Coronavirus economic impact concept image
Adobe Stock / Feydzhet Shabanov Coronavirus economic impact concept image

If forever were quantified, 1.5 billion years might come close in some of our imaginations to that quantity.

That's how long viruses have been around, on earth, at least according to widely-acknowledged work of Gustavo Caetano-Anolles and his colleagues at the University of Illinois.

A key step in the virus evolutionary journey seems to have come about around 1.5 billion years ago – that’s the age at which the team estimated the 66 virus-specific protein folds came on the scene. These changes are to proteins in the virus’ outer coat – the machinery viruses use to break into host cells.

Why does this matter today, to people who build homes, who lend and invest money in real estate development, who design and engineer these places where we belong and find sanctuary in these days, who manufacture and fabricate our shelter, our connective fabric, our culture? Why does a virus' role in our lives, in our planet mean so much today?

Since Covid-19 started its destructive path towards being a global pandemic three months ago, calculus altered. Covid has, in the terms of one of home building's senior-most strategic executives, "altered the way we think, how we hear, how we are to one another. A leader has to get that. Our people's lives, their way of understanding, what they experience is now altered."

This leader further pointed out this: the received wisdom, experience, knowledge, and insight about what to think, what to do, and what to say at this time all fall short of the mark.

Computation and calculus and ratios and data-points are our moment's massive riddle. Models are broken, even as brilliant minds work 24/7 to make new ones that can catch up to the novel coronavirus' 1.5-billion year head start.

Today, action comes down to a different, an altered set of behaviors. Action, today, is being open to learning. Action, today, is about using the "pause" button. Action, today, is about learning, rather than citing documentation about what to do and when and how and where to step next. Action, today, is about listening, hearing differently than we've ever heard before, another human voice, a partner, a child, a grandparent, a niece, a fellow worker, a person we greet from a distance of six feet, a blurry, unkempt looking soul on a video-conference platform.

New York Times columnist David Brooks writes today:

"This is a moment that calls for deeper conversations and emotional accompaniment. We’re all going through something together. We’ll be more resilient if we can see others experiencing it in the same way."

A virus is teaching us this, that the best strategy is always the one that levels us, unifies us, strips away differences, peels off the blinders, unstops our ears from hearing humanity in its rawest, purest form. Preservation of jobs, of communities, of organizations, of structure, and of systems all mean ultimately, preservation of people, people's lives, people's care for one another.

Viruses not only have existed a million-times longer than us, they are also essential to you and me and all of us humans being here today. University of Illinois scientist Caetano-Anolles and his team note, "it’s tempting to think of viruses as mere pests. But “they are not agents of destruction,” Caetano-Anolles says. Life on Earth would look very different without our viral co-inhabitants."

One of the differences between them and us is that they seem to know more about existing--and co-existing-- longer on this earth.

"Viruses and bacteria both descended from an ancient cellular life form. But while – like humans – bacteria evolved to become more complex, viruses became simpler."

Simpler. What might we learn from that?

If we're still around in 1.5 billion years, maybe this construct we have right now--that which we characterize as "impossible"--will have gone by the wayside. As these grave, coronavirus-darkened times force us to think the unthinkable and do the unimaginable to perservere, what's up-to-now been impossible seems quite plausible.

Fast Company's Sebastian Buck writes :

What was radical is now the norm— not just accepted, but so strongly required (legally and morally) that companies would be vilified if they did not take these steps.

The idea that companies, markets, the capitalist system could ever stop, change course, and focus on what matters seemed absurd just a few weeks ago. The question for business becomes: What’s possible for companies today that was impossible, and what’s impossible today that was once possible?

What leaders--as individuals, family-members, vital parts of communities--face having to learn, without having the answers, is how to simply, profoundly, and elegantly address and try to solve Covid-19's riddle of the moment. The riddle poses the question: Lives or Livelihoods? The answer can not be one without the other.

Viruses have the answer, and they've been solving that enigma for as close to forever as any of us can get our brains around.

A Nassim Taleb idea, antifragility, comes immediately to mind as we wrestle with the Covid riddle:

Antifragility is a property of systems that increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. It is a concept developed by Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, Antifragile, and in technical papers.[1][2] As Taleb explains in his book, antifragility is fundamentally different from the concepts of resiliency (i.e. the ability to recover from failure) and robustness (that is, the ability to resist failure). ... "Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better."

You often hear a leader say, as he or she stands up to receive and acknowledge a salute, an honor, an accolade for her or his success, "I'm humbled."

Now, it's the sign of a leader to say, as 1.5 billion-year-old phenomena show us how little we know and how much we have yet to learn, to say, "I'm humbled."