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In the future, historians may marvel at the speed at which we developed a handful of vaccines to combat the coronavirus. But any praise they offer will be tempered by a resolution of censure regarding how we managed the pandemic itself. That rebuke may include expressions of disbelief at how slow we were to act, how grand and petty politics got in the way of good decision making, how fools resisted masks and bigger fools refused vaccines. We know they will think about us this way because that’s how we think about our own forebears.
When we read history, we recreate it in our minds; we inhabit the world of those who lived and decided before us and we judge them as we second-guess their decisions. In many cases, we pick up a story out of history and know how it ends. We know Napoleon should keep out of Russia. We see the “unsinkable” Titanic steaming towards the iceberg and know the proximate and avoidable causes of the coming collision. We know the Maginot Line will prove insufficient as the Germans head around it towards the Belgian border. We know the Challenger will be engulfed in flames after a series of errors culminate in a seal failure. We lament the institutional and human failures that produce tragedies. We mock the historical blunders of humans held up as paragons of leadership. We then, of course, suspect that we would do better.
And then our moment arrives.
In The Premonition: A Pandemic Story (W.W. Norton, 2021), Michael Lewis assesses the pandemic response of the United States through a cast of characters who intersect with the economic, social and political institutions of their country. That group includes Dr. Charity Dean, a public health official in California, Carter Mecher, a doctor from the Veterans Affairs Department, Bob Glass, a scientist from Sandia National Laboratories and Joe DeRisi, a University of California, San Francisco biochemist.
The story told in The Premonition is one of a plucky band of geniuses up against the virus, an inept state and time. The book’s description goes so far as to cite “a secret team of dissenting doctors, nicknamed the Wolverines” battling against the odds. It’s as fascinating as it is dispiriting. As Crawford Kilian points out in his review in The Tyee, the volume sends the message “that we are incapable of saving ourselves as citizens working through our democratic institutions.” He’s right. But we don’t have to read it that way.
While one may see the book as an indictment of the state in general and public health in particular – and even a call to open space for private enterprise to do the work of preparing humankind for disaster and springing into action when it inevitably arises – it ought to be read as a call to rebuild state institutions and to recommit to building state capacity. As Mecher says at one point in references to a hospital failure that led to a patient being severely burned by a bath, “When you go into the details of the cases, you see it’s not bad people. It’s bad systems. When the systems depend on human vigilance, they will fail.”
Mecher’s point about bad systems is an argument for better systems: ones that include a bias towards action, incentives to act quickly in response to imminent disaster, protection for those who do act and an institutional memory that helps people remember how to act. State systems are the ones best suited to that work because states have the resources, mandate and moral duty to care for everyone, to look ahead and to circumscribe behaviour within constitutional limits when it’s required. For decades, state capacity has been eroded, and throughout the pandemic, examples of state failure have been common. But that’s not an argument for abandoning the principle of state responsibility. It’s an argument for rebuilding the state and adopting better systems.
Systems do indeed matter. Just over 100 years ago, on Dec. 6, 1917, the Imo collided with the Mont-Blanc in Halifax harbour. The former was a relief ship, the latter was a munitions ship heading from New York to Europe in support of the war effort. In The Halifax Explosion: Canada’s Worst Disaster (HarperCollins, 2017), Ken Cuthbertson writes that the ensuing explosion, at 9:04 a.m., was “an apocalyptic blast the likes of which had never before been seen or heard.” Indeed, it was “the biggest man-made explosion prior to the 1945 atomic bomb blasts.” The damage was catastrophic, killing 2,000 people, injuring 9,000 more, destroying 1,500 buildings and damaging 12,000 others.
In the aftermath of the devastation, there was a commission of inquiry – the Wreck Commissioner’s inquiry – and plenty of finger pointing. Who was responsible? The captain of the Imo? Its local pilot? The captain of the Mont-Blanc? Its local pilot? The commander from the Royal Canadian Navy in charge of the harbour? There was plenty of blame to go around – even a criminal charge. But in the end, the story reads as a systems failure that struck a lapse of human vigilance. Why did the pilots fail to clearly communicate their intentions with one another? Why were the two ships ever able to get so close to one another? Why was a ship loaded heavy with TNT, picric acid, guncotton and benzol fuel – ”a floating bomb” – allowed into the Harbour under such conditions in the first place?
As Cuthbertson writes of the coming impact, “those eyewitnesses who lived to tell the tale reported that they had seen trouble coming long before it ever happened.” Those on the scene were talking about the immediate collision of these two vessels, but taking a broader view, they could have been talking about any accident destined to occur in a system marked by poor regulation, lax safety-measure enforcement and strained communication. After the explosion, Canada adopted new protocols and regulations that “amounted, ipso facto, to a tacit admission that there had been serious problems with operations in the port of Halifax.”
Thinking about the Halifax explosion, Canada’s worst disaster to date, alongside the pandemic, common themes emerge. Accidents can be minimized but not eliminated all together, in the same way that natural disasters and pandemics can be mitigated but not eradicated. Moreover, the relief effort post-disaster in 1917 was initially tremendous, drawing support from across Canada and from the United States. Communities and the state stepped up in the aftermath of the devastation, but those efforts were limited and eventually trapped those who needed assistance in morass. Those who could afford to manage the burden the least were required to do the most. That sounds familiar, even with the federal programming that was quickly mobilized in the early days of the pandemic.
Struggles over how to rebuild plagued Halifax in the years following the tragedy. They will plague us, too, though in different ways, as we sort out how to “build back better” – whatever that means.
Catastrophes are the products of systems. They’re also political. Not all of them are caused by politics – though some are – but each is conditioned by politics, for better or worse. In Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (Penguin, 2021), Niall Ferguson presents a plodding, sometimes bizarre, but often interesting survey of big things going wrong. The book takes editorial turns to criticize lockdowns and warn of a Cold War with China, shoe-horning op-eds into otherwise more stringent analysis, but Ferguson’s meta-insights into the structure of “doom” are incisive. As he writes, “a catastrophe lays bare the societies and states that it strikes. It is a moment of truth, of revelation, exposing some as fragile, others as resilient, and others as ‘antifragile’ – able not just to withstand disaster but to be strengthened by it.”
The book is overstuffed, drawing in Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe and Thucydides among others, to talk of earthquakes, floods, wildfires, volcanoes, pathogens and more. It borders on a grand theory of disaster as political and politicized, shaped by networks, brought about by proximate causes emerging within complex systems. Central to Ferguson’s argument is the idea “most disasters occur when a complex system goes critical, usually as a result of some small perturbation.” He adds, “the extent to which the exogenous shock causes a disaster is generally a function of the social network structure that comes under stress. The point of failure, if it can be located at all, is more likely to be in the middle layer than at the top of the organization chart.”
Thinking back to Lewis and his Wolverines up against the state, Ferguson’s analysis holds up. Yes, U.S. President Donald Trump was a significant problem when it came to the United States’ handling of the pandemic. But so were many functionaries throughout the state, not the least of whom came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ferguson concludes his theory by arguing “when failure occurs, however, society as a whole, and the different interest groups within it, will draw much larger inferences about future risk than are warranted.” He cites aversions to nuclear power that emerged in the wake of meltdowns at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. He’s right about the psychology of disaster, part of a human tendency to focus on and exaggerate threats that are striking and come easily to mind. But certain risks are owed some measure of what may seem to be disproportionate concern – including climate change, which Ferguson argues captures too much of our attention relative to other threats. Risks in our mind are risks we live. Even if they are irrational or overblown. While states may wish to correct public perception, and indeed should, the process by which they do so must include taking individual concerns seriously and bringing those folks into the policymaking process rather than dismissing them as Chicken Littles. That duty is part of democratic life.
As we look to the months ahead, we ought to accept that for many of us – though not even close to all of us, given inequitable vaccine distribution around the world – the pandemic may soon come to an end. We ought to also recognize the individual and collective trauma we have experienced and make space for it.
In the aftermath of this wretched time, we should also commit to rebuilding state capacity. Doing so will improve our response to future disasters. To that commitment we should add the goal of an equitable distribution of resources that will make life fair for all of us during crisis and in the interlude. Doing so will ensure that no one lives a life of day-to-day doom. We should also take the lessons we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and apply them to the existential threat of climate change, not the least of which is found in these books by Lewis, Cuthbertson and Ferguson: develop good systems and act fast. Our lives may depend upon it.