Over the past year, at considerable cost, we’ve learned to live with the virus. With the arrival of vaccines and their competent distribution, the US finally appears to be bending the curve in its favor. We are rightly eager to put COVID-19 behind us. But as we do, there is reason to reflect on the lessons we have learned through this crucible moment. The first lessons apply to the way we got right and wrong our public health response at the international, federal, state, local, organizational, and personal levels. I hope that many of these lessons will be captured by a (still theoretical) national COVID commission, charged with a full-scale investigation akin to the 9/11 Commission. We should be clinical and unflinching in understanding the calamity. That should inform the steps we take to reduce the risks of another pandemic, even as the core drivers of novel viral outbreaks accelerate worldwide.
Where this collection of essays spends its time is equally important: The lessons of changes made to our personal and work lives amidst the pandemic. We should not discount the very real changes both resulting from and necessary because of the pandemic. The strains of this period have stress-tested our existence in ways very few of us have previously experienced. A number of combat veterans I spoke with over the past year have compared the experience of the pandemic to what they went through during deployments into theaters of conflict. Lacking such a basis of comparison, this has been for me the most uniquely challenging time I have experienced both personally and professionally. I have never had so many sleepless nights, filled with legitimate worries about what the future might hold. That COVID-19 overlapped with a deeply stressful period in US history, from the killing of George Floyd to the insurrection inspired by Donald Trump, intensified the anxious feelings that at times engulfed my conscious mind. With two young children at home, the temporary loss of childcare and elimination of socializing with others led to the longest days I’ve consistently worked, with no respite between personal and professional responsibilities. I watched as friends and family were reduced to states I’ve never before witnessed them suffer. And I often felt helpless to do anything about any of what was occurring except to put my head down and get through it. It has been exhausting, and I’ve experienced multiple times when I simply felt burned out for some period and unable to meet the standards I try to hold for myself. It was humbling and revealing of a life that has been in so many ways privileged to this point.
In the middle of March 2020, I felt we had fallen off the map into uncharted territory. My organization, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), announced that effective immediately the offices would be closed and we would all transition to telework. That was a first for an organization that prided itself on being a think tank where scholars were in the office unless attending meetings or traveling. It was important to see and be seen in the hallways, to meet routinely with leaders and staff, and to host multiple public and private events. Our building at 1616 Rhode Island Ave, NW was a source of pride, with gleaming white marble, high ceilings, and a bustling energy. We sought one another out for collaboration and socialization alike. All that was suddenly gone.
Going forward, it’s my sincere hope that the single greatest lesson we learn from this pandemic is compassion. We all felt it at the outset. We worried about not just ourselves, but our societies more broadly.
So too the money to keep operating seemed to be slipping away. Our think tank raises nearly all of its $43 million annual operating budget each year. That is a tall order during the best of times. The economic freefall that occurred in financial markets in March and April 2021 was historic, and it resulted in multiple would-be donors pulling back on handshake agreements. As I received a slew of “sorry, but…” emails that immediately curtailed my plans to expand my research team, I also heard real concern from organizational leaders about how best to protect as many employees as possible in the face of what seemed an existential economic threat.
Rather than cower, we hustled. Early in the pandemic, my supervisor told me she did not expect us to go on with business as usual, and that it was okay to “win ugly” if we had to. Having that permission to be human, to fall down, actually helped keep me on my feet. My colleagues and I contacted every warm lead, locked in every agreement not yet concluded, and we produced content like never before. That was the bright spot in the dismal downturn. The relevance of a foreign policy and national security think tank in an intensifying pandemic was immediate. The work we did felt important. There was insatiable public thirst to help put into context historical events unfolding. And we found that our fundamental business model adapted very well to an all-virtual environment. After a week or two experimenting with how to do everything remotely, we identified the right way to stage meetings, the right software to use, even the right tone to take in writing about a world transformed. There was, in many ways, a burst of creative energy and collaboration between programs and scholars within the think tank that were game to try something new. CSIS’s overall production of digital content — reports, commentaries, events, and multimedia products — doubled or more, and viewership of products reached new highs as well.
Much as I hate to admit it because the process was so destructive and painful, personally and professionally I feel I’ve come through the pandemic stronger. I take far less for granted. I’m grateful for my health and that of my loved ones. I’m thankful each day that is stable and predictable. I’m grateful my fellow Americans voted out an irresponsible administration that did not take health security seriously. By necessity and more immersive experience, I am a better parent and certainly a better short-order chef. I have learned to manage stress and the blurring of work and life in a more sustainable way. I have started regularly exercising for the first time in decades.
I’ve also become a better supervisor and mentor. I took note that, hard as the pandemic was on working parents, it was in some ways harder still on young professionals who were suddenly confined to small apartments with roommates or entirely alone, cut off from in-person social networks at a time when interaction with friends is central to identity and happiness. They also experienced viscerally the national struggle to confront systemic racism in May and June 2020 and the direct affront to US democracy that occurred on Jan. 6, 2021. From the outset of the pandemic, I took more time each day to speak with my research team, and to talk more about their future plans and aspirations. In turn, they pushed me to look more critically at injustice in society and to write about the national security threat that represents. I tried to take more time also with those who reached out to me to engage or seek advice.
The “small world” effect of the pandemic also afforded new perspective on the value of expanding conversations beyond the Washington beltway. I’ve used the advent of virtual events to dramatically expand the diversity of participants in discussions beyond the usual suspects, at times working across three or more time zones to bring in ideas and insights. I’ve also more carefully watched policy developments in other countries as the world contends jointly with the pandemic, and our future is tied up with universal success.
Going forward, it’s my sincere hope that the single greatest lesson we learn from this pandemic is compassion. We all felt it at the outset. We worried about not just ourselves, but our societies more broadly. There was a great flattening and connecting. We meaningfully thanked grocery store workers. We contemplated the selflessness of hospital workers. We checked in on old friends and distant relatives. We felt we were part of something bigger, and that we weren’t the center of things but a node in a vast network of humanity.
Moving forward we should endeavor to create workplaces that allow for individuals to find balance in their lives that allows for care of children and others who depend on them, that allows for them to maintain their own mental and physical well-being, and that seeks outcomes versus physical presence. It should be okay to not be okay sometimes, and to fail based on the trials and tribulations we will all continue to face, whether personally or collectively. We should remember that we are responsible for one another, and not just ourselves.
Samuel Brannen is the founding director of the Risk and Foresight Group and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For more in the series, check back here.