Three Things I Learned During the Epidemic of 1974 That Apply to BAM in the Pandemic of 2020

In the early 1970’s I was living, along with my family, in the Brazilian Amazon port city of Belem where I was the administrator of a school for children of expatriates. The Amazon Valley Academy is a K-12 school following an American curriculum but also in the 1970s and 80s taught a German program for grades 1-10 and tutored British O-level classes.

In the spring of 1974, we noted children getting ill in unusually high numbers and eventually it was determined that Hepatitis A had struck the community. We were forced to close the school and it did not re-open for five weeks.

Hepatitis A is a communicable disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). It is usually transmitted person-to-person through the fecal-oral route or consumption of contaminated food or water. Most adults with hepatitis A have symptoms, including fatigue, low appetite, stomach pain, nausea, and jaundice.

But in those days, the doctors did not know any of that. In fact, they theorized that the condition might be caused by a mosquito. And so, the government epidemiologists set up tests in the community and on campus to capture and test mosquitos; meanwhile the children from our three boarding homes and others from the community were required to stay home and rest since there was no known cure and no vaccination.

After five weeks had passed most students seemed to be returning to normal health so we decided to re-open the school and most of the children returned. But then another emergency – most of the teachers got sick – yes – Hepatitis A. What should we do now?

There were a few teachers and myself (I was the high school principal at the time) who had escaped infection. As we sat around one evening thinking and praying through some options, one of the math teachers came up with an idea. “Let’s take high school seniors and juniors and use their strengths to teach the middle school students” he said. We settled on Charles to lead the science teaching team, John to lead the history team, Bruce to lead the math team and Anita to lead the English language team.

Three teachers who were not ill, Albert, an American from Michigan, Geoff from London, England and I, a Canadian from Alberta, would meet with the student teachers first thing in the morning for an hour and prepare them with the tools they needed and process their questions. We covered topics like discipline and the content for the lesson plans, but we pretty much left it up to the student teachers to create their own methodologies. Then beginning the second hour of the day, we prayed for them and sent them off to the middle school building for this grand experiment. At first Al, Geoff and I would circulate and make ourselves available to problem-solve and help where needed. Basically, the student-teachers were on their own until noon.

This went on for several weeks until things finally normalized. So, what did we learn from this experience?

  1. Sometimes solutions to problems come from within

The math teachers were used to solving problems and I loved the challenge of a staff issue but none of us had imagined or seen this before. We were stumped.

We knew that we had great students; all of whom were above average, something typical of kids of expatriate parents working overseas. We knew they were all college bound and we knew their academic strengths. We knew we didn’t have the regular teachers back; we didn’t have the internet; we didn’t have a lot of money; and we lacked connections in the Brazilian community at that time. We also knew it took months to ship supplies from the United States and Europe.

We didn’t think about it in the height of the storm, but we had the advantage of having students with well-honed values of integrity, perseverance, determination, hard work and creativity. The educational system gave considerable liberty for personal growth in the area of sports, music, academics and extra-curricular activities. It was a resource ready for exploitation. So, the solution came with the resources at hand – older students with skills and passion with interest and ability to accept a challenge. And fortunately, they rose to the occasion. It was a 20th century application of the question God asked Moses in Exodus 4:2, “what is that in your hand?”

What of the crisis of 2020? Are there resources within that can be brought to bear on problems with the supply chain, prohibitions about groups coming to work, or compliance issues?

Several BAM companies with manufacturing expertise, have pivoted toward making products from home which are in high in demand such as masks and other PPE material. Some BAM consultants have pivoted toward helping businesses analyze ways they can downsize while staying in business. A coffee shop I know is closed to customers entering the building, but they have kept employees on the job by providing curb-side service. And numerous BAM companies have unleashed tech-savvy employees into developing their on-line presence to their advantage.

Joao Mordomo tells stories in a recent BAM blog about businesses which solved problems with creative solutions from within the company. For example, Goodies Bakery in Brazil:

“… In order to avoid a huge number of layoffs, they immediately did several things. First, they emphasized their pickup and delivery business. Second, they focused on things that people would most likely want/need during an economic downturn, e.g. savory dinner items. Third, they played to their strengths. For example, here in Brazil during Easter, it is common for supermarkets to sell huge chocolate Easter eggs. However, many people considered them to be superfluous, and sales dropped so much that most supermarkets returned all their eggs to the manufacturers well before Easter even arrived. The “Goodies girls” (as we affectionately call them) spotted an opportunity to keep their staff busy — and, in fact, to call up some temporary staff — by filling a void. Their artisanal chocolate Easter eggs are, happily, labor intensive, and the girls took a risk by marketing the eggs in the commercial vacuum, and the result was that rather than an expected 50% drop in sales, they had a 50% increase in sales. They took a risk, maintained some jobs, re-created additional jobs, and filled a commercial void, adding a touch of joy and sweetness to many lives, in the name of Christ, as a result.

  1. Working as a team to be creative, solve problems and create opportunities is mandatory

In the 1974 epidemic, we did not have much access to resources. The Amazon jungle was pretty remote in those days. We realized we had to work together as a community – administrators, teachers, parents and even students.

Sternburg and Lubart in their book, Defying the Crowdspecify that “…a product is creative when it is (a) novel and (b) appropriate. A novel product is original not predictable. The bigger the concept, and the more the product stimulates further work and ideas, the more the product is creative.”

None of us at the Amazon Valley Academy could have solved the problem alone; none of us could have accomplished the task alone; it took the entire community. It took an idea and an implementation strategy plus the cooperation of the students and their parents. At first the parents wondered what was going on and feared the academic progress of their kids was being hindered. Some even thought we had lost our minds and wanted their tuition back. But soon they recognized the value of the plan both for their upper classmen students and for the middle schoolers; and they began to encourage and help.

During this current pandemic crisis, don’t try to solve it all yourself. You may have employees whose creativity and innovative spirit has not previously been applied to company issues. Think Google whose “20% policy” is well known to be a key reason for the release of creative juices. Even in good times they allow for 20% of employees time to be used on their own creative projects. Your best ideas for new distribution channels, new products, or new ideas may come from paying your underused employees to be creative.

A very provocative Praxis Labs article by Crouch, Keilhacker, and Blanchard urges “…every leader to realize that their organization’s survival in weeks and months, let alone years, depends far more on radical innovation than on tactical cutbacks.” They continue to suggest that “…the people who will help you chart the course toward fulfilling your mission in the coming years are the people who you have the deepest trust with today — those currently on mission with you. And so, all the efforts of leadership right now come down to maintaining and mobilizing trust.”

Sam Cho puts it this way in another recent post on this blog:

Going through huge challenges together can create a special bond among team members if you can survive. Communicate the business reality with your employees, discuss common goals and solutions, share the burden of reduced income, and even try to pray together for life and business. If you survive, the bond and trust with your employees will be a core competency for long-term success.  Many new ways of management are being experimented with during this lockdown period such as online home-based work and virtual teamwork, new database or task management systems, shared cloud drives, Zoom meetings, and so on. These are all good things to examine anyway. You can take advantage of this period to find a way to improve productivity and to cut down overheads by embracing these new venues.”

  1. A crisis can bring about lasting change for the better

The overall experiment in 1974 was a success. Eleventh grader, John was not really a scholar in high school but he was a practical guy and taught world history during the epidemic with real-life scale models of medieval castles and battles complete with ships and sailors; Junior Charles took the kids outside to study biology with real plants and even a few animals; Bruce used trigonometry to determine the height of the 80 foot high picia tree on campus; Anita started a fictional company complete with managers, lawyers which defended business decisions, production personnel and of course accountants. When we did standardized testing late in the semester the results showed normal anticipated gains for that semester.

Most of the student teachers got a glimpse of what their careers could be like. A year or two later they all went on to start college and then on to graduate degrees. Charles, the science guy, graduated with a degree in oceanography from a Dutch university and today is a full captain on a Shell Oil ocean-going super-tanker; John, the history buff, studied in a US university and today is a professor of history in a Brazilian seminary; Anita earned her MBA at Temple University, worked for me for a while as an accountant and today is the CEO of an accounting contract company in Colorado; Bruce studied in the USA, worked abroad for a number of years and today is a VP of a bank in South Carolina. He gained some notoriety for breaking up a profiteering scam in the bank when he was the IT director.

Our school was never the same. We learned that people who may not have the technical qualifications have skills that can be used for good. Learning from the hepatitis epidemic experience, we began to use local talent in the school even though they didn’t have teaching certificates. Lois was only a high school graduate, but she had a gift and we gave her an opportunity to be an assistant in the elementary school. Dave V. was passionate about US history and became a great teacher for us; David B. was a local missionary, but he led the school band for years because of his musical aptitude combined with a love for kids.

In 1974 the cause of Hepatitis A was unknown to the medical community in the lower Amazon of Brazil. Epidemiologists thought maybe mosquitos were responsible for the spread of the disease. Today we have a better understanding of Hepatitis A; and a vaccine is available to protect us. Similarly, with the COVID-19 virus of 2020, we are gaining an understanding of it so that will become scientific knowledge for future generations.

Most people today believe there will be significant and lasting change as a result of COVID-19. Some of us responsible for kingdom businesses might be tempted to “give up and go home”. But God may be asking us to seek new opportunities, to improve processes, to bless more and different people, to encourage and develop employees, vendors, clients, customers. Probably most BAM businesses will use the internet more effectively in the future. The opportunities are without limit. Who would have thought that I would be having two or more lengthy “zoom” calls a day and they might be more effective than the on-site conferences where I had planned to participate?

This is a time to pray more, trust more, risk more, believe more – for others and for the greater glory of God.

Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures

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