"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“Civilization, the orderly world in which we live, is frail. We are skating on thin ice.” – Zygmunt Bauman.
For the last several years, when people have asked me what I study, I have told them that I study the end of the world.
As you can imagine, it’s the sort of answer that results in rather mixed responses. When this first became my stock answer, quite a few years ago, it was generally met with either polite laughter, a barely concealed rolling of the eyes, or a swift change of the subject. Unfortunately, in recent years, when I’ve told people that I study the end of the world the responses have shifted away from polite derision and towards people quietly asking “how long do you think we have left?” If I had to pinpoint the exact moment that this shift began to take place I’d have to point to election night 2016—though the level of ambient anxiety has certainly been ratcheted up by every new report on the climate, and the unveiling of every new borderline dystopian high-tech device.
Pushed to be more specific about what I study, I explain that my research sits at the intersection of disaster studies and the history of technology. My particular focus has to do with the belief that science and technology are going to bring human civilization crashing into ruin. This research involves spending a certain amount of time studying things produced by the sort of “fringe” figures you might imagine as the sort who would stand on a corner wearing a “the end is nigh” sandwich board. All of which is to say that I read a lot of survival guides, conspiracy laden newsletters, prophetic religious works, and books about buying gold. Beyond those “fringe” perspectives; however, I also spend a lot of time reading the work of forgotten social critics who were maligned as “prophets of doom” for their impassioned efforts to convince people to change course while there was still time. And I also spend a lot of time reading studies commissioned by parts of the government, the transcripts of Congressional hearings, and reports generated by agencies that are not known for their alarmism. Of course, as someone who works in a particular academic corner I also keep myself up to date on the various works being produced by other people who study similar topics.
All of which is to say, I spend a lot of time thinking about disasters and the end of the world. And I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about disasters and the end of the world for a long time.
Admittedly, these aren’t the most uplifting topics to think about, but COVID-19 seems to be forcing many more people to dwell on these subjects.
So, here are a few observations (rooted in my own research) that will hopefully help contextualize and frame some of the things you’re seeing/hearing/reading about COVID-19.
When most people think of disasters they tend to think of catastrophic events like a hurricane, a train derailment, a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, or an earthquake. These are easy occurrences to think with because they have as their focus a key singular event that is bounded by a fairly limited timeframe. The Hurricane made landfall at such and such a time and date in such and such a location, the train derailed at such and such a time and date. Even if there were clear warning signs ahead of time, it is usually fairly simple to bracket the event so that, by the time people (including the news) are assessing it the event has already ended (the hurricane has dissipated, the crash has already occurred). But what then about a situation like COVID-19? Is there a singular event here? Is the event in question the first person infected, the first person who died, the first city to go on lockdown? Or is the event the moment when a hospital, a city, or a country gets overwhelmed? And how do you assess things when they are still very much happening, especially when the situation still appears to be getting worse not better?
There is a tendency to think about disasters as being fast, but within the disaster studies community there has been increasing focus in recent years on thinking about slow disasters (admittedly, some of this shift has had to do with climate change). This shift has allowed the field to move away from the singular focus on the disaster event itself to consider all of the factors that have slowly built up over time that have allowed for the event to be so calamitous. By way of example, consider a hurricane—the same powerful hurricane may lash two areas with nearly equal ferocity, and yet one of those areas may be devastated (with numerous deaths) while the other may fairly successfully weather the storm. While the hurricane may represent the typical sort of fast disaster, what allows it to decimate one area over the other is the accumulation of slow disasters that began long before the hurricane and which will persist after. Poverty is a slow disaster. Environmental degradation is a slow disaster. Failing to maintain essential infrastructure is a slow disaster. These factors set the stage for a situation in which a singular disastrous event (like a hurricane) can reveal the disasters that have been slowly accumulating unseen. The slow disaster makes the fast disaster even worse. And the slow disaster persists afterwards, once the TV cameras and the politicians have changed their focus, as the aftershocks of the disaster persist.
COVID-19 is difficult to assess using the timescales we often think about for disasters, and this is generally one of the things that separates disease related disasters from disasters linked to natural hazards or technological failures. For COVID-19 is not a singular event, if anything it is an event (the virus), that contains lots of other events (hospitals getting overwhelmed, every cities going into lockdown). And yet, thinking about slow disasters can be very useful for making sense of COVID-19. Forgive the US centric focus here, but: that millions of Americans don’t have access to paid sick leave is a slow disaster, the racism endemic in the provision of medical care is a slow disaster, that hospitals around the country are already stretched thin is a slow disaster, homelessness is a slow disaster, heck the entire US healthcare system could be called a slow disaster—when the situation is “normal” many of these problems may not appear particularly disastrous (alas) but when an event like a pandemic occurs these slow disasters provide a rotten foundation atop which things can only get worse.
It is fair to think about COVID-19 as a disaster, and it is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Yet, when assessing COVID-19 it is worth stepping back and recognizing all of the disasters that have quietly and slowly built up over time which are feeding directly into, and are exacerbating, this crisis.
As people recoil in dismay at the unfolding crisis, it is common to hear some variation of the claim that “nobody could have seen this coming!” This claim works in a couple of ways: it allows the person making the claim to justify their own surprise at what is happening, and it gives something of a pass to the people in power for the ways in which they have mishandled the crisis. But the fact of the matter is that the claim “nobody could have seen this coming,” is almost always untrue. Yes, it may be that it would have been impossible to see exactly “this” with all of its particular idiosyncrasies and nuances—but, at risk of being crass, a lot of these crises are not as novel as they sometimes seem. There are going to be hurricanes, there are going to be earthquakes, there are going to be pandemics, there are going to be technical failures that result in cascading failures. Certainly, those are not all the same types of hazards, but it would be absurd for anyone (especially someone in a position of authority) to deny that those hazards exist. After a devastating hurricane has passed, nobody thinks that it was the last hurricane ever; and after the spread of a dangerous virus has been halted, nobody thinks that it was the last time a dangerous virus would ever spread.
Or, to put it bluntly, it wasn’t hard to see COVID-19 coming.
Indeed, it is precisely because we could have seen something akin to COVID-19 coming, that the response to it has been so infuriating. It is the recognition, and acceptance, of the fact that certain hazards are out there, and that they could turn into crises in the not too distant future that makes it possible to prepare for these events. Granted, preparedness is the type of thing that government officials (and many businesses) feel that they have a hard time justifying. Preparation can be very expensive, and it can require a massive investment up front that could take years to prove worthwhile. Put another way, nobody wants to be the politician who gets attacked for insisting that the government have a massive stockpile of medical masks when the country isn’t in the midst of a pandemic. But the risk of a pandemic has always been out there.
There have been deadly pandemics before, we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic right now, and there will be deadly pandemics in the future. Many of the specifics change from one pandemic to another, but the threat has always been there.
It’s not that “nobody could have seen this coming” it’s that too many somebodies have been wearing blinders.
When a crisis occurs there are multitudes of people who take heroic actions, even if these acts are never captured by TV cameras. Such actions survive in the historical record in the form of anecdotes, or tales that appear in oral histories. But when you study disasters from the past (either because you’re reading a book about one, or because you’re writing a book about one) you tend to see a lot of focus on people and groups with authority. Some of this is a reflection of the standard biases of the media and the archive wherein the papers of a President or the actions of a CEO tend to leave behind more documentation than a neighborhood mutual aid association. And yet, despite the fact that such biases result in lots of actions being overlooked, for the study of crises and disasters this focus on those in authority conveys an important truth: the actions taken, and the comments made, by those in positions of power really matter.
When you study crises and disasters from the past, you’ll often come across a fair amount of emphasis on the moments when key choices presented themselves. What did the President or the Governor or the FEMA director or the head of the WHO do at this pivotal moment? Part of what can be maddening in doing such research is you often find yourself looking back at a moment when it was obvious that they needed to do [X] but for some reason they did [Y] and as a result things got worse and people died. It would be easy to note that it is very easy to judge these decisions harshly with the privilege of hindsight, but in many cases where the wrong decisions are made it is clear that the decision maker had all of the necessary information (and was being pushed by experts) to make the right decision—and they still didn’t. Lest it seem like the wrong decision is always made, it should be recognized that there are also lots of moments when it is clear that the person in authority needs to do [Y] and they do in fact do [Y]. This isn’t just about making emergency declarations, mobilizing resources, and pushing for legislation—this is also about the decisions that are made about how to communicate the risks to the broader public.
Yes, it may seem somewhat banal to observe that in a crisis the actions by those in power matter. But as you watch leaders give misinformation laden press conferences, as you watch a rescue bill get stuffed with corporate giveaways, and as you watch governors refusing to shut things down—you should bear in mind that these things really matter. When a crisis hits, those in power may not be directly responsible for causing it (though sometimes they are), but they bear a lot of responsibility for making it worse or making it better.
Years from now when people look back at COVID-19 it is likely that March 11, 2020 will be singled out as the date when people in the US began taking the virus seriously.
Why? Because March 11 was the date when Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks announced that they had tested positive for COVID-19, it was also the date that a basketball game between Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was canceled due to COVID-19 related fears, with both teams receiving mass testing. The combination of a famous acting couple being diagnosed and a major sporting event being canceled pushed the COVID-19 conversation into more sections of the cultural conversation, including some areas that may have not been as focused on the virus until then.
Nevertheless, another important issue that these two stories raised, was who gets tested? From the outset of the COVID-19 crisis in the US, the lack of testing has been an issue (indeed, testing still isn’t where it needs to be). As Wilson and Hanks were tested in Australia, their testing cannot simply be attributed to the duo being wealthy and well-known stars—but there was some question as to how the NBA managed to get all of the tests necessary. And why was it that the teams could be tested so easily, but not all of the fans in the arena or the employees who worked there? As information about testing began coming out over the next couple of days many people began muttering that it seemed as if (gasp) the wealthy and well connected were having an easier time getting tested than the hoi polloi.
Crises and disasters have a revelatory aspect, and what they reveal is what a society prioritizes. This is particularly easy to see when you compare the reactions to COVID-19 in different countries. This is not to say “this country is good” or “this country is bad” – but when a country announces that it is enforcing a total lockdown during which people will still be paid, that is different from a country that is letting people stay on the beach while encouraging people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps with their hand sanitizer coated own hands. By the time COVID-19 truly exploded in the US, the country had already gone most of the way through a contentious political primary in which a great deal of time was spent panicking about the potential cost of a Medicare for All system; the grim irony being that the US now finds itself in a situation which is exacerbated by the woeful state of our health care system. And all of those concerns about the price of Medicare for All seem almost funny considering the way in which there now seems to be an unceasing well of money from which to draw funds to throw at corporations. So much talk was devoted to asking if the US can afford a different healthcare system, but COVID-19 has changed the question to one of if we can afford not to?
Crises and disasters are terrible things. They have occurred in the past, and they will occur in the future. But they lay bare a society’s priorities. When people lose their jobs due to a crisis not of their own making, are they abandoned? Are the workers who have constantly been mocked as unskilled suddenly the ones who are described as essential? Is it insisted that the cruise industry must stay afloat even as millions of workers are left to drown? Do wealthy office holders imagine that people can sustain themselves with a one off check for $1200? Do hospitals find themselves running out of supplies even as politicians refuse to take the necessary steps to ramp up production? Do people publicly declare that the elderly and the immuno-compromised should be sacrificed in order to appease the markets? These questions and their answers tell you a lot about a society – particularly because different societies provide a range of answers to these questions.
Contrary to what some people blithely declare, humanity is not the virus; however, many of us do live in profoundly sick societies.
One of the features of pretty much any disastrous event are the images of eerily empty supermarket shelves, or of the lengthy lines outside of stores that sell things in bulk. We tend to direct nothing but derision at the people who are described as “preppers” for their basements stocked with hundreds of rolls of toilet paper and their stacks of MREs, but when a crisis hits many of us feverishly descend upon the store to buy as much toilet paper as we can. Without defending the “preppers,” it is worth noting that the maligning of them too often serves to treat all preparation as ridiculous. Which is quite unfortunate as sober organizations such as FEMA and the Red Cross also note that it is generally a good idea for people to have some extra food in their pantries, and some basic first aid supplies in their bathroom cabinets (including pain relievers, a thermometer, and cough medicine).
There are many important societal factors that make it difficult for people to truly be ready for a crisis. Many people do not have the funds available to keep even a moderately well provisioned pantry, and many people do not live in a large enough space to have a well provisioned pantry. In a society wherein many people are living day to day in a state of quiet crisis it is hard to tell them that they need to prepare for an unseen crisis that could manifest at any moment. Furthermore, stocking up really only lasts so long before you find yourself having to get back to the store. The point at which the directives were being issued that people should have two weeks of food in their homes, were issued about two weeks ago. Some people may have been able to massively stockpile everything they needed to get through months on end without venturing out of doors—but those people aren’t in the majority.
When a crisis hits, when a disaster strikes, the best way to be prepared is to know your neighbors.
Without wanting in any way to romanticize a bygone past, many people today live rather isolated and atomized existences. Many of us do not know the people who live in our apartment building, or the people who live across the street from us. But when a crisis hits, the people who are in your most immediate vicinity may well be the people who are best able to help you. And, on the flip side, if the people around you are facing serious challenges yours might be the door that they knock on for support. It will be easier to reach out to one another if you have some kind of relationship ahead of time. Again, without meaning to romanticize it, crises have an odd way of reminding us that “we’re all in this together” – and the people physically near you are an important part of your “we.” Certainly, this is made more difficult in a crisis wherein we need to keep some distance between us and others, but you can keep six feet away from each other while still letting your neighbors know that you’re there if they need you.
In recent days there has been a lot of talk about the need for “mutual aid.” But if you’re thinking in terms of mutual aid, you shouldn’t overlook the need to support those with whom you share mutual space.
There have been no shortage of catastrophic crises and disasters in the past. And if we’re being honest about it, societies (and individuals) aren’t great at learning from them. It would be too depressing to list here all of the past events that we should have learned from, but which we have largely forgotten. Similarly it would be distressing to list the lessons that those in power have failed to take to heart.
So here is a simple reminder, which may sound silly but is truer than you might want to admit: the mayor from Jaws (the man who insisted on keeping the beaches open) is still the mayor in Jaws 2.
This post began with a personal story, so let it end with one as well.
A few years ago I was getting coffee with someone who also studies disasters. We were having a wide ranging conversation about key books on the topic, events that deserved more scrutiny, and the general state of the field. As we broached the topic of where the field was heading in the next several years, the person I was with said, “this is a really exciting time to be working on disasters, because everything is falling apart.”
And then we both got quiet.
I’ve been thinking about that exchange a lot lately.
Interested in learning more? Here are five books to consider reading.
Throughout the pandemic Scott Knowles has been hosting a series of fascinating “COVID Calls” with a variety of experts in and around the disaster studies field. You can listen to (and download) these online. They are highly recommended.