Many of you are joining us after the first issue was sent on March 14th. If you’d like to read it, click here.
My plan is to issue these newsletters every Saturday, with supplementals like this one when there are urgent new developments. I meant things like this:
The CDC’s announcement March 15th of new nationwide social distancing guidance;
The White House’s subsequent tightening of that national guidance to recommend against any gathering of more than 10 people, to halt all discretionary travel, and avoid casual shopping, drinking at bars and eating at restaurants;
(White House one-sheet PDF; transcript of March 16th White House press briefing; The Washington Post’s writeup)
The shelter-in-place orders issued by seven Bay Area counties requiring people to stay in their homes except for essential needs (which include, importantly, outdoor exercise).
(The LA Times has a good roundup detailing what these orders mean)
Conflicting reports about whether a similar shelter-in-place order would come to New York City.
While we’re likely to see more localities eventually adopting measures similar to the orders issued around San Francisco, I think it is unlikely the U.S. will issue a national equivalent, at least in the near future. It is at the core of the country’s emergency response policy and culture to defer to local, county, and state governments until and unless they are overwhelmed by an emergency. That said, it is unclear how our emergency response system, which counts on mutual assistance among states as well as federal assistance, will stand up to its first true 50-state disaster.
One thing I’m watching for: so far in the U.S., the pandemic has hit hardest in states with some of the country’s most resource-rich governments. The complexion of this crisis will change as it intensifies in poorer states especially in the South and Appalachia.
In this supplemental issue I’ll talk about how to deal with rumors, how to be more resilient, and how those two things are connected.
// A Quick Link Roundup
Warnings to prepare for a pandemic, ignored: In the first issue of this newsletter I wrote about the federal government’s long history of pandemic tabletop exercises, but I didn’t specifically know the Obama administration held one for/with incoming Trump administration officials during the transition in early 2017. The newcomers didn’t take it very seriously, and anyway because of high turnover most of the original participants are long gone. Personally, this was my must-read of the week, and I think it will reverberate for some time.
— “Before Trump’s Inauguration, A Warning: ‘The worst influenza pandemic since 1918’.” Nahal Toosi, Daniel Lippman, and Dan Diamond, Politico.
A primer on the U.S. National Strategic Stockpile: It was begun in 1999 to prepare for bio-terrorism, but gradually morphed into a federal reserve of medical supplies and equipment to combat naturally-arising pandemics as well.
— “Why Even A Huge Medical Stockpile Will Be Of Limited Use Against COVID-19.” Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR.
The grocery supply chain should hold: “‘Food is not going to run out,’ said Karan Girotra, a professor of operations and technology and an expert in supply chain management at Cornell Tech in New York City.”
— “Will the Bay Area Run Out of Food? Nope. The supply chain is healthy.” Esther Mobley and Shwanika Narayan, The San Francisco Chronicle.
But will the internet? “‘The core of the network is massively over-provisioned,’ said Paul Vixie, CEO of Farsight Security and an internet pioneer who helped design its domain naming system.”
— “U.S. Internet Well-Equipped to Handle Work From Home Surge.” Frank Bajak, Seattle Times (via AP).
A shift in tone at Fox News…: As of Friday, after weeks of downplaying the pandemic, the network’s opinion hosts made an about-face.
— “On Fox News, Suddenly A Very Different Tune About the Coronavirus.” Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison, The Washington Post.
… which may help close a troubling partisan gap: Recent polling shows a significant partisan gap in perceptions of the pandemic — self-identified republicans were much less likely to take it seriously or believe it would disrupt their lives. (Philip Bump at the Post has a good writeup here, and Columbia’s Andrew Gelman cleaned up Bump’s data visualization here).
The gap worries me because it undermines the effectiveness of public health measures. People won’t self-isolate if they think the pandemic is a mirage, and if that belief becomes yoked to partisan identification it will be even more corrosive and harder to reverse.
Enough time at last! Your independent bookseller is an important part of your local social infrastructure. You can support them by ordering your books through Bookshop.org. For a list of other ways to help, see this post from LitHub.
Books I’ve got on my nightstand:
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny By Papa
Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer
// Rumors & Resilience
/ How to survive a flood of information
It’s an uncertain time. There’s a disease spreading, but we can only estimate the extent of the spread. It seems important to stop from getting sick ourselves or spreading the virus to others, but there is some mystery still about how the virus is transmitted. We know the symptoms can be serious and require medical attention, but there’s a lot of uncertainty around how individual people are supposed to get treated. We know the government is taking some actions meant to slow the spread, but don’t know what those measures will look like or when they might be implemented. We know it’s important to have supplies at home, but don’t really know what supplies we’ll need.
It’s a perfect environment for rumors to spread. Things you hear from a friend. Things your friend heard from a friend whose friend works for an important-sounding institution. Rumors make us feel like we have inside information. They act as social currency. They make us feel like we have some special understanding about a situation that otherwise seems outside of our control.
But rumors in an emergency are extremely volatile and dangerous. They can be misleading individually, and produce conflict and harm in the aggregate. Because you can’t know the origin of a rumor, and because it’s not public information, it’s almost impossible to test. You have no idea how the information changed as it traveled from person to person to you. You have no idea where it will go after you spread it to someone else, and how it will change in the telling.
So don’t listen to rumors, and don’t pass rumors you’ve heard to other people. When it comes to information about the pandemic, stick to trusted public sources.
Public health information on Covid-19
Here are some sources of public health information I’m reading as I think through how to keep myself, family, and community safe:
New York City’s health department released a concise fact sheet that covers the basics of the virus and especially who should get tested and what to do if you get sick. Download the PDF here.
The Centers for Disease Control and prevention has clear instructions for how to get through this on the Covid-19 section of its website. Especially helpful:
How to consume the news
As they say, news has a kind of mystery. Especially in a crisis, it’s easy to get swallowed up in the coverage, especially if you add informal news from social media. But use caution here, too. Too much consumption of news about an emergency can be harmful. One study conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings found that the more time people spent with media about the bombings, the more likely they were to report acute stress. Significantly, people who spent 6 hours or more a day with bombing-related media reported higher levels of stress than people who experienced the bombing directly, in person.
Right now, in the U.S. anyway, a lot of news about the pandemic is about spread and government response and speculation about what might come next (disclosure: I don’t watch television news, except clips that circulate to me through social media. I once heard Chris Wallace at a public speaking engagement say he avoided social media at all costs, and that “if it’s important enough, it will seep out into old guy news.” I feel the same way about television news, in reverse).
Soon enough we’ll start seeing more media focusing on the effects of the itself as it takes hold, and a lot of this will be distressing. Limit your time with this kind of content. Focus instead on news that will be empowering to you: new information that you can directly use, or that helps you better understand the broader situation we’re in.
/ A few words about resilience
I want to devote a full newsletter to preparedness tips at a later date, though events might overtake us. So for specifics, let me recommend this page of advice from the CDC about how to get your home ready for Covid.
A frustration a lot of people have with preparedness guides like the one I linked to above is that it’s hard to get your mind around what you might need to have on hand and why. People tend to have a difficult time thinking productively about potentially disruptive futures. Either they can’t imagine the details of what a future emergency would look like, or they get trapped in doom loops of all of the things that could possibly go wrong, and end up preparing haphazardly or not at all.
The Anna Karenina principle is helpful here. Tolstoy tells us that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In preparing for an emergency, you’ll never exhaust the catalog of things that can go wrong. The universe of things that need to go right is much smaller and more manageable.
Basic pragmatic preparedness steps:
Make a list of all the activities your household needs to do on a daily basis. Things like eating meals, taking medications, getting rid of garbage, going to work (or working from home), doing personal and household hygiene, exercise, taking care of your pets.
Go down this list and for each activity record all of the things you need to carry out that activity for the day. In this list, include the people who are responsible for these activities, and keep in mind that there might be more than one working together, and that some of the people you need aren’t in your household (e.g. to work from home on a shared project, you need your coworker).
As best you can, where appropriate, estimate the *amounts* of things you need to carry out these activities.
Think and write through what would happen in each instance if you didn’t have access to the things or people you need to carry out the activities you outlined in step 1, and come up with one or more practical alternatives/substitutions where possible. If there is no substitution possible, think & write through alternate ways of getting hold of the things you need.
Repeat this for a weekly, and monthly time frame.
That should help you be prepared with supplies in your household. But you should also make sure you think through a plan for, as this excellent James Hamblin piece in The Atlantic puts it, what you will do if you start coughing. Again, for tips on that, see the CDC link I posted in the previous section of this newsletter.
// A closing word
Imperial College London released a report on modeling the future of this pandemic on March 16th that gave me significant pause (see PDF here). I don’t want to write too much about it now because it’s a complicated document and there’s a lot to think through. But I highly recommend reading it for yourself if you have any doubts about the seriousness of the thing we’re going through, or if you think it will be over in the next few weeks.