Who are the first responders in an economic crisis?

by Poon King Wang
13 Jun 2020


All we need is for a few to choose fight over flight.

In April 2013, two homemade bombs exploded at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon. As chaos erupted, everyone fled from the blast.

Well, almost everyone.

One group of people sprinted towards the blast instead. They were the first responders.

They ran immediately to help the fallen. A photo of three policemen watching over an older runner on the ground captured this poignantly — they were in danger but chose to protect others from that danger.

We see this in dangerous incident after dangerous incident. First responders run towards danger and not away from it. This ethos is a big reason why survival rates of sudden crises and catastrophes around the world are higher than they would otherwise be. Our societies are more resilient when a small group chooses to help and protect as its first response to danger.

We will need such an ethos in the coming months. In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic shut down one country after another. The public health crisis exploded into a full-blown economic one.

Our healthcare workers and those in essential roles are already our first responders to the public health crisis. Their courage and conscientiousness is matched by the commitment of global

governments to battle the coronavirus. It will be a hard fight, but they will win. This too shall pass.

The economic crisis, however, may not. Past pandemics and crises in the last two decades — such as the 1997 Asian financial crisis, SARS, and global financial crisis of 2007–08 — have shown that the job losses and disruptions to people’s lives can be structural and permanent. And that is before we have even considered how deeply many economies plunged. We can fight hard, but we might not win.

If we want a high economic survival rate for more people in this crisis, we will need the economic equivalent of first responders.

Some governments around the world have thus responded with economic stimulus packages that aim to stem massive job losses. These include policy tools such as Germany’s Kurzarbeit, which has been admired and adapted by many countries. With Kurzarbeit, instead of retrenching their employees, companies can cut the hours worked instead — even down to zero — with the government subsidizing a substantial portion of the lost income.

By saving jobs and income, the economic survival rate is raised. This serves an additional purpose: When the economy recovers, the employees are immediately available and ready to put their shoulder to the wheel. This can accelerate the recovery of livelihoods across the economy. More people can thus survive; some might even thrive.

Such policy tools are first responders at the scale of countries, cities and governments. At the scale of companies and individuals, those of us who are able to can choose to be economic first responders too.

There are many ways to do this. A good way is to borrow a pragmatic strategy that integrates research and empirical evidence from the fields of organizational studies, labor economics, occupational psychology, and technology, and across the public and private sectors. That strategy is to take the jobs crisis to task — figuratively, literally and practically.

We need to take it to task, figuratively, because people who lose jobs often end up losing a lot more: their pride, worth and dignity. As first responders, we must temper and tackle these risks.

We need to take the jobs crisis to task, literally, because tackling the risks at the level of tasks is the most effective way to temper them. For jobs that have been lost, we can look at other jobs that are still available and share similar tasks. These similar tasks become the pathways along which we can help people move more readily from a lost job to a new one. For jobs that have not disappeared, they are likely to have to be reconfigured and reduced in scale and scope. We can assess which employees will have the most tasks reduced and reconfigured in the days ahead, and prioritize supporting them.

Using tasks this way also makes the strategy practical. We are often told to use the crisis to focus on skills upgrading and training. This is important, but the struggle many of us have is we are unsure what skills we should invest in. Tasks help to make that clear and concrete.

For example, for those who have lost their jobs, we can design their training and transition such that they can use their existing skills in the shared similar — and hence familiar — tasks to learn the skills for the new tasks that they have to pick up. This familiarity will ease their transition. Building on the similar and familiar also minimizes further shock from the crisis.

Another example: Forced to work or learn remotely, many of us now realize which tasks we do well online and which tasks we do not. When the crisis is over and we return to offices and classrooms, we will likely be doing more working and learning online than before the crisis. The tasks we do and do not do well online make it clear and concrete what skills we now need to pick up to prepare for that future.

In various talks and articles, Professor Simon Wessely, a distinguished psychiatrist and former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has shared that in sudden “dramatic and dangerous incidents,” before trained responders arrive, the first responders are in fact bystanders who are usually untrained.

The ethos of first responders teaches us that it takes only a few to first choose fight over flight to make a difference. That these first responders can be anyone — trained professionals or untrained bystanders — shows us how profound this lesson is.

It does not take a lot or many, but it can mean a lot to many.