Unprecedented collaboration brings hope in a harsh time

Oct. 5, 2020 / By Steve Cantwell

COVID-19 will have a profound and permanent impact on how we interact with other people and with the world at large.

This really hit home to me a month ago. My son and I were walking our dog Emi—a docile, lab-border collie—when two very large dogs (mastiff/Irish wolfhounds, I learn later) rushed out of nowhere and attacked her—biting and snarling, literally at her throat. I clutched her leash, feeling the weight of all three dogs, and scrambled to stay on my feet and get my dog to safety. The owner of the two large dogs soon joined the fray and pulled his dogs back, but he didn’t offer so much as an apologetic glance.

The encounter lasted maybe 10 seconds at most, but left my dog whimpering, licking at several nasty bites that would take several weeks to heal. My son was rattled. I was furious and in pain. Somehow in that ten-second scuffle, I had managed to crack one of my teeth all the way to the root. A few days later the tooth had to be extracted. When I told my 3M manager about the incident, she said, “I’m just going to tell people you lost your tooth in a street fight.” I like the sound of that. You should see the other guys. Right?

So, what does this so called “street fight” have to do with COVID-19? Our dog survived. I’ll get my tooth fixed. It’s not a big deal. The point is something fundamental had changed for me. I came away from this incident with an empty feeling, an exaggerated caution, as if all people were becoming strangers. During the pandemic, this same idea has come into my mind more often than I like to admit.

Since my encounter with the mastiffs, I have kept my distance from other dogs and their owners, crossing the street or even turning completely around to take another route. Not so different from what we do at the grocery store these days. We see another shopper at the end of an aisle and decide to come back later for the eggs. Keeping our physical distance is now a matter of safety and respect. Before COVID-19, this kind of avoidance could look like rudeness. Now, to pass closely in a grocery store aisle—even if you say “Excuse me”—appears careless, even threatening. The wearing of masks—also an act of safety and courtesy—can make people you know well look like strangers.

The optimist in me (and he is in there somewhere) knows there’s a positive side to all we’re going through. So, I’ll stick my neck out and claim that during the pandemic most people have become more mindful and often kinder to others.

In spite of the nightly news and my run-in with a careless dog owner, I’ve observed, close at hand, a heightened civility: more courtesy, more respect, more kindness. I rarely hear a harsh word in a business meeting. Teams at work step in quickly to help whenever someone is ill or has a vulnerable family member to care for. My neighbors meet outside nightly to applaud the health care workers and make small talk (which we rarely did before the pandemic). When a severe storm recently knocked out power in our area for five days, a colleague from across the country had a delicious meal delivered to my door.

Physical distancing is essential for safety during the pandemic. But the term “social distancing” has never felt quite right to me. With all this physical distancing, it is more important than ever to connect “socially” by every safe means available—both in our work and personal lives. And people are doing it. Whether it’s old-fashioned phone calls and letters or modern options like texts, emails, video conferences and podcasts. What I see is people looking for brand new ways to connect. People are thinking more about connection and collaboration.

The whole world is facing a common crisis. Many of the world’s scientists and health care leaders are focused on solving the same problem. And as a result, we’re seeing unprecedented innovation and collaboration on everything from rapid development of vaccines to wide adoption of telemedicine. The logistics, social acceptance and technology to support telemedicine has leapt forward by years almost overnight. Even if I focus on my employer alone, I’ve rarely seen such broad and rapid collaboration: New ways to scale and speed the production and distribution of personal protective equipment. New paper-based COVID-19 antigen tests from 3M and other companies offer the potential to scale testing dramatically. Many other organizations and prominent individuals are making vital contributions to address the global crisis. The pandemic is shifting the priorities of health care leaders to confront long-standing gaps in patient care and data interoperability.

I could go on and on. The way so many people are coming together brings me hope in a harsh time.

Steve Cantwell is a senior marketing communications specialist at 3M Health Information Systems.

Learn about the impact of COVID-19 on CDI.

Here are some recent articles about collaboration and innovation to fight COVID-19:

New York TimesA Dose of Optimism, as the Pandemic Rages On

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