Musings on Emergencies

10 Jun

When in danger, When in doubt,

Run in circles, Scream and shout!

-Original Source Unknown

As a writer, I am used to receiving criticism.  It’s part of the job.  People point out everything from spelling mistakes to factual inaccuracies all the time.  It happens.  I don’t mind it.  But one comment that stuck in my mind came from a review of The Cowards Way of War.  The United States Government I painted, the reviewer pointed out, was too efficient.  Faced with a national – global, really – crisis, the government acted with stunning competence.  The real government would be nowhere near as capable.  It would be rather more like The Last Centurion.

It’s interesting to compare my fictional crisis with the COVID-19 epidemic, but also pointless.  They’re not the same.  The fictional crisis involved a weaponised bioweapon with known – and very lethal – qualities.  COVID-19 was an unknown quantity, as far as the vast majority of people knew.  It was hard to say just how bad it would be, at least at the start; a problem made worse by China and the WHO downplaying the crisis until it was too late to keep it confined to China.  In hindsight, a great many mistakes were made.  This is undeniable.  But it is also undeniable that the decision-makers at the time did not have the advantage of hindsight.  They had to make decisions based on what they knew at the time.

The problem with emergency planning – and emergency drills – is that they always leave out the emergency.  There’s always a sense the drill isn’t real, no matter how intense it seems; there’s always an awareness the drill can be halted if something goes really wrong.  You don’t set fire to a building to carry out a fire drill, for example; you don’t injure a patient to force a trainee doctor to make life-or-death decisions.  Worse, perhaps, the drills are often deliberately slanted to make the participants look good.  They assume that everyone will know what to do, that senior officers – however defined – will be there, that the chain of command will be clearly understood by everyone.  This is unrealistic.  There’s no guarantee that the senior officer will be there, let alone that he’ll make the right call.

And, of course, there’s no way to predict how people will react until they actually face a real emergency.  Will they panic?  Will they freeze?  Will they go too far or will they not go far enough?  Will they actually know what’s going on?  Will they make the right call?  There’s no way to know.  Emergency drills can teach people what they should do in a crisis, but it’s never easy to tell if people are actually learning the right lessons.  Even the most chaotic emergency drill is far more organised than a real emergency.

The problem facing decision-makers is two-fold.  First, they must balance a set of competing requirements.  Second, they must perform this balancing act while trying to ignore everyone who is trying to make political hay out of the crisis.  The person on the spot does not have the luxury of  doing nothing.  He must make a decision, even though it may be the wrong decision.  And he must be prepared to change his decision if new evidence suggests he made the wrong call, despite the certainty his enemies will mock him for changing his mind.  It is simply not easy to realise what someone knew and didn’t know, even without the temptation to turn the disaster to political advantage.  The seemingly-irrational decisions made by the Soviet Government shortly after the Chernobyl Disaster began make a great deal more sense if you realise the Soviet Government was seriously misinformed about the scale of the crisis.

The cold reality of emergency planning is that there is no way to do it perfectly.  There will be problems caused by a lack of knowledge and resources.  Even if the decision-makers have both, it will take time to get organised and actually put them to work.  There will be losses.  Whatever decision the decision-makers take, there will be serious consequences.  People will die.  And then the armchair generals, the people who don’t have the responsibility for dealing with the crisis, will point out – with the advantage of hindsight – how it could have been done better. 

It is never easy to balance competing requirements.  On one hand, putting the entire world into lockdown and ordering everyone to stay indoors would have stopped COVID-19 in short order.  It made cold-blooded sense.  The infected would either die or get better, but they wouldn’t spread the disease any further.  However, on the other hand, this would utterly destroy the global economy and condemn millions of people to starvation.  How many people keep even a week or two’s worth of food in their houses?  If you refuse to let people leave the house for any reason at all, they’re going to starve.  And this would lead, rapidly and inevitably, to a serious breakdown of law and order.

Governments needed, therefore, to strike a balance between closing everything down and keeping everything open, between running the risk of infecting everyone and ruining the economy beyond repair.  This would not have been easy, even with perfect foresight.  It wasn’t clear just how dangerous the virus truly was – and yes, this is still hotly debated – or what would need to be done to tackle it.  And we had the sheer bad luck that this crisis exploded at the same time the media and large numbers of the political class were suffering from Trump/Boris Derangement Syndrome.  Whatever Donald Trump and/or Boris Johnston did, it was going to be branded a mistake.  Worse than a mistake (Trump’s early concern over the virus was branded racism).  They would make the best calls they could, with the data they had on hand, only to be attacked for not knowing things they couldn’t know.  This made it much harder to come to grips with the real crisis.

The sheer scale of the lockdown was beyond any emergency drills.  Some effects were predictable, but were very much second-order priorities.  Others didn’t make themselves apparent until it was too late to change course.  The knock-on effects have been staggering and continue to be so.  If businesses are not making money, they’re not paying wages; if workers are not getting paid, they’re not able to pay their rent; if landlords are not getting rent, they’re unable to pay their debts (mortgages) themselves; if mortgages are not getting paid, the banks might start to totter too.  Governments have run around, trying desperately to fix the first set of problems … and then the problems caused by the first set of solutions.  It’s easy to say that governments did mindlessly stupid things, or were guided by malice, but the blunt truth is that the scale of the crisis was so big that a lot of issues got overlooked until they bit.  Hard.

And some of the problems were so big that they literally could not be handled.

It is not surprising that cracks started to appear very quickly.  The lockdown depended on a great deal of public trust.  This was lacking in both Britain and America.  In Britain, the government’s response to the crisis appeared first lacklustre, then extreme.  In America, the long-standing media war against President Trump ensured that, as I said above, whatever decisions he made would be the wrong decisions.  The fact an election was brewing didn’t make life any easier for Trump, as it would be easy to blame him for every negative effect of the virus.  (The constant lists of politicians from just about everywhere flouting the rules didn’t help.) 

Worse, perhaps, the lockdown caused a great deal of stress for people.  Being trapped in the house, unsure of where one stood … it can be maddening.  People ask “do I still have a job?  Will the landlord kick me out if I can’t make rent?  Will I still go to college?”  And then there’s the constant fear of neighbourhood snitches making a false – or inaccurate – report and getting someone in trouble.  I’m not remotely surprised there’s been a string of incidents as stress and frustration starts to get out of hand.  People who feel forced to bottle up their feelings can explode.  The protest marches/riots following George Floyd’s death don’t really help.  If protesting is perfectly fine, as politicians suggest, then so is reopening businesses and getting back to normal.  If protesting is not fine, then why aren’t the protesters being stopped before they infect themselves and others?  The damage this has done to their long-term credibility cannot be understated. 

The blunt truth is that there probably wasn’t a good – i.e. perfect – way to handle this crisis.  Whatever decisions were made, people were going to die.  There were going to be a string of blunders that ensured more people would die – and yes, many of those deaths could have been avoided.  And I think it is important that politicians – particularly the ones who want my vote – have to bear that in mind.  It’s very easy to point and laugh from the sidelines, to pass judgement on someone when you’re not the one in the hot seat.  It’s a great deal harder to handle a crisis when you’re the one in the hot seat.

20 Responses to “Musings on Emergencies”

  1. Robert Kaliski June 10, 2020 at 5:01 pm #

    What also did not help in the states is that the system is set up so there are at least 50 different state governments with 50 different ways they handle the crisis. Even in the state different people have different needs and views. In Nevada a rancher in Northern Nevada will probably have a totally different take than a blackjack dealer in Vegas.

    Simulating danger no matter how realistic does not give you that cold lump of fear in your belly that the actual experience gives.

    • Jas Pennock June 10, 2020 at 8:53 pm #

      Even worse, they have so many Law Enforcement agencies, with County, Local, and State Police, then Sheriffs Dept, plus all the Suits all vying for control. It makes it a total nightmare before you even start.

  2. Billy June 10, 2020 at 5:08 pm #

    When Obama was in office a pandemic came through it was called the H1N1 virus and the news media ignored it and whoever died just died and whoever lived just lived.
    Nothing was shut down , everything was normal and that virus came and went.

    Now that Trump is in office the liberals and media hate trump so much that they would see the entire world destroyed with the lock down or whatever they can do as long as it hurts Trump

    The media hate Trump is why we even had the lock down in my opinion.

    The same with the * Defund the Police movement – if there is no police then anything bad that comes from that they will blame Trump.

    As long as Trump looks bad , if the whole world burns – the liberals and the news media are for it.

    Everyone can starve to death and be homeless without income, if Trump looks bad that is OK with the News Media

    I think everyone can see what the world will be like if the Liberals are in charge.

    I think Trump will win like Reagan did, a landslide and all the liberal news medias heads will be spinning like tops

    • Conrad C Bassett Jr. June 17, 2020 at 4:19 pm #

      That’s not true. When Obama was in office, he took swift action reducing the impact of the virus. He worked with the governments around the world. He even created a taskforce to coordinate U.S. activities. The media reported regularly on the virus. There were 124,000 infected in the US with a little over 12,000 deaths. He even warned the current president of the dangers of future pandemic, leaving behind a playbook.

  3. Timothy A Schmidt June 10, 2020 at 6:04 pm #

    Funny how in earlier posts you have been scathing in your criticisms of governments and officials and now you’re giving Trump a free pass. There was warning from the intelligence community, there was clear and consistent advise from medical professionals and Trump largely ignored it. Instead of a national strategy, he left it up to the states who often found themselves competing for scarce resources. He advocated one unproven treatment after another, against the advise of medical professionals, only to have to retract a few days later. Regardless of your opinion of the press, this was not his finest hour.

    • thomas Monaghan June 10, 2020 at 9:43 pm #

      Wow A TDS’er. Trump restricted travelers from China early. Biden said: “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria xenophobia, hysterical xenophobia, and fear-mongering to lead the way instead of science.” Antimalarial drug touted by President Trump is linked to increased risk of death in coronavirus patients, study says posted Washington Post. June 4 Editor’s note: This study was retracted on June 4 by three of its authors who said they could “no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources.” The notice was posted by the medical journal Lancet.

    • Kell June 11, 2020 at 5:44 am #

      Yes I agree totally. Although we couldn’t predict how badly it was going to be fact was the trump administration repeatedly gave put conflicting instructions. At one point we where told to not even wear.masks. Inject yourself with lysol,leave quarantine when every medical advisor was like not yet. He made the situation more confusing.

    • chrishanger June 11, 2020 at 4:54 pm #

      I’m not trying to defend Trump nor condemn him. My point is that handling emergencies isn’t easy, particularly when things often change before you can get a grip on what’s actually happening (and you’ll be bashed for whatever you do, even if it seemed a good idea at the time.)


      • pkohonenPekka June 12, 2020 at 10:26 pm #

        Statististics on virus infections, hospitalizations and deaths (including excess deaths that measure how well the whole society responded) can be used to evaluate responses retrospectively in a fairly objective manner. Most Western countries were exposed to the virus at the same time and to a similar degree. Somehow some countries have managed to keep numbers much lower than others. For instance in the UK establishing lockdown just a week earlier might have saved thousands of lives (exponential growth in action).

      • pkohonenPekka June 12, 2020 at 11:58 pm #

        It is interesting though that both in Sweden and the USA lockdown resistance has a similar basis – but people doing it have completely opposing political views. Social democrats in Sweden (assisted by epidemiologists at the national health institute of Sweden) did not want to do a full lockdown apparently because there are no laws in the statute books that really allows people to be forced into a lockdown. The epidemiologists did not want to do it because apart from a full lockdown (that is known to work, since it is essentially freezing the whole society) did not have evidence about which partial lockdown measures would work, so they did not do anything much. In Finland (and other Nordic countries) however laws were skirted/broadly-interpreted to allow a full lockdown. Finland even implemented internal borders, like closing off New York from the rest of the country, something that really strained the what could be considered legal at the time. The whole “full lockdown” was really something invented by the Chinese, if they had not shocked the whole world with what they did in Wuhan I don’t anybody would have even thought to do it in the West. In the USA of course economic concerns as well as Freedom-related concerns (and maybe general disorganization) prevented the full lockdown to be implemented in time. The virus does not care why you do something, or whether a Republican or a Democrat does it (or the CCP).

  4. peterrhodan June 10, 2020 at 8:22 pm #

    NZ and Australia did well…. just saying

  5. Jas P June 10, 2020 at 9:12 pm #

    Having been in the Police and been to numerous Emergencies, you quickly realise that when you are in the hot seat, things are very different, even something as simple as a minor vehicle accident can become disastrous without proper Emergency Control as other vehicles can collide with the initial accident, someone from the accident could walk into oncoming traffic, you think people are uninjured and someone has a heart attack from shock, a fire starts from leaking fuel – all things that have happened to Police I know, and some to me (trust me it’s not fun when the car bursts into flames and you’re not expecting it) It is easy to sit back and throw criticism to (as Christopher said, Armchair Critics are such wonderful people – but it is even worse when those people are a panel of your Senior Officers, judging you on 3 or 4 seconds of life or death decision, when someone is trying to kill you, and you draw your gun and make that decision to shoot them – whilst at that split second or two, it seemed like the right thing, and your only choice (this was back in the day before tasers and capsicum spray and he had a knife and had tried to stab a security guard already, and was standing on a path where about 200-300 school kids were coming down in 20mins, and refused to both put the knife down, and stop coming at me), is to pull the trigger, but when you actually sit down in the cool light of day, and replay everything, 10, 20, a 1000 times over, was it the right decision?
    My point is that in an Emergency, there are so many things that happen, and those on the ground have to make split second decisions, those above sometimes get a little longer, but it is always easy to cast dispersion’s at people after the fact, in hindsight, with all the information. I mean sure, in some cases, it is plainly clear that they are in the wrong, I don’t have all the facts, I know, but after 11yrs in the Police, I know that you never kneel on someones neck who isn’t fighting and who is begging to breathe – duh…
    Powerful Stuff Christopher, you always have really insightful “Musings”, this one is really interesting.
    Oh, and for those that might be interested – in the game of rock, paper, scissors, knife – Gun Wins – he decided that he wanted to live, and put the knife down, just as I started to pull the trigger, and by the grace of god or some other divine intervention, the gun did not go off, he was a very lucky man that day. So was I.

  6. MishaBurnett June 10, 2020 at 9:29 pm #

    Your opening quote is from The Hunting Of The Snark by Lewis Carroll.

  7. ROBERT IMUS June 10, 2020 at 11:48 pm #

    The poem at the top is perhaps from Leon Uris’ book “Battle Cry” published in 1953. My parents had it on the shelf and I found it there when I was ~12. Maybe this is why I joined the USMC? 🙂

  8. Doc Sithicus June 11, 2020 at 2:32 am #

    I can speak only for myself. When in December I started hearing about a new disease spreading in Wuhan, I’ve was thinking – it’s another of China’s problems, like baby formula contaminated with melamine. When WHO started releasing various statements in January, my bullshit detector was ringing. I’ve purchased an extra 6 months worth of long term food and all the necessities that make our life bearable. I’ve stocked up my medicine cabinet. I’ve tripled my ammo, just in case. I’ve stocked up on books, some of them from Chris 🙂
    I was prepared to hunker down and wait out whatever was coming – either a global pandemic, zombie apocalypse or civilization collapsing into Mad Max scenario.

    So if a guy like me can see the writing on the wall early enough, what’s the excuse for the government with all the well paid experts and emergency planners?

    • Jacqueline harris June 11, 2020 at 5:46 am #

      It didn’t help that the pandemic response team was let go shortly before he came into office.

    • pkohonenPekka June 13, 2020 at 12:14 am #

      I also went into panic buying mode in late February/early March. My boss at the university also told that the balloon was up after the Wuhan lockdown was implemented in China. A colleague of mine in Finland might have caught the virus in a holiday trip and then I started thinking how many Finns and Swedes (I live in Sweden) were returning from holiday trips to the South East Asia or Italy at the time and really started to panic. As it happens I have not left my apartment since then other than to buy food occasionally. There was time to respond with a full lockdown, which now seems to have been the best course of action (accompanied with debt-fuelled subsidies to affected businesses and so on).

  9. PhilippeO June 11, 2020 at 3:22 am #

    ” Trump’s early concern over the virus was branded racism ”

    Bullshit. Its Trump calling it “Wuhan flu” that is branded racism, not his early concern.

    ” The protest marches/riots following George Floyd’s death don’t really help. If protesting is perfectly fine, as politicians suggest, then so is reopening businesses and getting back to normal. If protesting is not fine, then why aren’t the protesters being stopped before they infect themselves and others ? ”

    The protest is NOT FINE, its likely kill AA disproportionately. The protest is simply IMPORTANT. Sometime we must re-affirm Human Dignity, even if it did not bring any policy change and any result. Besides, considering the Right had started anti-Covid protest because of hoax and haircut, Right Politicians had lost all credibility.

  10. Conrad C Bassett, Jr. June 18, 2020 at 1:56 pm #

    Chris I have a few things to say about your analysis and i am not going to belabor the points. However, you are missing some significant pieces about how the US handled this recent pandemic.

    1. You must understand that Donald Trump is not a normal president and what he did defies convention. So to say that the President was in a bad position without recognizing that he largely put himself in this position does not address the fullness of the truth.
    2. In regards to the protesters, while you have noted the lack of action for the BLM movement violating rules under the pandemic. You failed to address that the protests that resulted from Mr. Floyd’s death, occured when the country began to release some of it’s restrictions. You also failed to address that previous protests of the response to the pandemic, was not policed to the same degree that the current protests are, nor did you truly analyze the Trump Administration’s response to protests in general.
    3. There was a better way to handle this pandemic. Obama left explicit instructions for Mr. Trump, created two organizations to handle the response to the pandemic, and told him if he needed help all he had to do was ask. Trump decided not to handle this pandemic and left it up to the states to deal with it while hamstringing a national response which should have happened in December when the outbreak occurred. As it has been done in the past, so to should it have been done in the present.

    • chrishanger June 20, 2020 at 4:05 pm #

      Good points

      One – that’s partly true; Trump brings some of his problems on himself. However, he is not responsible for all of them and/or unable to do anything about others.

      Two – I’m not following the exact status of the lockdown in the US (I’m British and under orders, until yesterday, to stay indoors because I’m immunocompromised.) However, it seems to me that mass protests were likely to spread the virus and/or be bitterly resented by people who’d been told to stay indoors or wind up penalised for needing to go outdoors.

      Three – I think, as I noted in the article, that Trump didn’t know – at first – how bad things were likely to get and had to grapple with multiple different problems and the certain knowledge he’d be blasted for whatever he did. It’s very easy to respond to an overt threat like an enemy army storming the beaches, but harder to react to a virus when – even in a perfect world – whatever you do will exact a price.

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