• Daniel K. Berman, PhD

Work Opportunities in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic


You may have previously heard or read somewhere that the Chinese word for crisis is comprised of the characters for danger and opportunity. Though some have taken issue with this statement (as illustrated in this very erudite thread)—the same way that some have taken issue with the assertion that speakers of Eskimo languages and dialects have fifty different words for snow—this observation may in fact be said to have a basis in truth, which I say as a long-time student of Chinese. Either way, the truism (that—along with danger—there is opportunity in crisis) remains valid. And so it is with the current, COVID-19 crisis.

What I'm talking about here is completely legitimate use of "healthy" options in the face of dramatically changing circumstances, whereby "taking advantage of" and "exploiting" opportunities may be regarded positively.

There is of course an important distinction to be made between what may be considered the ethical and that which may be considered the distinctly unethical or even immoral. A prime example in the latter category is price gouging, as in those widely circulated and infuriating reports of people who bought out necessities like toilet paper and then put them up for sale online at exorbitant prices. That is not what I'm talking about here. What I'm talking about here is completely legitimate use of "healthy" options in the face of dramatically changing circumstances, whereby "taking advantage of" and "exploiting" opportunities may be regarded positively. Case in point: A client of mine, a psychologist, recently emailed me to announce that she had finally published her website. The lull in normal activity had opened up time to attend to this important achievement (working on her business, as opposed to simply working in it, as the expression goes). In the same email, she lamented that her work as a therapist would probably have to wait until things get back to "normal"—a timeline that at this point is anybody's guess, if things ever really return to the way they used to be, which is in itself a questionable assumption. She went on to explain that there were two reasons for being obliged to be locked into this holding pattern indefinitely. First, therapy is for the most part conducted in person, face to face, which is no longer safe or allowed during the time of the coronavirus. Second, because so many people are out of work, "no one has any money these days to pay for therapy, anyway." After congratulating Linda (not her real name) on the significant achievement of getting her website up and running, I offered an alternative take on her situation. "There is a greater need now than ever for mental health services, including therapy," I began, after which I sent her links to articles describing how some therapists had successfully converted their practices to a teletherapy mode (also known as online, remote or e-therapy)—and demand was such that they are busier now than they were before the pandemic. First, there are people who can still afford to pay for therapy. Second—even more significantly, perhaps—insurers are increasingly moving in the direction of covering teletherapy. In a subsequent consulting session with Linda, I showed her various ways in which she could attract new clients for teletherapy, all of which involve no out-of-pocket expense. To her great credit, she was open to these suggestions and is now moving forward professionally instead of standing still—very excited, by the way, at the prospect of staying on her feet financially while at the same time helping others in a very important way.

In terms of work opportunities, the ability to survive and thrive in the COVID-19 era by ethically enhancing our income, we can conceptualize several categories.

Is the case of psychotherapists an isolated situation? I hardly think so. In terms of work opportunities, the ability to survive and thrive in the COVID-19 era by ethically enhancing our income, we can conceptualize several categories. The first category is the one that Linda falls into, that of professionals who are not necessarily self-employed. A second category is that of opportunities for entrepreneurs to form entirely new ventures. A third category is that of existing businesses with opportunities to expand or branch out into new but related areas. Let's take a quick look at examples in all three categories. My wife remarked over lunch yesterday that a cousin of hers who had scheduled his wedding for later this year might have to call it off because the originally planned in-person gathering would no longer be feasible. Seconds after saying this, she caught and corrected herself: Maybe the wedding could still take place, on a "virtual" basis, the same way that religious services across the country and the world are now taking place virtually—using online technology to simulate traditional in-the-flesh gatherings. "Hey, there's an opportunity here for people to plan and execute online events that were previously always conducted in person" (here we might mention not only weddings and religious services but baby showers and funerals, to name only two more). This could be the basis of an entirely new business (category two above) or the morphing of an existing event operation (category three above). And if we get into serious brainstorming mode, there is a multitude of other ideas that present themselves. What about "virtual companions" for isolated individuals (shut-ins, to use a term that dates back decades) who for whatever reason don't have people they can call or Skype or Zoom with in the outside world? It might be that the simple act of walking in a shopping center where they could be around people previously fulfilled their need for socializing. Now that this is no longer an option, they need alternatives. Personal shopping services have existed for some time already, especially in more urban, high-tech hubs. Some companies, notably supermarkets, offer equivalent shop-and-deliver services for their own individual stores. But what about people who might need purchases done at a variety of different establishments, after which a consolidated delivery is made to their residences, using coronavirus-era best practices? How about janitorial companies that can now branch out into wipe-down and sanitizing services, to an extent that was previously not in demand? What about "best practices" online training programs for businesses of all kinds, which must adapt to current realities? And what about online tutoring services, for both children and adults? Online tutoring services have existed for some time already, to be sure, but there are new adaptations appropriate for the current crisis. Just this morning, in my email, I received an offer of business financial analysis, to figure out how to consolidate resources, saving money during a time when money for most people and businesses will be increasingly tight. Some people are already clearly thinking creatively in new, productive directions. It was recently reported on NPR (National Public Radio) that although RV (recreational vehicle) rentals for vacation use have plummeted, they are soaring in terms of use for self-isolation "shelter-in-place" scenarios. A reporter himself drove some distance in a rented RV to visit his elderly parents. He parked just outside their home, lining up his "kitchen window" with theirs, enabling them to see each other during meals, even if they could not be under the same roof. He mentioned that he locked the door at night, not out of concern for his safety but rather lest his parents try to sneak in while he was sleeping, for a hug!

A seismic change that forces us to rethink our life strategy might be just what it takes to achieve positive transformation.

In addition to the multitude of opportunities presented in this crisis—as in any other—for generation of income, there is also an opportunity of a more profound and existential nature: a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hit the reset button, to "remake" ourselves, in accordance with a truer vision of who we really want to be. How many people have gotten themselves into a kind of rut, in which they are functioning and paying their bills but not really enjoying life to its fullest by doing something they would really enjoy doing? A seismic change that forces us to rethink our life strategy might be just what it takes to achieve positive transformation. Of course we didn't want this pandemic to happen. But now that it has, why not rise above the situation and make the best of it, leveraging the crisis to actually improve our lives? Circling back to the opening paragraph above, as one well-informed commentator explained a few years ago, the Eskimos do not have just fifty different words for snow—they actually have more than a hundred! And regardless of how sinologists choose to argue the debate over how to interpret the Chinese compound word in question, there is indeed opportunity present in crisis, as the examples above demonstrate.

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