Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything; or, Botched Opportunities

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James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:

Coping with a pandemic is one of the most complex challenges a society can face. To minimize death and damage, leaders and citizens must orchestrate a huge array of different resources and tools. Scientists must explore the most advanced frontiers of research while citizens attend to the least glamorous tasks of personal hygiene. Physical supplies matter—test kits, protective gear—but so do intangibles, such as “flattening the curve” and public trust in official statements. The response must be global, because the virus can spread anywhere, but an effective response also depends heavily on national policies, plus implementation at the state and community level. Businesses must work with governments, and epidemiologists with economists and educators. Saving lives demands minute-by-minute attention from health-care workers and emergency crews, but it also depends on advance preparation for threats that might not reveal themselves for many years. I have heard military and intelligence officials describe some threats as requiring a “whole of nation” response, rather than being manageable with any one element of “hard” or “soft” power or even a “whole of government” approach. Saving lives during a pandemic is a challenge of this nature and magnitude.

It is a challenge that the United States did not meet. During the past two months, I have had lengthy conversations with some 30 scientists, health experts, and past and current government officials—all of them people with firsthand knowledge of what our response to the coronavirus pandemic should have been, could have been, and actually was. The government officials had served or are still serving in the uniformed military, on the White House staff, or in other executive departments, and in various intelligence agencies. Some spoke on condition of anonymity, given their official roles. As I continued these conversations, the people I talked with had noticeably different moods. First, in March and April, they were astonished and puzzled about what had happened. Eventually, in May and June, they were enraged. “The president kept a cruise ship from landing in California, because he didn’t want ‘his numbers’ to go up,” a former senior government official told me. He was referring to Donald Trump’s comment, in early March, that he didn’t want infected passengers on the cruise ship Grand Princess to come ashore, because “I like the numbers being where they are.” Trump didn’t try to write this comment off as a “joke,” his go-to defense when his remarks cause outrage, including his June 20 comment in Tulsa that he’d told medical officials to “slow the testing down, please” in order to keep the reported-case level low. But the evidence shows that he has been deadly earnest about denying the threat of COVID-19, and delaying action against it.

“Look at what the numbers are now,” this same official said, in late April, at a moment when the U.S. death toll had just climbed above 60,000, exceeding the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. By late June, the total would surpass 120,000—more than all American military deaths during World War I. “If he had just been paying attention, he would have asked, ‘What do I do first?’ We wouldn’t have passed the threshold of casualties in previous wars. It is a catastrophic failure.”

As an amateur pilot, I can’t help associating the words catastrophic failure with an accident report. The fact is, confronting a pandemic has surprising parallels with the careful coordination and organization that has saved large numbers of lives in air travel. Aviation is safe in large part because it learns from its disasters. Investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board go immediately to accident sites to begin assessing evidence. After months or even years of research, their detailed reports try to lay out the “accident chain” and explain what went wrong. In deciding whether to fly if I’m tired or if the weather is marginal, I rely on a tie-breaking question: How would this look in an NTSB report?

Controlling the risks of flight may not be as complex as fighting a pandemic, but it’s in the ballpark. Aviation is fundamentally a very dangerous activity. People are moving at high altitudes, at high speed, and in high volume, with a guarantee of mass casualties if things go wrong. Managing the aviation system involves hardware—airframes, engines, flight control systems—and “software,” in the form of training, routing, and coordinated protocols. It requires recognition of hazards that are certain—bad weather, inevitable mechanical breakdowns—and those that cannot be specifically foreseen, from terrorist episodes to obscure but consequential computer bugs. It involves businesses and also governments; it is nation-specific and also worldwide; it demands second-by-second attention and also awareness of trends that will take years to develop.

The modern aviation system works. From the dawn of commercial aviation through the 1990s, 1,000 to 2,000 people would typically die each year in airline crashes. Today, the worldwide total is usually about one-10th that level. Last year, before the pandemic began, more than 25,000 commercial-airline flights took off each day from airports in the United States. Every one of them landed safely.

In these two fundamentally similar undertakings—managing the skies, containing disease outbreaks—the United States has set a global example of success in one and of failure in the other. It has among the fewest aviation-related fatalities in the world, despite having the largest number of flights. But with respect to the coronavirus pandemic, it has suffered by far the largest number of fatalities, about one-quarter of the global total, despite having less than one-20th of the world’s population.

Consider a thought experiment: What if the NTSB were brought in to look at the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic? What would its investigation conclude? I’ll jump to the answer before laying out the background: This was a journey straight into a mountainside, with countless missed opportunities to turn away. A system was in place to save lives and contain disaster. The people in charge of the system could not be bothered to avoid the doomed course.

The organization below differs from that of a standard NTSB report, but it covers the key points. Timelines of aviation disasters typically start long before the passengers or even the flight crew knew anything was wrong, with problems in the design of the airplane, the procedures of the maintenance crew, the route, or the conditions into which the captain decided to fly. In the worst cases, those decisions doomed the flight even before it took off. My focus here is similarly on conditions and decisions that may have doomed the country even before the first COVID-19 death had been recorded on U.S. soil.

What happened once the disease began spreading in this country was a federal disaster in its own right: Katrina on a national scale, Chernobyl minus the radiation. It involved the failure to test; the failure to trace; the shortage of equipment; the dismissal of masks; the silencing or sidelining of professional scientists; the stream of conflicting, misleading, callous, and recklessly ignorant statements by those who did speak on the national government’s behalf. As late as February 26, Donald Trump notoriously said of the infection rate, “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” What happened after that—when those 15 cases became 15,000, and then more than 2 million, en route to a total no one can foretell—will be a central part of the history of our times.

But what happened in the two months before Trump’s statement, when the United States still had a chance of containing the disease where it started or at least buffering its effects, is if anything worse.

1. The Flight Plan

The first thing an airplane crew needs to know is what it will be flying through. Thunderstorms? Turbulence? Dangerous or restricted airspace? The path of another airplane? And because takeoffs are optional but landings are mandatory, what can it expect at the end of the flight? Wind shear? An icy runway? The biggest single reason flying is so much safer now than it was even a quarter century ago is that flight crews, air traffic controllers, and the airline “dispatchers” who coordinate with pilots have so many precise tools with which to anticipate conditions and hazards, hours or days in advance.

And for the pandemic? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 6:13 pm

One Response

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  1. How true!

    manfred marcus

    30 June 2020 at 2:37 pm

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