Meet Apathy, the most charming head of the three-headed hydra.

The three-headed hydra’s calming head of apathy suggests you not worry about a thing. History suggests you do.

Everything we’ve done has led us to this status quo of colliding crises. Allow me to explain.

It’s time to explore the root causes of why our nation has done so very little to prepare us for a pandemic that requires we stay at home, until we require hospitalization, and an economic disruption that may mean the end of many of our jobs and challenge our capacity to thrive. If that sentence sounds dire, it’s meant to be a wakeup call for everyone you email, text and may ever vote for.

For those of us with decades of work in both in the field and in central offices within state government, we theorize that there are a wide variety of reasons for each of our fifty states not addressing long-standing public health and economic disparity challenges that make this pandemic tough to face:

Hunches, not data: A lot of work to strengthen systems of emergency readiness, crisis response, public health and education in the public sector is not data-driven. You would be shocked to learn how many projects are funded based on the hunches of the three-headed hydra of apathy, envy and fear. There are noble exceptions and I hope you live in a state and city guided by a data-driven process to attain measurable and meaningful results as the pandemic and economic disruption unfold.

Lack of alignment: Government agencies and nonprofits serving the same population might not coordinate their efforts but, instead, work isolated in their own separate silos. Ask your city councilors how much work is being done in alignment with your county commissioners related to ensuring ten vital services for surviving. Yes, there are models of exceptional collaboration to learn from but they are not the norm. At least not yet.

No root cause analysis: Most work in the public sector, even that which has private sector support, is not focused on the root causes of problems. We look at symptoms of problems like why first responders don’t have enough protective gear. We need to ask, “Who in the county has the job of ensuring a stockpile of vital medical supplies?” We see hungry kids. We fail to ask, “Why does hunger exist in my town?”

We tinker: Public sector organizations, think tanks and foundations might only have the capacity to tinker around the edges of a challenge like COVID-19. We can easily go back a few decades to identify that many families in most of our 3000+ counties may lack access to timely health care. Given the millions upon millions of dollars floating around philanthropy focused on family health, why do predictable and preventable health disparities exist in 2020?

Unsustainable solutions: Few projects supported by the federal government or foundations have a realistic sustainability plan. Once funding ends, so do the innovations. With COVID-19 and an economic free fall, watch closely how long projects designed to help the vulnerable (that would be all of us) exist.

Isolated academics: Some academics become isolated from the communities in which they are based. We don’t lack for brilliant minds, with a deep understanding of the social determinants of health, in our universities calling for social justice and research-based solutions. We do lack the voices of reason being loud enough to counter the commanding voices of the three-headed hydras in positions of power. For now.

Few developed systems: Parts of the US are, in many respects, more like a developing country than a developed one. It only takes one public health crisis to show everyone how lacking we are in medical care facilities, staffing supplies and food banks. We all should be painfully aware that neighboring communities lack access to timely health care. We know that some of our families live without electricity and water in one-of-the-wealthiest-nations-on-earth.

Social norms: We have a social norm in many communities that says people don’t inherently deserve help — especially people different from ourselves. Attend a government committee meeting or a public forum and you will hear, “People should fix themselves without help. I did.” In a global pandemic, that attitude might not work out so well for all of us.

Not connecting dots: Coalitions focused on a particular health issue may fail to have measurable and meaningful goals guiding the work. To some coalitions, just meeting to discuss the problem is enough; passing policies to ensure survival services is not part of the program. Groups, filled with good-hearted people, may be too focused on one specific program or issue, and aren’t looking at the interconnectedness of a variety of challenges that clearly intersect. We have to connect the dots today. A pandemic leads to economic disruption leads to jobs lost leads to an urgent need to ensure the ten vital services for surviving and thriving.

Questioning the hydra: No one wants to risk being marginalized for speaking very inconvenient truths about disparities and crisis-readiness programs that fail to achieve results. The three-headed hydra leads a lot of meetings and discussions. Will you be brave enough to question a powerful hydra guided by apathy, envy and fear?

Now the good news

While we can use blogs like Medium to debate the root causes of the health disparities and social adversity we find ourselves facing, we know such analysis can only take us so far in creating a master plan. We need to focus on the end game: creating a countywide system (in your county), guided by champions (you), where every resident (your family, friends and those kids on the other side of town) can access ten vital services easily in what we call “normal times” and those periods today that are chaotic.

The three-headed hydra’s calming head of apathy suggests you not worry about a thing. History suggests you do.

The future is what we make it. Join the evolution.

A NY Times bestselling author, social justice activist, Oprah guest, co-author of Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras, 100% Community and Anna, Age Eight.

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