"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“Don’t be a coward. Have the courage to be afraid. Force yourself to produce the amount of fear that corresponds to the magnitude of the apocalyptic danger.” – Günther Anders.
By the time you finish reading this sentence, things will have gotten worse.
In the early months of the summer of 2019, audiences were transfixed by a stark dramatization of one of the twentieth century’s most notable catastrophes. Presented as an exquisitely acted miniseries, Chernobyl turned the events that transpired at the No. 4 reactor at the power plant near Pripyat into an ominous account of human failure, technological risk, and the ways in which small decisions can have horrific consequences. Set against the twilight of the Cold War, the series presented a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the Soviet response to the disaster. Certainly, the miniseries painted an unflattering image of Soviet officials who cut-corners due to careerism while covering up essential information, but the miniseries primarily focused on a legion of people working desperately against time to prevent things from getting even worse.
Disasters do well in the summer. Or, to put it more precisely, filmic representations of disasters do well in the summer. When it is hot outside, audiences are accustomed to taking refuge in air conditioned theaters (or in their air conditioned homes) to watch as cities are destroyed by storms, tsunamis, meteors, giant monsters, aliens, battling superheroes, pandemics, earthquakes, etc… The specific tropes of such films vary slightly from one subgenre to the next, but a common feature is that of the expert whose dire warnings go ignored, and the authority figure (often a President) who refuses to believe that the hazards are genuine. Of course, the viewer who is familiar with the beats of the genre, knows that as soon as they see the experts’ opinions being flouted, or the authority figure scoffing, it is a clear sign that something catastrophic is about to occur. Granted, most of the time, when a viewer chooses to watch a disaster movie (or television show) they know to expect the coming cataclysm.
While Chernobyl featured many of the predictable motions of disaster cinema (experts going ignored, authority figures underreacting), by couching these moments in a historical event it deprived these standard plot tricks of their amusing value. Rather, in the summer of 2019, these narrative elements were seen not as tropes but as searing indictments of the Soviet system that had allowed this tragedy to occur and which did not do more to effectively manage the disaster once it unfolded. A standard reaction to Chernobyl was to argue that the governmental ineptitude, fevered blame game, supply shortages, mislead workers, confused public, and suppressed information—were all testaments to the way that the Soviets catastrophically mismanaged the incident. Despite the horrors it portrayed, Chernobyl was comforting to American viewers who saw it as a reminder of the bad things that could happen “over there” but would never be allowed to happen “over here.”
Now, slightly more than a year after Chernobyl aired, the miniseries looks quite different. After all, it is significantly harder to view the botched reaction depicted in that series as uniquely Soviet, as the United States is actively losing the fight against COVID-19. Indeed, the pandemic presents its own case of governmental ineptitude, fevered blame game, supply shortages, mislead workers, confused public, and suppressed information—although it is no longer an account of some past tragedy, but an account of an ongoing one. While the response presented in Chernobyl was riddled with flaws, compared to the US’s current response to COVID-19, the actions in Chernobyl appear eminently competent. After all, at least the reaction in Chernobyl (and the reaction to the actual meltdown) was not to just let the disaster win. Unfortunately, letting the pandemic triumph seems to be the present strategy in the US.
Towards the end of the miniseries, Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgard), sadly states:
“No one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them. And here we are.”
These simple lines do a good job of capturing an important element of the temporality of disasters. First, before the disaster occurs, there is the period of prediction, in which the lack of actual disaster makes it necessary to imagine the possibility of such a horrid occurrence. Ideally, it is such an imagination that leads to the necessary steps being taken that will ultimately prevent the disaster. Alas, “no one ever thinks it’s going to happen” aptly captures the way in which this imagination often fails, with the result being that people look around in the midst of the rapidly unfolding disaster and defeatedly comment “here we are.”
COVID-19, at least in the US, represents a colossal failure of the imagination. True, there was a brief period where people felt the threat was credible and so they battened down the hatches, but that brief moment is already in the past. In March and April the possibility of hospitals being overwhelmed and the virus spreading out of control frightened people into staying inside—but in the aftermath of overly swift reopening, hospitals are now being overwhelmed and the virus is spreading out of control. The political response has been largely to shrug: with the Trump administration adopting the tactic of pretending that nothing is happening (while pushing for more reopening), with governors (from both parties) wary to reintroduce shutdowns without a guarantee of federal support, and with much of Congress (from both parties) failing to respond with the requisite urgency.
There was a time when it was necessary to imagine what the catastrophe might look like. But one no longer needs to imagine it, you can see it happening.
This represents a rather grim challenge for the task of imagining things getting worse. On the one hand, such an imagining seems to distract from a proper level of fixation on how bad things are currently; while, on the other hand, when you look at the trend lines on the worrisome graphs it is hard not to imagine the lines continuing to move up. Indeed, it may be particularly important to be able to imagine those lines moving up as efforts to suppress the information about the pandemic will likely lead to some of these figure starting to take on an artificially rosy hue. Of course, it’s essential to bear in mind, there is more to the present crisis than just what the graphs of infections and deaths count: millions of people are unemployed, millions of people have lost their health insurance, the extra unemployment assistance is about to run out, millions of parents and students do not know what will happen in the fall, anti-vaccine sentiment is spreading (which threatens to diminish the utility of a vaccine when it appears), testing capacity is still nowhere near the levels where it needs to be, millions are facing the risk of being evicted, and on top of all of that the President has made it clear he has no intention of accepting the election results (should he lose) in November and he is currently playing out a test case of instilling martial law on a US city. Oh, and lest we forget, there are still projections that the pandemic will have an even more deadly second wave in the fall/winter (though it increasingly seems like the first wave will never really abate). Furthermore, just in case you weren’t already feeling bad enough, while we fiddle away precious time on the pandemic we are simultaneously fiddling away precious time on the climate emergency.
Fairly or unfairly, many of those who most loudly try to spell out the risks made visible by an active catastrophic imagination are described as “alarmists” or “prophets of doom.” One can have a great deal of respect for those willing to risk being tarred as “alarmists” for sounding the siren, while still recognizing that there are some doomsayers who are primarily interested in wallowing in their bleak pronouncements. However, the groups and individuals who are increasingly speaking up about how much worse things are likely to get are hardly your typical sackcloth clad curmudgeons. Indeed, many of those who are looking at the present situation and pronouncing that things are likely to get even worse, are groups and individuals who have historically been quite reserved in their predictions. One of the grim ironies of imagining disasters is that the point at which many people realize they need to do so is precisely after disaster has struck.
It is important to be able to imagine all of these things getting worse. And they probably will get worse. But make no mistake, the catastrophe is already upon us.
“Before the spark reaches the dynamite, the lighted fuse must be cut.” – Walter Benjamin
Brakes are a good technology to think with.
On a banal and simple level, they are an easily taken for granted piece of a vehicle that serves the powerfully obvious function of bringing the vehicle to a stop. But brakes can also be useful to think about when it comes to disasters. As it is often the act of “hitting the brakes” that prevents something terrible from taking place. Most drivers do not go around randomly smashing their foot down on the brake pedal whenever they imagine a crash could be possible; however, the brake pedal has saved many a driver (and passenger) from a horrendous situation.
Of course, it isn’t exactly that simple. Anyone who has ever been in a vehicle that has suddenly slammed on the brakes, has received a firsthand lesson in the risks of momentum. For slamming on the brakes does not bring the moving vehicle (especially if it was moving at a high speed) to an instant and immediate stop. No, the vehicle still moves forward quite a bit before coming to rest. In an ideal situation the brakes were hit with enough time to bring the vehicle to a stop before colliding with whatever it was that led to the brakes being hit in the first place. Unfortunately, sometimes the brakes are hit too late, and as a result the vehicle still smashes into whatever was in front of it. Sometimes the brakes were hit in time to turn what would have been a fatal crash into a fender bender, sometimes hitting the brakes still lead to the vehicle careening into the obstacle, and sometimes the person behind the vehicle that hits the brakes fails to hit their own brakes in time.
All of which is to say, there is a fair amount of disastrous momentum that has built up in this pandemic. In the present situation “hitting the brakes” would look like shutting everything back down for at least a month (probably two), providing federal support to ensure that regular people can survive such a shut down, using the period of the shut down to dramatically ramp up testing capacity as well as PPE production and distribution, and laying the groundwork for a very slow reopening that would involve clear triggers that would cause a return to shut down if the pandemic begins to worsen. At the moment it is necessary to “hit the brakes” now, and to plan for the likely possibility that we will need to “hit the brakes” again at some point in the fall or the winter.
That being said, if we were to slam on the brakes today, the disastrous momentum that this pandemic has built up would still carry us dangerously forward before things come to a shuddering halt. The number of infections will continue to trend upwards. People who are already infected but who have not yet been tested will continue to infect others. Many of the people who are already infected will require hospitalization, and tragically quite a few of them will likely die. And the other problems looming in the background (unemployment, eviction risk, loss of health insurance) will also continue to deepen until such a time as action is taken to arrest their slide.
Hitting the brakes does not mean that things will immediately stop getting worse. We can already see what lurks on the road directly in front of us, and we need to brace ourselves for having to move through some of that before the brakes bring us to a stop. Though there are certainly dangers directly in front of us, just down the road is a massive flaming pile up, and unless we hit the brakes soon we are going to ram into that inferno.
Alas, it seems that many of the people in positions of authority have no interest in the brake. Instead they prefer to hit the gas, confident that the speed will allow us to charge through the mountain of wreckage in front of us.
But if you hit the gas when you should hit the brakes, you just get to the catastrophe faster.
Much remains uncertain. Furthermore, it is in this fog of uncertainty that we have to make plans for the immediate future. Nevertheless, from this point forward, all planning should be made under the assumption that things will get worse. That things will get significantly worse.
There was a time when it was common, if still questionable, to make plans based around best case (or at least moderately better case) scenarios; however, that time is behind us. What was foolhardy in April is catastrophically irresponsible in July. The early reopening plans, and the speed with which states moved through their color-coded reopening stages, were couched in an assumption that the worst had passed and that things were improving. We are now struggling through the ghastly consequences of such optimism. If the rush to reopen can be attributed, at least in part, to a failure of the imagination, as we move forward we no longer need to exercise our imaginations for the purpose of planning. True, much remains uncertain, but that we need to prepare for things to get worse is no longer based on a possibility, it is based on the all too clear evidence that the pandemic is out of control and that those in positions of power do not have a sufficient plan to control the pandemic. Or, to return to momentum, even if from the time you finish reading this forward those in positions of authority begin to do everything right, the momentum that has been built up by this crisis will still carry us careening forward for a not insignificant amount of time.
The catastrophe is not something that awaits us, the catastrophe is where we already are. The question is whether we go deeper into the catastrophe or try to find our way out of it.
At the moment, one of the topics that is receiving quite a lot of attention has to do with whether or not schools should reopen in the fall. Schools is meant here in a very broad sense as the debate covers everything from pre-school through university. Despite there being plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the view that schools are precisely the type of environment in which this virus flourishes, and despite actual evidence that reopening schools leads to the virus surging, there is a push to get schools to reopen in the fall. On a basic level this push is being driven by politicians who are eager to claim that the pandemic is over, and who recognize that schools being closed will be a stinging testament to their failure of leadership. While, on a slightly more generous level, a push to reopen can be partially explained by a recognition that parents with children at home (as opposed to at school) must devote much of their time to childcare (as opposed to working from home). And, of course, the most compelling arguments in favor of reopening highlight that if schools go online there are many students who will be left behind by the shift—not every student has access to the technologies necessary for taking classes online. There is a further concern about students falling behind, about a “lost year,” and about the long term consequences of this shift.
Yet the challenge facing schools (of all levels) speaks to the way in which we are still bound up in pre-pandemic thinking and attitudes. We are still hoping for the best, instead of actively preparing for the worst. As a result a tremendous amount of time has been squandered in making and remaking absurd reopening plans that would be laughable if the consequences of these plans weren’t so deadly serious. Approaching the question of schools from the position that the situation is bad and is going to get worse, necessitates not a plan for reopening, but thinking about how schools can make their plans for not reopening work. Thus, it presents a different set of questions. Had schools spent the last several months figuring out how to get computers (and Internet access) to all of the students in need, had schools spent the last several months providing real support to teachers (instead of telling them to plan for any eventuality), and had the government spent the last several months figuring out how to support parents in this moment—we would be in a significantly better position than the situation in which we now find ourselves. Instead teachers, students, staff, and parents are all still waiting for that conclusive email that finally tells them what is really going to be happening in the fall (with many of these people anticipating that those plans will wind up getting scrapped in October when/if a second wave of the virus hits).
And, unfortunately, at this point it is not sufficient just to anticipate that things will be bad in September, we must also expect that they will be bad in November, and it is only prudent to suspect that they will still be bad in February. We don’t need to imagine that this is going to stick around, we have the evidence that this has stuck around.
While schools have absorbed a fair amount of political and media attention (with good reason), schools are not the only area wherein it is necessary to plan out of the assumption that things are going to devolve further. The November election (in the US), presents another area that needs to be approached from the belief that voting will happen against the backdrop of a raging pandemic. Though schools have to figure out their reopening plans quickly, there is a bit more time on the election front, but that time is quickly running out. Instead of hemming and hawing, and hoping for the best, plans need to be immediately put into place not simply to encourage voting by mail, but to make it so that this will be the default. Such a shift cannot happen overnight, but it can only happen if the work starts to be done now. Expecting people to show up to crowded polling locations(that are inside) in the midst of a raging pandemic is a recipe for low voter turnout (which is certainly what some politicians seem to be counting on).
These are issues that must be dealt with on a societal, not individual level, as the scale of the responses they require goes beyond what a single person is capable of accomplishing. Mutual aid, and communities helping their most vulnerable members, is essential for getting through this – but personal responsibility can only go so far in the face of continued mismanagement from the top. After all, a family can be doing absolutely everything right to minimize their risks of exposure to the virus, but might still have to face an impossible decision when their state’s governor insists that schools reopen. Similarly, a person can conduct themselves in careful accordance with all of the mitigation guidelines, only to find that they have no option but to spend five hours in a crowded gymnasium trying to vote. True, these scenarios do ask you to imagine what could happen, but at this point these can no longer be seen as flights of fancy—it is more likely than not that this is what things will look like in a month or in a few months.
Much remains uncertain. That cannot be denied. But based on everything that has happened in the last few months (and based on what is happening at the moment), it is prudent to assume that things are not about to dramatically improve.
All decisions about the immediate (and the not too immediate) future, should be driven by the assumption that things are going to get worse.
Generally speaking, society directs derision at Cassandras, Jonahs, chicken littles, and children who cry wolf. When they issue their shrill warnings, they are met with scoffs, and eye rolls. Should the unfortunate scenario that they glumly predicted come to pass, they tend to be forgotten, as cries of “who could have seen this coming!?!?!” are used to shout over any attempts to remember that there were people who saw it coming.
Sadly, when it comes to the pandemic, we are past the point of the Cassandras, Jonahs, chicken littles, and children who cry wolf. It is too late to listen to their woebegone warnings, we (as a society) have already missed that opportunity.
The gates have been breached, the clouds over Nineveh darken, the sky is falling, and the wolves have eaten the shepherd. The situation is worse now than it was when you first started reading this sentence.
Too few think that it’s ever going to happen to them. Which is why we are where we are.
We should have hit the brakes weeks ago. We should hit them while we still can.
A Failure of the Imagination – COVID-19 and Catastrophe
What Studying Disasters Has Taught Me About COVID-19
Towards a Productive Pessimism
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