearly 10% of all workers: 1 in 10 Americans lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus (so far). Moody’s Analytics has said projected as many as 45 million jobs may be eliminated as ‘non-essential,’ or they cannot be done remotely. That is nearly 30% of all workers in the US, which is a staggering possibility.

At the same time, millions of workers categorized as ‘essential,’ carry on. Transportation, warehousing and logistics companies are operating at full capacity, handling food, beverage, health, medical and home supplies at levels many have never seen before. K-12 schools and childcare have closed through the end of the school year, creating challenges for families across the nation. But many colleges, universities and other educational institutions have shifted coursework online to the extent possible. In both the logistics and education sectors, the transition to digital connection and remote operation has been smoother where the company or institution had already incorporated remote access to data and virtual connection options for its teams where possible. There are learnings taking place, challenges being addressed and hopefully strategic footing redefined by the best companies and organizations.

You’ll recall from Maslow’s Hierarchy, that the bottom rungs of necessity for human survival are food, air, water and physical shelter from the elements.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

But in the United States particularly, consumers are participating in defining what is ‘essential’ through spending patterns and activities prioritized while sheltering in place. The US stock market did immediately plunge into ‘bear market’ territory, as investor behavior immediately reflected fear and uncertainty when pandemic was declared. Defying the double digit losses in stock value are biotech companies working on treatments for the virus as you might expect. But also initially surging were communications platform and entertainment streaming companies like ZOOM and Netflix, serving those working from home and sheltering in place. Restaurants, theatres and malls may be closed, but consumers have clearly prioritized social connection while physical distanced, all around the world. Newscasts and social media feeds are replete with heartwarming stories of grandparents seeing their grandchildren on Facetime, friends staying connected by video call, hosting watch parties on Facebook and musicians contributing joy via virtual connections to colleagues all over the world via ZOOM. Faith communities, non-profits and event organizers are leveraging livestreaming for services, webinars for virtual events followed in many cases by chats on social media. Simple email distributions by neighborhood and phone calling trees are back in action, now coming to scale to replace in-person connection.

“We are all learning how much we all depend on a broad community of people and how much our lives are all interconnected.”
Judy Woodruff, Anchor, NPR

ZOOM is predicting its stock will rise 46% this year and Cisco’s Webex volumes are more than doubled since February. Businesses are spending and consumers are signing in. Facilitating human connection is clearly viewed by the US market as essential! Essential to that third rung of Maslow’s hierarchy: Love & Belonging. It could be argued that sectors such as the arts and entertainment, fitness, spiritual and personal growth might also be essential to human wellness. Many non-profits, financial management and other professional organizations continue to function from remote physical locations. In fact, many are re-evaluating models of operation for the future! Work continues. Society continues. The interdependent web of life and business continues. The silver lining in one of the darkest clouds our society has ever faced could be the enhanced appreciation we all have for the frontline workers in grocery, in healthcare, in delivery, in sanitation.

The threat of a viral infection for which there is no treatment with a death toll rising daily is beyond any stressor that US businesses, teams and families have faced before. As we move through the crisis together, let’s acknowledge the impressive effort underway by the millions of people serving as these ‘essential critical infrastructure workers.’ As NPR anchor Judy Woodruff said earlier this week, “We are all learning how much we all depend on a broad community of people and how much our lives are all interconnected.” We hope that when we emerge from this crisis, we come to a ‘new normal’ that brings those learnings and appreciation of each other to bear.

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