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12Oct

Lessons from the 1918 Pandemic - and What Comes Next

Credit unions - and innovation - don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s plenty to be learned from experiences beyond financial services, as well as the broader context in which we all operate. That’s one of the principles behind BIG’s weekly Digital Town Hall Meetings, at which credit union leaders share best practices and recent developments. There are inevitably valuable takeaways from distant colleagues confronting similar issues and sparks of inspiration prompted by observations on related- as well as unrelated- matters.

Brian Roemmele, last week’s Town Hall guest, set that inspiration into overdrive. Brian is the epitome of a thought leader- an industry veteran with a solid payments background and an intellectual curiosity that regularly takes him down other alleys, drawing fascinating connections in the process. Through his work on supply chains, Brian noted concerning trends in Wuhan as far back as November, alerted his clients and began investigating potential impacts.

Brian’s curiosity led him into the world of microfiche to research the 1918 flu pandemic. As he points out, the internet is a wonderful tool for contemporaneous knowledge but 80% of older history remains offline. His diligence led to findings on the well-intentioned but essentially ineffective use of gauze masks, the staunch opposition by pockets of organized groups to mask mandates, the closing of schools and the cancellation of the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs. Another bit of sobering news as we brace for a “second wave”- the 1918 pandemic had four waves, stretching across two full years.

Notwithstanding this dire backdrop, Roemmele’s overall message is encouraging. “Pandemics end- they always do,” he says before drawing connections to the era that immediately followed the last pandemic. Teenagers in 1918-19 reached their prime in what came to be known as the Roaring Twenties, a period of great economic expansion and societal and technological reinvention.     

The parallels are not perfect, of course, but Roemmele’s observations give ample reason for hope. Extending the conversation further into innovation, he implores leaders to stop looking to the “guys with hoodies.” “The next big thing always comes from where you don’t expect it,” he claims.

Roemmele is a fascinating guy (he also co-hosts his own weekly podcast, Around the Coin) and his extended discussion at BIG’s October 7 Digital Town Hall is well worth your time. And don’t worry- you can justify it during business hours, as there are more than enough thought starters to apply to long-term planning for your institution as well as your broader community.

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