Disasters are problems of knowledge. Signals of impending danger are missed, misinterpreted, or ignored. Actions lead to unintended and unforeseen consequences. Technical systems misfire in ways that are difficult to perceive or understand. Periods of disaster themselves are moments of vu-jàdé, in which everything is unfamiliar and nothing works. John Berger put it better, in describing Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights:
“There is no horizon there. There is no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past, and no future. There is only the clamour of the disparate, fragmentary present. Everywhere there are surprises and sensations, yet nowhere is there any outcome. Nothing flows through: everything interrupts. There is a kind of spatial delirium.”
After the moment of disaster subsides, we make memories and build memorials. Often there is an accounting of how our foresight failed us, and why. That’s what this issue is about: sorting through first drafts of the account of how the U.S. failed to contain the novel coronavirus, and why we absolutely need a formal commission to make sense of these failures after the pandemic subsides.
In this issue:
“The system was blinking red”: The need for a Covid Commission.
// Link Roundup
The confusion around mask wearing has infuriated people, understandably. After recommending against it, the CDC now does recommend that people wear cloth face coverings in public where social distancing is difficult to maintain. Their official guidance page includes this surprisingly helpful video from Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams on how to improvise your own mask:
A new study in Nature Medicine on the effectiveness of face-covering suggests one source of the uneven early messaging from public health officials: “There is little [scientific] information on the efficacy of face masks in filtering respiratory viruses and reducing viral release from an individual with respiratory infections, and most research has focused on influenza.” To clear up the confusion this study finds that, yes, ordinary surgical masks are effective in keeping people from transmitting viral particles into the environment through their breath and coughing. The study included people suffering infections from other members of the coronavirus family, but the findings are generalizable to SARS-CoV-2. (Bonus trivia: the breath-sampling device the researchers used is called “Gesundheit-II,” which approaches legendary dad-joke territory.)
— Leung et al. “Respiratory virus shedding in exhaled breath and efficacy of face masks.” Nature Medicine, 3 April, 2020.
An antibody test may soon be available, which will be a crucial step in detecting who has been infected with Covid-19. It should also give us a better understanding of how long people remain immune after being infected. This will be one of the key tools for eventually easing restrictions on physical distancing.
— “F.D.A. Approves First Coronavirus Antibody Test in U.S.” Apoorva Mandavilli, The New York Times.
Physical distancing seems to be working to slow the rate of infection in places like the Bay Area and New York City. Deaths are a lagging indicator, and will continue to rise well after the rate of new infections slows, and the data referred to in these two stories below is only suggestive, but it’s a bit of good news.
— “Bend It Like the Bay Area: Doctors See Flatter Curve After 2 Weeks of Social Isolation.” Dera Kahn and Carla Marinucci, Politico.
— “Restrictions Are Slowing Coronavirus Infections, New Data Suggest.” Donald G. McNeil Jr., The New York Times.
Cellphone location data shows where and when the country came to a stop, and where it didn’t and hasn’t.
— “Where America Didn’t Stay Home Even as the Virus Spread.” James Glanz et al, The New York Times.
Google has similar data, with reports for communities around the world.
Singapore, which had been an example of successful Covid containment, has seen a worrying acceleration in community transmission of the virus and announced it will close down schools and workplaces to increase physical distancing. The government calls it a “circuit breaker” policy. It’s much more appropriate terminology than the security-centric U.S. talk of “lockdowns.”
— “Singapore to Close Schools, Most Workplaces From Next Week As ‘Circuit Breaker’ To Stop Virus.” Dewey Sim and Kok Xinghui, South China Morning Post.
The virus is coming for rural America, where density is lower, but populations are often older and sicker, with hospitals less well-resourced than their urban counterparts.
— “The Coronavirus’s Unique Threat To The South.” Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic.
— “The Coronavirus May Hit Rural America Later — and Harder.” Lois Parshley, Vox.
— “In The Face Of Coronavirus, Colorado’s Eastern Plains Hospitals Band Together And Brace For The Worst.” Sonya Doctorian, Colorado Public Radio News.
— “Days After a Funeral in a Georgia Town, Coronavirus ‘Hit Like a Bomb.’” Ellen Barry, The New York Times.
Our pandemic dystopia is unevenly distributed.
— “Early Data Shows African Americans Have Contracted and Died of Coronavirus at an Alarming Rate.” Akilah Johnson and Talia Buford, ProPublica.
— “‘Essential’ Workers Are Dying.” Marc Kagan, Slate.
The wave of job Covid-related job losses is absolutely without precedent in modern U.S. economic history. The economic implosion is moving too quickly to be captured by official Government statistics, but economist Justin Wolfers estimates the unemployment rate at the start of April is nearing 13%, higher than at any point since the Great Depression, and still climbing. It’s clear from the sociological literature that job loss has profound, lasting negative effects on health, psychological well-being, and social status, as sociologist Jennie Brand summarizes: “A job is more than a source of income. It is a fundamental social role and source of identity.” Still, in a job market cataclysm like this the effects might be cushioned by the fact that losses are so common. Context of generalized job loss, Brand, writes, “lessen the internalization of blame and social stigma associated with job loss. As one’s own unemployment represents a smaller deviation from the social norm, psychological and social effects are potentially lessened.”
— “The Unemployment Rate Is Probably Around 13 Percent.” Justin Wolfers, The New York Times.
— Jennie E. Brand. “The Far-Reaching Impact of Job Loss and Unemployment.” Annual Review of Sociology, August 2015.
The pandemic is reshaping the labor movement, an enormously important story that is worth more time and space than I can give it here.
— “The Coronavirus Is Radicalizing Workers.” Sarah Jones, New York Magazine.
— “Coronavirus Is a Labor Crisis, and a General Strike Might Be Next.” Aaron Gordon et al, Vice.
Don’t blame hoarders for the toilet paper shortage, blame boring old market segmentation.
— “What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage.” Will Oremus, Marker.
Hurricane season will be unbelievably dangerous this year. Hospitals in the southern U.S. will still be stretched thin dealing with Covid patients; evacuations and sheltering will be made more difficult by contagion fears; disease containment will be undermined. Repair and recovery will be hampered.
— “Hurricane Season on Top of a Pandemic Will Be a Nightmare.” Yessenia Funes, Earther.
Finally, I want to point you in the direction of the Covid Calls series, a video-podcast-interview series hosted by disaster historian Scott Knowles, featuring regular chats with academics, journalists, and other experts talking through aspects of the pandemic. There’s an audio-only archive here on Soundcloud. Recently Knowles had a fascinating interview with sociologist Andrew Lakoff, who specializes in biosecurity and health preparedness:
I will be a guest on the series this Monday, April 6th, at 5pm, as part of a roundtable of early-career scholars doing disaster-related research:
// The System Was Blinking Red
For weeks there was growing concern within the government. Surveillance networks were picking up disturbing signals, but it was hard to connect the dots and get a full picture of exactly when, where, and how the threat would materialize on U.S. soil. Intelligence officials tried to direct the President’s attention to the threat, but didn’t gain traction until it was too late. After the moment of disaster, it becomes clear that the federal bureaucracy had known, in disjointed fragments, almost everything it should have needed to know to avoid the catastrophe. But fragmentary knowledge in a big, complex bureaucracy is a lot like having no knowledge at all.
There has been a flurry of recent reporting on the signals this administration missed before the pandemic hit and in the early weeks of the response. One piece begins: “U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen, according to U.S. officials familiar with spy agency reporting.” The story quotes an anonymous government official who had seen the intelligence materials. The President, this source said, “‘may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it. … The system was blinking red.’”
That last phrase caught my eye, because it’s a direct—and almost certainly deliberate—echo from the 9/11 Commission Report. Throughout the summer of 2001, there were increasingly dire warnings within the intelligence community that a major event was coming:
“[C.I.A. Director George] Tenet told us that in his world ‘the system was blinking red.’ By late July, Tenet said, it could not ‘get any worse.’ Not everyone was convinced. Some asked whether all these threats might just be deception. On June 30, the SEIB contained an article titled ‘Bin Ladin Threats Are Real.’ Yet Hadley told Tenet in July that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz questioned the reporting. Perhaps Bin Ladin was trying to study U.S. reactions. Tenet replied that he had already addressed the Defense Department’s questions on this point; the reporting was convincing. To give a sense of his anxiety at the time, one senior official in the Counterterrorist Center told us that he and a colleague were considering resigning in order to go public with their concerns.”
The 9/11 Commission was a national sense-making exercise. And an important one, for the public and policymakers alike. Its final report was both influential in government, and a national bestseller that was a finalist for a National Book Award. The point of the report wasn’t to assign blame, it was to understand what systematically went wrong and issue recommendations on how to reorganize the federal bureaucracy to keep it from happening again.
It would be a mistake to focus too much on failures that were idiosyncratic to this administration. Individual human error is almost never responsible for major disasters. This pandemic has highlighted systematic flaws in the way the U.S. prepares for and responds to infectious disease outbreaks that are absolutely critical to fix while we have the chance. Future pandemics are no less inevitable than future earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires.
Writing in the Washington Post Scott Deitchman and Craig Fugate (legendary figures in emergency management) make the case for a commission:
Such a report must not be limited to assessing when officials knew, or should have known, about covid-19 and its likely scope. These are intelligence issues, and although they are important, there is far more to understand. In national security, it is not enough to know that an attack is coming. Intelligence about an imminent attack is best utilized by a nation with appropriate resources to respond.
By analogy, the scope of the covid-19 assessment must be broad enough to learn what the pandemic reveals about our ability to deal with health crises. That includes understanding how the impact of the outbreak in the United States was shaped by how we prepared our resources: the state of our public health system; the ways we deliver health care across the nation; the roles, responsibilities, and resources of our health agencies; how we do and do not support hospitals and health-care workers; and our medical and pharmaceutical supply lines and purchasing policies.
First, what is the right chain of command for dealing with a public health emergency that doesn’t respect political borders? The current system of the governors having primary decision-making authority really doesn’t work here, as I’ve said.
Second, what is the fastest way to leverage resources so you can scale up the response? Just as they did in World War II, where many industries turned on a dime and produced tanks and airplanes, how can we have that happen again?
Third, does too much of our critical manufacturing exist abroad now? Are we too dependent on foreign manufacturers to handle a crisis like this within our own borders? What are the implications of that?
Fourth, is our hospital system too disjointed, too fragmented to be able to handle something like this in a coordinated way? What do we need to do to ensure that we have adequate capacity in our hospitals?
Fifth, how do you handle the pandemic of disinformation at a time like this? People are being bombarded with things that are half-truths and outright lies, and how do you discipline that process when you have to? In the normal course of things, in a free society, you don’t have to. But in a crisis like this, you don’t want people walking around misinformed, and a lot of people are.
Luckily, there’s growing support on Capitol Hill for the appointment of a bipartisan Covid Commission once the emergency phase of the pandemic has passed. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee has proposed legislation that would create:
a 25-member commission, whose members would be selected by the chair and ranking Republican on each of 12 House committees, as well as one member selected jointly by the chair and vice chair of the Joint Economic Committee.
Rep. Adam Schiff gave more detail on the House’s plans for designing and launching the commission, using the 9/11 Commission’s establishing legislation as a model:
It’s crucial of course that this commission be crafted and understood as non-partisan, and some measures being proposed — like ensuring that commissioners are not current officeholders — are encouraging. But it will be even more difficult now than it was in the early 2000s to keep partisanship from consuming the framing of the report in its creation and consumption. MSNBC in this interview above, for example, frames the story as a “commission to scrutinize Trump’s coronavirus response,” which is exactly not what the interview is about.
// Concluding thoughts
I titled this newsletter “The Covodyssey” because this pandemic was going to be a long and turbulent journey, rather than a sharp and concentrated crisis. It might seem like this emergency has been going on for months, but in fact we’re not even through the first few chapters.