OPINION: Donny Slade – The fallout of this COVID-19 Thing is Temporary – Mostly

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Donny Slade

Opinion

The fallout of this COVID-19 thing is temporary, mostly

Sure, it’s disheartening in a culture that places a high level of importance on toilet paper, that thousands of your fellow citizens will have to go without while others are buying it by the truckload. I am imagining the living rooms full of toilet paper all over the Southern California landscape.

The thing is though, that the supply lines are solid. The factories are ramping up production. The retail stores are rationing purchase volumes. In about 2 weeks you’re going to have a lot of toilet paper you cannot use. I’m looking at you lady (the one who bought 12 cases of toilet paper from WinCo just before they implemented the volume restrictions).

But perhaps more importantly and more disheartening (at least I hope it’s more disheartening than not getting a package of toilet paper). Is that there are millions of seniors who live alone or have limited mobility that rely on deliveries for food, water, and toilet paper.

Wal-Mart shut down their online ordering capabilities for Hemet and the surrounding areas for more than a week. When I pressed several mid-level management professionals within the organization, they declined to give a statement about the matter. A couple of days later, we saw widespread senior specific shopping times, which does go a long way to helping the concern but doesn’t do enough.

A week without grocery pick up or delivery, in a city where Wal-Mart makes up about 25% of all grocery delivery is a big deal. Not all seniors (of which this region has a large number) have the ability to pay surcharges for Instacart, or tips. Having curbside pickup is valuable; having delivery is also important.

The most important fact is that companies weren’t equipped to handle this. Wal-Mart, by all accounts a capable and tech-heavy consumer giant, had to cancel millions of orders because of increased toilet paper and pasta orders. If Wal-Mart is suffering, so are the local businesses. Luckily for local businesses they have more flexibility and agility because they aren’t big.

None of the senior-specific shopping times allowed for private shoppers to shop for seniors who couldn’t get up at 6:30 in the morning or make it to the store easily. There should at least be provisions enacted to allow for that. It’s one thing that I’m willing to go to the store to get toilet paper and food for my grandma, it’s another if they won’t let me in because I don’t have her in tow. Certainly, there are ways to verify age and account ownership this day in age.

Having flexibility is a big deal during times of crisis. Half of the panic is induced by the fact that big companies are not easily agile (though the 24-hour news cycle helps increase panic a lot too).

But that sentiment doesn’t make up the bulk of the content for this opinion piece.

I stated the article title sort-of tongue-in-cheek as I sometimes do with my writing. Everything is temporary, except the problems that are uncovered by this viral outbreak.

We don’t have very good food security in the United States, thanks to some unique problems that we face as a country and geographically. More importantly, we have let large conglomerate industry leaders dictate how to do things when it comes to food supply lines, distribution and more importantly, delivery.

Note: I’m not anti-corporation. Quite the opposite, but reality begs to be told.

Food Stability in the United States

As Americans we live in a very large geographic area. We are spread out.

We have a lot of city hubs that connect via long stretches of highway.

We grow certain foods in certain places. Citrus in Florida and California. California based growers do 5.2 billion dollars’ worth of grapes annually. Lettuce and spinach and other greens we get from Mexico and Central California. We grow dates in the deserts of Arizona. Corn in Iowa. Potatoes in Idaho. The Midwest grows a lot of wheat. Notably Kansas grows more than 3 billion dollars’ worth of wheat annually.

Washington Apples, Vermont Maple Syrup, Hawaiian Sugar Cane.

I bet you didn’t know that Louisiana grows 512 million dollars’ worth of Sugarcane a year, about 7 times the production of Hawaii. Or that Georgia’s biggest export isn’t the peach, but the peanut? Or that Arkansas does big Rice en-masse. Arizona sells a lot of lettuce; New Mexico’s largest food production is in pecans, of all things. New Jersey sells more Blueberries than any other food product in their state lines – proving that the egos of the stars of “The Jersey Shore” weren’t the biggest things to come out of the Garden State.

Because we live so far away, and the climate and growing fields are generally optimized for regional production yields, we face massive difficulty to move these products, keep them fresh and get them to consumers. The trucks and fuel required; the distribution centers and cooling capabilities. The people who market the products, the truckers who drive them, the cargo planes that deliver the expensive perishable items (like Maine Lobster). This is a massive food economy that is quite fragile.

Restaurants are largely supplied ONLY by conglomerate food distributors, like US Foods and Sysco, etc. Many of those restaurants have exclusive contracts to keep prices slightly lower and get preferential placement in ordering queues.

As a side note: From an economy perspective, did you know that in the United States, there are some very alarming pieces of data to deconstruct.

In Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia and Hawaii (we are only to the “H”‘s; there are more than a dozen other states which list this as the largest export by dollar volume) the most important export for these states is tied to the aerospace industry, specifically to commercial and military aircraft. At a time when the planes are effectively grounded, can you imagine the long-term impact that COVID-19 could have on the economy?

A final word outside of the food industry, Washington D.C.’s biggest export is ammunition. I. Did. Not. Know. That. Did you?

Back to food: We are reliant on processed foods made by large manufacturers with strategic marketing and distribution footprints. Certain things are simply not within our control.

Chinese companies own a large percentage of meat production and dairy production in the United States. This isn’t a piece on commercial industrial sabotage, espionage and warfare, though there are people who might think that means it’s a realistic danger (simply that China has its hands in our food supply).

Speaking of Dairy, we have seen multiple bankruptcies in the past 3-4 years from top tier volume producers. The industry is forced to consolidate amid sales shrinkage. The Oat Milk market is booming, but the production is not at the capacity it needs to be to service even 1/25th of the US population, never mind that the acquired taste is not there for many Americans for oat-derived dairy alternatives.

If a major disaster happened in a major interstate corridor, we’d be out of luck from a food perspective at least as far as food diversity goes.

There are so many other smaller issues we face as a result of the way we have structured our food economy in the United States that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, dive into it in a piece this short. Suffice it to say, these are just a few of the bigger concerns.

Good luck finding toilet paper, and other staples. Because just like food production, these are regionalized, and the top makers are all conglomerate corporations that have specific needs that don’t always align with the consumers in the USA.

We need to address these concerns through effective campaigns that promote whole approach farming – where applicable; better transportation reliability and better grid management to ensure that massive events cannot tumble food security easily.

Education Delivery is likely to fundamentally change

Kids are probably not going back to school until Winter. Oh, yeah, sure, the school district says otherwise (currently they speculate school’s being closed until April 30th in our area), but I have the benefit of an opinion platform, so I can speak more freely. Gavin Newsom mentioned the same sentiment yesterday – kids are not going back to school anytime soon (that’s not a direct quote, but he certainly implied it).

Gavin Newsom is the Governor of the most populous state in America. A country of 335+ million people. In case you didn’t know, that means something. His casual mention about return dates will have a dramatic inference to the actualization of modern schooling, post Coronavirus.

We’ve had this internet thing for a long time now, at least in a technology sense. Some life cycles in technology are less than 6 months. The Internet has been in widespread use since the early 1990’s.

Distance learning has been gaining in popularity with the huge increases in school tuition, a growing gap between educational degrees and certifications and actually landing at good paying jobs, and the fact that schools are increasingly difficult to run administratively.

Some people won’t attend certain universities because they are too political as an entity. Some students feel pressured to conform or be ridiculed and ostracized. That’s a topic for a different day though.

Some students simply can’t afford to get into a lifetime of debt to improve their overall base pay by 25% or less. Actual real world experience is trending-up, degrees and institutional letterhead is trending too, but in the other direction. It just doesn’t make as much sense for a lot of the workforce to consider “higher education” in the traditional setting: a classroom.

Sure, Lawyers are still going to want to attend Georgetown and Columbia and Yale and Stanford and of course Harvard. Top medical Students will still flock to Tufts and Johns Hopkins, etc.

MBA seekers will still covet places like Berkeley and BYU and other even higher ranked schools. I don’t need to mention all of them more than once.

But for technology driven careers, you’d be better served in Linked-in Learning, or PluralSight or Udemy in some cases, than you would be obtaining a degree at a sit down, day-to-day campus style institution. This is especially true with the fluidity of technology of late and the return to legacy code languages like Python.

I spoke with a high school kid who laughed at me when I told them that this would fundamentally change the way they seek education going forward. If the COVID-19 situation lasts more than 6 months it will. There is no way that colleges, even those with massive endowments and huge demand will be delivering as much in a classroom setting after November as they have in the past. So, mark my word if this pandemic lasts until then, you will see very big educational institutions all of the sudden getting very agile.

Education delivery will be through things like the internet and IPFS (InterPlantary File System). We won’t fail to connect just because we aren’t in the same room, trust me.


Entrepreneurship should see a distinct rise over the next couple of years

There are legion failures surrounding this whole scenario. People who make good billionaires and visionaries don’t like to leave failure unchallenged. This is the rise of the next generation of innovation. People will look at why things failed and disrupt age old industries. Be prepared for a whole new wave of “intentional disruptive innovation”, as the late, great Clay Christensen called it.

Clay died only recently due to complications of leukemia. He was the author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, the seminal work on the topic that has become one of the most influential concepts in all of the business world in the past 50 years. He was also the Kim B Clark Professor of Business at Harvard Business School, and a General Authority in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Church has been among the most notably tech-innovation friendly religious institutions and has itself made major headlines in the past week with regards to COVID-19 (They suspended all services worldwide regarding group gatherings). Note the LDS church and its people are also notoriously good at food storage and prepping.

His point was, that innovation requires disrupting practices that have become stagnant in the face of a changing world. COVID-19 has uncovered some stagnant practices, without question.

Every kid that didn’t have toilet paper or had to eat beans and rice when they were used to other foods because of the problem of supply line (and hoarding) challenges in the US, will be thinking about ways to preempt those problems for their children.

Every parent that lost their job, despite being the brain trust of a small local business will likely innovate in some way to ensure they never have to suffer that again.

Every teacher who is sick of waiting for their school or school board to approve a solution for distance learning so they can help kids progress, is thinking right now, how they could be doing it better. Inevitably, there will be some of those that innovate. They will take the risk, because the risk of letting these failures happen in such a rampant way again, is far riskier than stepping outside of their comfort zone while they develop and launch an idea.

There is smart money waiting on the sidelines. People like Jeff Bezos are hiring people in large numbers while other businesses cannot even keep their websites running efficiently.

These innovators will have access to money. Trust me.

Hopefully Government grant programs focused on innovation will increase and competition style prompting by Government will be a factor going forward

Speaking of access to money… Innovation can be spurred on nicely by setting up competitions to solve big problems. Forget about throwing government money at green energy in the way it was done from 2009-1015. That way of distributing money isn’t in favor with the electorate anymore. How about offering prize pools to groups of innovative people that helps launch new ideas and solves legitimate problems?

The Government knows that when it allows the entire population to participate in big competitions that guarantee money, without all the bureaucratic hoops to jump through, problems get solved. Let’s hope this is the case in a “post-apocalyptic” landscape that will be existing if COVID-19 lasts through the summer or longer.

It’s worked in the past on a small scale, and large prizes fuel interesting ideas and complex strategic thinking from some of the best minds in the world.

How we think about the future is altered

We might be thinking about tomorrow, as in, Thursday, today. But when things are getting better, and they will. We won’t be thinking so “shortsidedly” (I’m pretty sure I just made that word up, but I’m leaving it) in the future. That is: we won’t always be panicking.

We will all probably become a bit better at buying gas for our cars; toilet paper for the closet and have at least a week’s worth of food on hand. In a land where we are all living in the top 5% of all the world, it’d be a crime not to think about being better prepared and taking better care of our families and selves through better planning and better purchasing decisions.

We all hold our purse strings a little tighter during times of crisis. But we also all understand when we go without, that savings and strategy are important going forward. Sometimes it takes a major catalyst.

This is likely the biggest event to happen in the lives of more than half the Country currently alive

Sure, there are those who were alive during the great World War, but they are vastly aging out and passing on.  

For anyone born after 9-11, this is the biggest event to ever occur in most of their lives. Even of those who were alive and aware of 9-11 as it happened. This is bigger. That isn’t to take away from the importance of that event, and especially the way we all came together in the aftermath of such a tragedy (stories of true heroes make me emotional to this day), but it pales in comparison to the widespread nature of this current event.

Not since perhaps, the Great Influenza scenario has an event of this magnitude occurred. It’s bigger than the catalyst of the assassination of archduke Francis Ferdinand that set off instability in Europe and beyond that still has underpinnings in contemporary settings.

It’s bigger than the Arab Spring.

It’s bigger than the Cold War.

And it creates something in common with everyone on the planet.

This is not about one nation against another. It’s about a race of people struggling to survive within a media driven panic-mode, against a foe that threatens to kill more than 3% of the population.

It’s bigger than gun control.

Gun Violence took the lives of around 3100 people in 2019. That doesn’t include suicides, but does include gang related violence in some cases, and does include officer involved shootings from both sides of the law.

That number pales in comparison to what we face from the Coronavirus. At a 3% mortality rate, if even 1 million people were infected, 30,000 would die. We have 335+ million in the USA currently.

Note: laws are passed every day to curb gun violence (the efficacy of which deserves its own opinion piece, and this author while slightly biased towards the Second Amendment, cannot help but smirk at some of the ridiculous measures we pass in the name of curbing gun violence).

This is bigger than that. But you won’t see a single law passed against any Novel Coronavirus strain.

And yet, this is the biggest thing that has happened to us as a collective community in most of our lives.

Conclusion

What’s all this mean?

While we may get through this personally unscathed, it will still be something we need to get better at. While we will certainly get through this collectively, though it will claim many lives, this is still a thing that does not die the moment it has passed through the old and the sick.

This is temporary, but it has uncovered some very important, long-term needs that this nation, and individuals within it must cope with to sustain the future endeavors of the collective group we live in that we call a community.

We are most certainly all in this together. Stay well, be smart, and realize that temporary comfort for you, may mean taking away some vital necessity from another, so reach out (utilizing proper social distancing techniques of course) and do what you can to make the world a better place in a time where a dark harbinger looms over us all to some extent. That may mean dealing with a two-pack toilet paper limit for a few weeks.

What are your thoughts? Am I way out in left field? Did I get this one wrong? Did I say something too sensitive? Let me know.

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