Today’s World Through the Lens of 2020

| Robert Cardillo
Robert Cardillo
Former Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Robert Cardillo served as the sixth Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Prior to that assignment, Mr. Cardillo served as the first Deputy Director for Intelligence Integration, ODNI, from 2010 to 2014 and as the Deputy Director of DIA. In the summer of 2009, Mr. Cardillo served as the Acting J2, a first for a civilian, in support of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

From the global health emergency to the dramatic economic impact to the raw exposure of societal inequity, 2020 was the year that brought great tragedy — and seemingly would never end.  Thus, it is natural to try and forget 2020 — put it out of our minds and look forward.  To me, that would be a tragic mistake.  In some ways, we need 2020 to project into the future.  While it will take many years to fully realize the impact of the global pandemic, it seems clear enough to document the most important lessons learned so that they can be applied most effectively.

Here is my list of the most necessary and essential lessons:

  1. COVID-19 has demonstrated the core connectivity of our species.  This statement gets quickly dragged through a political lens — that is not my point.  Rather, humanity was coincidentally exposed to a singular threat and the reality of our threaded biological interdependence was made clear.  The best example of our collective response was China’s sequencing and sharing of COVID-19’s genetic sequence in January leading to the fastest development of a vaccine in history.
  2. That cellular connectivity bridged over to a physical one as the global supply chain was simultaneously disrupted.  Markets world-wide began to slide — and in some cases precipitously.  While it will take time to determine which government interventions were most effective, all acted.  It is clear already, however, that those who acted expeditiously and forcefully fared better overall.  The take-away should be that governments not only matter – they’re essential.
  3. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two primal motivations for governments: — one is trust and the other fear.  For the latter, authoritarian governments commandeer their authority with the hammer.  Participatory democracies are granted their authority from those they govern.  Thus, the lifeblood of a democracy is the faith — or lack thereof — that the governed have in their government.  Such faith is a fragile thing — it requires nurturing and upkeep.  Our lesson applied from 2020 is to not assume that faith will carry forward on its own.
  4. If faith is the lifeblood, the central nervous system of a healthy democracy must be trust. Our hyperconnected world has supercharged the ongoing challenge to maintain the trust necessary to create confidence.  Ironically, the same technology that welcomed so many more voices into the public square also enables citizens to self-isolate within compartmented cells that protect biases or repel other points of view.  Unsurprisingly, we find ourselves more and more polarized. Today, fewer than one out of five Americans say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right.  Among African Americans, that figure is closer to one out of ten.  Building a pathway from shared views to shared perspectives will allow an approach to civil discourse which should increase the governed’s trust in their governments.
  5. Perhaps most dramatically, the pandemic exposed and — in some cases — deepened schisms between the haves and the have-nots — from access to health care, education, and employment. Here are just a few of the realities:
  • Unequal access to health care resulted in a 40-year-old Hispanic-American being 12 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than a White American of the same age.
  • Educational disparities also became accentuated during the shutdown.  A recent analysis of standardized tests carried out by the consulting firm McKinsey, found that pupils examined in the autumn had learned 33% less math and 13% less reading than expected.  For schools that are majority non-White, the learning losses were much steeper: pupils there had learned 41% less math and 23% less reading.
  • Pre-existing financial disparities were amplified.  Studies suggest that approximately 60% of jobs in America paying over $100,000 can be done from home, while only about 10% of jobs paying under $40,000 can be done from home     

Societies have always struggled with how best to level set opportunities.  And there is no perfect option.  However, it is time for a more serious discussion about the leading indicators of success — access to quality healthcare and education.  Such an investment will redound to the benefit of all.

The killing of George Floyd in May ignited international protests against abuses by those empowered to protect.  We cannot allow the subsiding of those physical demonstrations to allow our leaders to conclude that the core issues have been addressed — much less mitigated.  They have not.  Thus, this is the wrong time morally for our elected leaders to fan the fear of deficits when we have so many past-due investments to make.  As we collectively rebuild on the backside of the pandemic, let’s not miss the opportunity to redress some of the fundamental disconnects between the ideals of our Constitution and the realities of our society. 

If we learn and apply the appropriate lessons from the catastrophes that defined 2020, we can create good from bad and hope from despair.  Such goodness should include a new social compact fit for the 21st century.  Despite the reality of 2020 and the gray clouds that persist as we turn the page to 2021, I am optimistic that if we allow our better angels to soar, we will have properly learned and applied the lessons of the longest year in a way that furthers our dearest hopes — a world that includes, lifts up, and celebrates our humanity.  Onward — there are great days ahead!

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The Author is Robert Cardillo

Robert Cardillo served as the sixth Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Prior to that assignment, Mr. Cardillo served as the first Deputy Director for Intelligence Integration, ODNI, from 2010 to 2014 and as the Deputy Director of DIA. In the summer of 2009, Mr. Cardillo served as the Acting J2, a first for a civilian, in support of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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