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Phil Power | From coronavirus crisis, innovation may sprout

“Try something. If that doesn’t work, try something else.” – President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression

That’s a sensible piece of advice, especially now when we’re in the middle of the worst crisis since the 1930s. It speaks to President Roosevelt’s willingness to experiment without getting hung up on precedent or ideology. And makes the point that great national challenges often call forth innovative and far-reaching solutions. 

New York Times columnist David Brooks made a similar point last week, writing about COVID-19, the “plague demands that we address our problems in ways we weren’t forced to do before. The plague brings forth our creativity. It’s during economic or social depressions that the great organizations of the future are spawned.”

Think about it. The great national safety net of Social Security was a creative response to the Great Depression. Millions of people couldn’t find work. No job, no income. No income, no way to feed your family. In response, federal works programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority Act and the Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to vast swaths of the country. 

Some called it socialism. But millions of families (including mine) managed to survive on Social Security. Today, the $2 trillion federal rescue package calls for per capita payments to many American families in desperate need right now. 

Some might call it a government give-away, but when those checks hit mailboxes not many will turn them down and they infuse cash back into the temporarily cratered economy.

Years ago, in an easier and less partisan time, I ran a congressional office in Washington. It was a complicated enough endeavor back then. And there isn’t a lot of societal mercy for members of Congress. But I can’t help but consider how challenging it is to govern now. Social distancing rules out much communication routine or any sense of normal policy deliberation. Despite those hurdles, I won’t be surprised to see more creative problem-solving, including in the Capitols in Washington and Lansing, as this crisis unfolds. Our society is certainly crying for innovations now. 

Considering our medical system is buckling at the sheer, horrific weight of COVID-19 case volumes, vital equipment shortages, and dangers to health care workers in a pandemic it seems few, if any, health systems or government agencies clearly recognized or could have prepared for this in advance.

Yet telemedicine is connecting conventionally sick people to doctors and counselors, nurses are providing some kinds of urgent care typically reserved for doctors alone, public spaces are being converted to field hospitals, and support groups are springing up to provide much needed help to heroic and exhausted first responders. 

The roots of the crisis, and the responses of governments and institutions will be studied and debated for years, from Washington to New York, to New Orleans to Detroit, to Lansing and so many other places far and wide across the country and globe. 

Beyond predictable and petty partisan mudslinging, deeper and deliberative analysis will surely till ground for innovation, reforms and new ways of protecting public health and economic prosperity. 

Under the stimulus of our present crisis, soon might well be a good time for a long-term, serious-minded re-think of how our governments and institutions can be re-engineered to work better.

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