Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

by Kevin Fickenscher

We all seem to be either glued to the tube for the latest evolution of commentary and inside information or we have totally turned off what is happening in the world and diverted our attention to other interests. I must admit that I am part of the former crowd and hanging on the words of Fauci along with other experts to ascertain the facts. As I’ve considered our dilemma here in the United States, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that we are experiencing a series of events that hold the prospect for dramatically altering the course of history — not just for our nation but, for the world, not just now but, for far into the future!

At a minimum, we are facing what I describe as The American Trifecta. Trifecta? Isn’t that about horse racing? Yes, originally that’s where the idea started but over the years, the definition of trifecta has shifted to mean: a bet in which the person betting forecasts the first three finishers in a race in the correct order. So, the question becomes what are the three forces that are affecting the American spirit? My thinking on the topic started when I realized that Covid-19 has become the news item de jour much like the winner of the Kentucky Derby! We wake up every morning to a plethora of statistics and stories — all Covid-19 related. The pandemic is dominating the news cycle on all channels both domestically and internationally across the spectrum from right to left. As I considered the ongoing events which are swirling about us across the world; however, it occurred to me that there are actually three dominant and simultaneous pandemics — not just one — occurring at the moment.

To begin, let’s outline the notion of pandemic which is defined as: an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people. Epidemics, on the other hand, are simply outbreaks that occur across limited geographic areas within a single country. I am anticipating that most will agree with the first bet I am placing in the race of a lifetime for The American Trifecta. It is that we are facing a Medical Pandemic that has been precipitated by the spread of the Covid-19 virus across the entire globe. The evidence in support of its position as the #1 problem facing America and the world seems fairly clear. So far, the Covid-19 virus has spread to all the continents of the world except Antarctica and, who knows how long it will take before the spread of the virus occurs there as well? The Medical Pandemic has changed everything in our life’s experiences…

§ from how we do our work to where we do our work,

§ from how we engage with people and to when; and,

§ from our approach toward interacting, engaging and meeting friends, neighbors and associates of all types to if we will even see them at some point.

In fact, the Medical Pandemic has overtaken virtually every other event occurring across the globe to the premier pole position as the dominant consideration in our discussions, discourse, and debates. It seems that every minute of hour in every day is consumed by a focus on the Medical Pandemic of our lifetime — as it should be. Our lives depend on those exchanges! The rank of #1 in The American Trifecta seems well deserved.

The #2 slot goes to the slowly evolving Sociocultural Pandemic of racism which has accelerated over the last year to some degree in part because of the Medical Pandemic’s tragic unfolding. But it has also been accelerating due to other factors extending beyond the medical side of the equation. What do I mean when describing a Sociocultural Pandemic? It is clear that different societies host different cultures. America is different than India is different than China is different than France, and so on. While it is important not to confuse the idea of culture with society, it is equally important to understand that these elements — society and culture — are inextricably intertwined.

A culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group — not just a national entity. Society on the other hand represents the people who share those beliefs and practices. The long and short is that neither society nor culture can exist without the other. Furthermore, different cultures and societies can co-exist within the confines of the same geography, government, or nationality. The result is exemplified by the “mask-wearing” society versus the “not-wearing-masks” society — two groups of constituents that live within the greater cultural background of the United States.

Furthermore, the social elements of culture and society have evolved in contemporary societies to include references to the redistributive policies of the government which — through consensus of the community — applies policies and resources determined to be in the public interest. One of the best examples of this concept is the American Social Security program which provides protection against the loss of earnings due to retirement, death, or disability. Other examples would be requirements by state governments for a mandatory driver’s license by all people driving cars or other motor vehicles or, the Medicare-for-All policy — a hot debate across the country.

But social is not simply about policies and programs. Societies, in general, also hold certain expectations of behavior as social norms that we as individuals and organizations are expected to internalize. In essence, these elements represent the cultural component of the ideas, customs and social behavior we encourage as a society. Therefore, these cultural components include language, allowable interactions, religious practices, social habits, music preferences and the like. In other words, the norms we create function as the requirements for acceptable behavior for our mutual interactions with one another within our society. These expectations create the general societal climate where the intent of our social norms is to impact, affect or control those behaviors through acceptable conduct as members of the society. These norms then serve as the guidelines for defining our behavior, dress, language, interactions, and demeanor in any given situation.

The various societies that dominate our nation are derived from activities relating to our communal experiences, our community identify or collective experience or group affiliation. It represents the interaction of the individual with social institutions that we have created as part of our community such as schools, churches and clubs or groups within whom we are affiliated. And it’s not just professional or political interactions. It can also include other types of interactions we share as common experiences such as commuters on transportation systems. I can assure you that the travel experience of commuters on the DC Metro is quite different than the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) experience of New York City. And it affects our behavior and the commonly accepted attributes of commuters on those different lines. These differences evolve from the social or tribal behaviors promulgated over time by the norms of the participants in the society which drive our experiences within these groups.

Another example comes from the professional world. Physicians are a good example — a group of which I am a member. We interact with one another in certain ways. We hold expectations of one another and when physicians do not adhere to those principles the society reacts. It’s part of the reason that the medical community has reacted so strongly to the misinformation provided by the Centers for Disease Control as a result of the Medical Pandemic. The principle of adherence to the facts has not been maintained at the forefront of information dissemination. The application of similar principles can be applied to most professions like accountants and police as well as to other social groupings or associations such as the National Rifle Association versus Moms Demand Action. Similar organizational principles are pervasive across the organizations.

Unlike the Medical Pandemic which has been with us for just under a year, the Sociocultural Pandemic of racism has been percolating in the background of the American experience for centuries. Over the last half century the issue of racism has been evolving and morphing as a recognized societal sickness among the American people. Unlike the Medical Pandemic which may ultimately be managed with a vaccine; however, the Sociocultural Pandemic will most likely will only be resolved through the metaphor of herd immunity — when all of us get it!! And, by get it, I mean “understand” or, “believe” or, “embrace” or, similar words that describe our acceptance of new social norms best exemplified by racism — a societal norm that we not only “say” is unacceptable but where we also root out the subterranean behavioral tentacles that exist across society and must be resolved!

Since there is no vaccine for racism — how will our norms be changed permanently? First and foremost, the dynamics of a Sociocultural Pandemic require a different approach that includes the application of certain “social skills”. These skills must be adopted and used regularly by all members of the society to change the norm. The literature describes these six skills as: 1) engaging in effective communication, 2) engaging in conflict resolution, 3) actively listening and not just hearing one another, 4) exhibiting empathy, 5) supporting relationship management; and, 6) holding respect for one another. A cursory review of these six skills would suggest that as a society we are failing on all six fronts. Thus, the Sociocultural Pandemic of racism has been allowed to percolate rather than be resolved.

Furthermore, the Sociocultural Pandemic of racism has been thrust to the forefront of societal debates because of new technologies and information sharing that allow for immediate and direct scrutiny of racism by all of us — simultaneously. It is because of the simultaneity of our experiences and ensuing abhorrence at what we see that a new norm is being forged that is declaring racism an unacceptable behavior that cannot and will not be tolerated. Once the pandemic is recognized, the vectors of racism inherent to the Sociocultural Pandemic — like the insidious Covid-19 virus in the Medical Pandemic — need to be proactively managed by society in a unified, cohesive manner. In essence, that is how pandemics are controlled! And, in fact, that is the task before us as a society in The American Trifecta.

If that were not enough, there is a third pandemic lurking in the background to round out the trifecta that will likely take center stage in the not-too-distant future. While we are primarily focused as a society on the first two dominant pandemics of the day — the Medical and the Sociocultural Pandemics — the Environmental Pandemic has day-by-day extended its reach around the world. Unlike recent proclamations by some in leadership positions — I, for one, am absolutely clear: Science knows! Any observer of facts will readily accept the fact that climate change is precipitating an Environmental Pandemic. There are many scholarly reviews related to climate change that clearly defines the role of human activity — based on facts and data! Here are just a few nuggets for your consideration:

1. The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2)​​​​​​​ in our atmosphere, as of May 2020, is the highest it has been in human history or, 416 parts per million,

2. Since 1880 when weather records were started on a global basis, the five warmest years on record have all occurred since 2015.

3. 11% of all global greenhouse gas emissions are due to deforestation which is equivalent to the emissions from all the passenger vehicles on the planet,

4. The most effective and efficient method for storing carbon is to sustain the tropical forests,

5. The data shows very clearly that the USA — with 5% of the world’s population — is responsible for 25% of global emissions, more than any other country; and,

6. There are more facts out there — just look for them!

Rather than engaging in a prolonged diatribe, however, it seems more appropriate to point the reader toward additional facts that are recognized as major causes which are precipitating the Environmental Pandemic. We tend to think the Medical and Sociocultural Pandemics are upending our culture and economy. However, the strife we are experiencing from them pales in comparison to what will be occurring because of the Environmental Pandemic. It will readily overtake the other two in short order — making our current problems seem quaint by comparison. And, if the race were a bit longer — which it ultimately is — the Environmental Pandemic would ultimately reach the #1 spot of The American Trifecta.

While there are many issues on our national horizon, The American Trifecta must be positioned as our North Star! If, in fact, we maintain our focus on it, the nation will be able to make the required changes for resolving these three pandemics that are haunting our society. We have the means to accomplish this objective. We hold the pre-existing culture to hold the debates and move forward toward solving the problems these pandemics have presented. Now is the time…

I always thought that entering the senior years would be a period of greater tranquility and peace. But, now — more than ever — it is evident to me that all of us must stay engaged by maintaining our focus and energy on The American Trifecta. All of us must stand up and be counted by maintaining our vigilance. In addition to The American Trifecta, there are many, many other issues that require our focus and energy. Mark my word, there are other pandemics lurking on the horizon among those issues we face. Vigilance and persistence are the watchwords we need to consider in keeping the pandemics at bay.