Corporate Contagion

I arrive at the office this morning to find my inbox bursting with dozens of panicked emails and multiple overlapping emergency meetings with mandatory attendance. Apparently, the unthinkable has happened – during a recent business trip to Shanghai, our CEO has contracted the coronavirus.

The general state of the office mirrors the panicked outlook of my inbox. Admins furiously coordinate meetings between the leadership, chewing on the ends of their pens while negotiating time slots over the phone like their bosses haggling over the terms of a buyout. Analysts are drowning in endless spreadsheets, desperately trying to calculate how the news might affect our bottom line while their managers shout aimlessly about maintaining shareholder confidence during these trying times. The accountants are already moving money around, red numbers flashing on their screens. An HR rep with a mask over her mouth is patrolling the aisles, warning people about confidentiality agreements.

I work in public relations. Per the slew of emails in my inbox, of which the unread messages are still accumulating at a rate of roughly three every five seconds, our mission is to contain the fallout and ensure that the story breaks on terms favorable to the bank. When I dial into my first meeting all I hear on the other end is shouting.

“This is a disaster!” cries a voice I cannot recognize amidst all the commotion. “Pete is the most popular CEO we’ve ever had. None one else polls even close to his favorability numbers with investors.”

“We’re doomed,” laments someone that sounds a lot like Nancy Clubber. We worked together on an ad campaign that sold increases in overdraft fees as a means to promote fiscal responsibility. “That damned coronavirus! The bank is going to be ruined.”

“Get a grip people!” wheezes a third voice, Tom Regent, I think. “He isn’t dead yet. We still have time to control the narrative before the media finds out. Jack, I see you just joined. Any ideas?”

I crack my knuckles, which feel stiffer than usual, over my keyboard. “Well, for starters, why don’t we start by announcing a reshuffling of the leadership? Maybe claim that we are looking for an infusion of young blood to help reinvent the bank? Investors love that sort of thing.”

“They also love Pete,” counters the first voice. “No matter how we spin it, they are not going to be thrilled if we replace him.”

“True,” says Tom Regent. “Not your best work, Jack. Nancy, what do you think? Nancy?”

There is a long pause, followed by some muffled coughing. “I’m here, sorry,” says Nancy. “Have we considered the possibility that he won’t die? Maybe we only need to approach this from the perspective that Pete will survive and just need to convince people that there’s no need to panic.”

“But everyone dies from the virus,” I point out.

Almost everyone,” she corrects. “My understanding is that Pete has been rushed to Johns Hopkins and is receiving the best treatment money can buy. If anyone can pull through, it’s Pete.”

“Also true,” says Tom Regent. “We need to consider all our options here. Jack, another idea?”

Before I can respond I am interrupted by a hand on my shoulder. I turn around to see my cube-neighbor Riley Frisk standing there. His eyes are bloodshot and his skin is ghostly pale. He is shivering like a lost Everest climber and I can see his heart pounding beneath his blue oxford.

“Help me,” he mouths.

I frown, point at my phone headset, and then turn back to my computer. “Sorry about that. Another idea, well we could just be upfront about the situation and say that Pete has contracted the coronavirus but that he is receiving world-class care and expected to recover. That will probably still hit our share price though, you know how panicky the investors are.”

“We could say he has exhibited some of the symptoms,” Nancy says weakly. “But that the tests are still inconclusive. That would certainly lessen the blow to our share price while buying us some time to develop a more complete response.”

My stomach suddenly feels very uneasy, and I barely have enough time to pull the trashcan close before a stream of greenish bile spews violently from my mouth. There are some specks of blood mixed in. The sound of persistent coughing starts to fill the office. The admin who sits in the cube across from mine is slumped over her desk, chest convulsing.

“That isn’t the worst idea,” I say, wiping vomit away from my mouth. “All that really matters is that we keep the shareholders as calm as possible.”

“And that Pete survives this ordeal,” says the first voice, which I still cannot recognize due to its increasing hoarseness. “He has done so much for the bank and it would just be such a tragedy.”

“Indeed,” says Tom Regent. “Let’s take a moment of silence for Pete. Without him this company would be nothing.”

I have to remove my headset so that my second bout of vomiting does not interrupt the moment of silence for Pete. The HR rep is handing out masks now but she clearly does not have enough for everyone. A crowd of restless analysts has gathered around her, jostling and shoving each other as they jockey for the next mask.

“And we’re back,” says Tom Regent as I pop my headset back on. “Nancy, can you elaborate on your previous statement? Are you saying we should try to pass Pete’s condition off as the regular flu?”

There is no response save for a faint groaning somewhere in the background. Around me, the coughing has grown considerably louder, and I am forced to cover my exposed ear just to be able to focus on the call. The analysts are brawling now, and one of them has ripped the HR rep’s mask off and fastened it to his own face with Scotch tape.

“Nancy? Are you there? Nancy?”

I push my chair back to stretch my aching legs, but the wheels bump into something on the floor. Riley Frisk has collapsed on the ground behind me and is not moving. I nudge him a few times with my chair, probing for signs of life, but there are none. Annoyed, I awkwardly stretch my legs horizontally beneath my desk instead.

“I guess she had to drop,” says Tom Regent. “Talk about terrible timing. Doesn’t she realize that we are the middle of a crisis?”

One of the project managers has corralled the mob of angry analysts and shepherded the survivors back to their spreadsheets. The admin sitting across from me has regained consciousness and is whispering into her headset mic.

“Tonya can do three o’clock this afternoon,” she says, her voice frail and barely audible. “With a hard stop at three-thirty. You all know she has her spin class at four.”

 I cough into my hands and there is a good amount of blood mixed in with the mucus. I feel lightheaded and weak. The pale office lightning is disorienting and I’m starting to sweat.

“Jack, can you go ahead and put a deck together will all our ideas?” asks Tom Regent. “Something I can present to the leadership?”

“Of course,” I mutter, swaying in my chair. “I’ll have it to you by end of day.”

Someone is retching on the other end. “Thanks… buddy,” gasps Tom Regent. “Maybe there’s hope for the bank yet.”

The line goes dead and I tilt my head backwards, trying to catch my breath. My lungs feel heavy and each breath is accompanied by an aquatic sensation, as if my body is drowning from the inside out. I open PowerPoint and create a slide titled “Front-Facing Strategies for Maintaining Investor Confidence during the Pete Crisis.” I find some Clip Art of a sickly looking man and add it to the slide.

By the time I start working on the third slide, I am struggling to keep my head up. The sound of coughing has started to die down. The admin has collapsed on the floor next to Riley Frisk, but she is still whispering into her headset, I think. Tom Regent sends me an email saying that CNBC is already reporting a rumor about Pete having contracted the virus and that we need to push the delivery of my deck up to compensate for this development.

There is also an email from the CFO acknowledging that Pete is sick, but assuring us all that the rest of the leadership has been safely quarantined and is not at risk of infection. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Pete at this time,” it reads. “His contributions to the bank are incalculable, and without his leadership our share price would surely be lower.”

I can hardly keep my eyes open by the sixth slide. My hands brush haplessly against the keyboard, and I’ve thrown up all over myself. When I hit the floor, it takes several moments for my weakened senses to register the impact. The lights in the office are flickering, or maybe my eyelids are fluttering, I can’t be sure. I am vaguely aware of some movement nearby, and when I finally manage to turn my head in the proper direction the admin is dragging herself over to me, a delirious smile stretched across her face.

“Have you… heard the wonderful news?” she gasps.

I close my eyes and attempt to shake my head.

“Pete… Pete is going to make a full… recovery. He is going to… make it.” She rolls over, silent.

I smile, or at least I think I’m smiling. My heart fills with joy that rises and mixes with the sticky fluid overflowing in my lungs. The lights are getting brighter.

“Pete… is going to make it.” The words breathlessly escape my mouth, lingering peacefully in the air. “The bank is… saved.” Then I roll over too.