10 Questions with Juliette Kayyem on Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic

May 12, 2020
National security expert Juliette Kayyem recently shared her key insights on several top-of-mind questions during this time of crisis.

Brown Brothers Harriman recently hosted a webinar with Juliette Kayyem, national security analyst for CNN, author and former assistant secretary for Homeland Security, on navigating the COVID-19 pandemic today and into the future. Here, we provide Kayyem’s insights on several top-of-mind questions. 

1. How much longer can this go on? Take us through the timeline for the months – and potentially years – ahead.

Let me start at the end. Most people believe that the only tool to kill the virus is going to be a vaccine, so there is an international focus on this. We are hearing good news from companies working on vaccines, but once we get an approved vaccine, companies need to go into production, and prioritization needs to happen. Given the world’s focus on this, I estimate that we will hit this point in two years.

That does not mean that we are going to be living like we are today for two years. The period between the reopening and the vaccine is what I call the “adaptive recovery stage.” With most disasters, you have the event, it ends, you respond, and then you begin recovery. The recovery could be a day or a week later, but at some stage, the apparatus understands that it is now building back up. What we’re about to enter for the next two years, at a minimum, is adaptive recovery because we will have to live with the enemy among us. The good news is that we are going to have more tools than when this started a few months ago. We will have better treatments, more testing and learn new skills on how to best social distance as states begin reopen. 

2. Speaking of opening up, how are schools and daycare facilities going to make decisions about reopening?

There’s no discussion about opening up the economy if half of the population cannot leave their home because they are taking care of their children.

Daycare is really interesting. As most people know, we’re not seeing many cases among kids, so you’re more concerned about protecting the adults. There may be protocols in place that involve limiting adults in the building.

Looking at schools, I think that K-12 public schools will go back in the fall with interesting scheduling and masks. On the boarding school front, if they can get private testing, they will likely be able to go back and with the ability to control the population. College is going to be the most difficult one because you cannot control the population. On the other hand, these colleges need tuition, so I think you are going to see a push to get students back on campus in a modified fashion. Class sizes will be smaller, and faculty may decide to teach virtually. Testing is going to be critical. 

3. What does going back into the office look like?

This pandemic has changed how we think about the office. The top way to avoid the virus until we have a vaccine is to avoid the problem, and the problem is exposing your employees to the outside world. If your employees are being productive at home, why force them to take public transportation and come into the office? In cases where employees are going into the office, companies are adapting and having certain groups of people come in on certain days. There is also going to be a healthy building movement – how you keep your building healthy through design and cleaning. The last and most important thing is personal protective equipment (PPE). Employees will be coming to the office in PPE unless we have a strong testing capability. 

In this interim period, I advise CEOs to think about a few ways that they can reduce the risk and up the defenses for employees, but the top thing to think about is whether you actually need employees back in the office. I think a lot of employers who were not sold on virtual work are getting more sold. However, one of the challenges here will be onboarding. How do you create corporate culture with new employees when there’s no physical office?

4. For companies that do bring people back into the office to help boost culture, what protocols do they need to keep in mind?

Density controls are going to be the key here, and you will likely be bringing back one-third of your workforce at a time. I have to go back to the root of that question and say that culture is also changing. Our interaction with people will be different. How you continue culture building if you are not physically present is how you think about it. Think about what the critical cultural attributes are and how you can build what you had in different ways now. 

If you do bring in people, do not bring in everyone together. I’m a big fan of breaking people up into groups, so that when they do come, they’re limited in their interactions. As an employer, be patient, because there are going to be controls in place depending on your building – from elevators to PPE. 

I would make these assessments in three months, not in years. What does your summer look like? If it looks like people will still be working remotely, then figure out ways you can build culture through this period. If some people have to come in, what is their spacing, what does the office look like and what PPE will be required? Then, you need to revisit the conversation in August, when the picture may be totally different. 

5. Is there hope in the near future that we might have broad access to testing?

We are the only country that is doing three things simultaneously. First, we are opening up without a strong nationwide testing program. Second, we are opening up without most of the country having flattened the curve. Third, we are doing so in an ununified fashion, where states are doing different things. It’s an experiment, and I do think that’s why the model is showing higher death rates. I do not expect to see a reliable testing capability until the end of summer. It’s taking too long, and our supply chain just did not function as it should, which has caused the problem. 

6. Is it OK to go for a walk or run if observing social distancing? If so, should we wear masks?

I will not leave my house without a mask. Whether I’m wearing it depends on the situation. If I’m running or walking along the Charles River in Boston, where I’m sure to pass people, I wear it the entire time. if I’m walking around in a less populated area, I may wear it around my neck and only put it on my face when I see someone approaching. We are going to view masks like socks – they will just seem normal. I encourage everyone to play around with different masks for different parts of your life – from running to work – to figure out what you need and want.

7. Can you describe how you would go into a restaurant once things start reopening?

When restaurants reopen, capacity is going to be about one-third of what it is now. Your waiter will be in a mask, but I’m not sure what they are going to require of visitors. It is very likely that restaurants that can afford it will have temperature checks before visitors enter. Menus and napkins will be paper, and the waiters may be socially distant from the visitors. You won’t be near anyone – you will be escorted to your table in a way that prevents you from encountering anyone. 

This is one of those areas where this adaptive recovery really comes into play – we are not going back to normal right now. It’s not even a new normal – I call what we are entering the “now normal” because every day will be slightly different. 

8. For those of us interested in meeting with clients or contacts again, will it be possible in this age of social distancing?

It will be possible with a few steps. Try to keep it one on one, sit outside and wear masks. If you are in someone’s home, you both may have immunity and may check your temperatures. One-on-one interactions worry me less than gatherings with more people, where you don’t have a sense of people’s backgrounds. There is a certain amount of herd immunity, where people have been exposed to it and built immunity, and those who have had it may be able to meet. 

9. What do you think is going to happen with travel?

Remember that this is a short period of time – it won’t be forever, but it also won’t be tomorrow. The airlines are all requiring masks now. We will not have middle seats anymore, so airline travel will be more expensive. Prices are currently low because no one is traveling, but that will change. We will likely have immunity passports for some of these critical transportation stages, which will say that you have been exposed and are no longer exposed. There will be protected classes and unprotected classes. If you are a vulnerable population, they may require more of you in terms of expenses because it is a higher liability. You need to think about how much travel you actually need to do vs. how much you can build that interaction in other ways. Make your own risk assessments. 

10. How can people who are interested in taking action help?

As faculty chair of the Security and Global Health (SAGH) Project at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School, our team has been at the forefront of this challenge, advising governors, mayors and business leaders alike to think ahead about how best to approach our “now normal” in a safe, sustainable way. Through engagement with stakeholders on a variety of issues – resilience and ESG sustainability, communication and playbooks, worker safety and business continuity, new technology and new norms (such as masks) and case studies of best practices – SAGH will continue to provide strategies for society as we learn to adapt, every day, to the age of COVID-19. We welcome your input and support. For more information, visit https://www.belfercenter.org/project/security-and-global-health or email me at juliette_kayyem@hks.harvard.edu.

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