person fishing in the ocean
PHOTO: Jamison McAndie

Between an incoming tide and outgoing tide there is the slack tide, a body of water that seems still but is actually changing direction. As history is written for the COVID-19 pandemic, it is only natural we notice the big starts and stops — the firsts and lasts — but as with the tides, we can also learn from the in-between. And while we are consumed with managing the health impacts of the pandemic, the tides roll on in other critical areas like STEM, education and human rights.

Progress in a Time of Pandemic

As we continue to find our way through the pandemic, it feels at times like we are caught in a slack tide. Progress can seem imperceptible. And then as we step forward we get pulled back, signaling the conflicted, difficult path we are on.

In health, while events are being virtualized or cancelled (the Boston Marathon was canceled for the first time in its 124-year history), the first COVID-19 vaccines are entering test phase and showing promising results. Biotech Moderna launched Phase 3 of its coronavirus vaccine trial last month. Johnson & Johnson initiated its Phase 1/2a trial with the intention to move into a Phase 3 in September. Notably, the trials will include "significant representation" of communities of color and the elderly, who have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. Early trial indicators are good as we persevere through the slack tide.

As for the economy, while our recent US quarter is the worst in history, with a 32.9% annualized contraction in the GDP, there are exceptions. Ecommerce companies like Shopify and behemoth Amazon, as well as podcast empire company Spotify, are all persevering. It suggests the COVID-19 downturn experienced by most companies “can actually be a tailwind if shifting consumer habits favor your core business.”

Our educational institutions are also under severe stress during the pandemic. We might say they are caught in a slack tide waiting for “normalcy” to resume while they explore alternatives like virtual/in-person mixes and “pandemic pods.” Last month the percent of universities with plans to return students to campus dropped from 79% to 49%. While one recent study links past school closures to fewer COVID-19 infections and deaths, the experts say it's complicated. Lead study author Dr. Katherine Auger, attending physician in the division of hospital medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, agrees as she notes that things need to change: “We can’t go back to the old normal. We have to look at school in a different way.”   

Related Article: Will COVID-19 Be a Tipping Point for Technology?

Science and Tech Meet the Pandemic Challenge

Continuing scientific advancement also requires our thinking and acting in new ways during the pandemic. The aptly named NASA Perseverance rover successfully launched its mission to Mars this past month after overcoming a series of technical delays and challenges imposed by the pandemic, which required many of its engineers to work from home. The Perseverance robotic wheeled vehicle will look for signs of past life on Mars upon reaching its destination, the Jezero crater, in six months. 

As important scientific advances like the Mars exploration continue despite the pandemic, the COVID-19 public health emergency has also been inspiration for a “new era of urgent innovation.” As Peter Beech shares in his recent World Economic Forum article, creative inventions like hands-free door openers that can be 3-D printed are reminiscent of the inventions of the Second World War, when the first digital computer and rocket technology came to the fore.

“From Spiderman-esque wrist-mounted disinfectant sprays, to a wristband that buzzes whenever you’re about to touch your face, a wealth of new prototypes are demonstrating what human ingenuity is capable of in the face of adversity.”

Scientific advancement is not only possible during the pandemic but is essential to our survival according to Bill Gates, who notes that understanding and limiting the spread must include effective contact tracing. The technology to support contact tracing comes in different forms but one of the most promising approaches uses case management, as explained by Michael Beckley in his recent LinkedIn article.

Related Article: Can AI Help Us Build a More Resilient Economy in the Face of COVID-19?

Notable Passages Help Point the Way

Even as virus infection rates and mortality statistics vie with scientific and economic impacts for the news headlines, we see continuing rights struggles happening across the board with a number of history-defining passages marking the way.

We saw the passing last month at age 80 of Emily Howell Warner, the first woman to become a commercial US airline captain back in 1973. Also last month, Lieutenant Madeline Swegle made history, receiving her Wings of Gold as the US Navy’s first Black female tactical fighter pilot. And, we are witnesses to the passing of John Robert Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement who served for decades in the US House of Representatives.

Just as Lewis made history in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement, leading the march of activists for voting rights, from Selma to Montgomery, he made history again as he crossed that Selma bridge for the last time this July. His casket was drawn across by horse and carriage creating an unforgettable moment. The Congressman’s funeral was held at the historic Atlanta Ebenezer Baptist Church — under pandemic constraints so requiring an extended virtual gathering as well — and brought together dignitaries from all walks of life to recognize freedom fighters past, present and future.

As we fight through the slack tide to overcome our pandemic challenge, John Lewis represents a guidepost. We can all be inspired by the strength of the human spirit in a life well-lived, synonymous with conscience, liberty and perseverance.