Once the parties start again

We’re now in the third month of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in the US. In some ways our collective response to this has been effective (e.g., closing the borders), in some ways not (e.g., politicizing the pandemic). We are clearly learning as we go – as we should – and our response efforts are getting better focused. But the pandemic is both causing problems that will last long after we have the pandemic under control, as well as shining new light on existing problems that we haven’t solved.

Taiwan has done exceedingly well in dealing with the pandemic. Even though next door to China, only two deaths have been reported so far (By comparison, Italy’s per capita death rate from the virus is almost 1000 times higher.). Taiwan’s success is due in large part to their taking a hard look at their response to SARS in 2004. They built a crisis plan based on what they learned and have successfully implemented it. Their approach to the crisis has been different from ours and other countries (See here for a nice summary article and to get to a list of the actions they’ve taken.). I hope we in the US will do the same after this crisis passes. In this post, I want to pose some questions that I hope will be considered (starting with gathering appropriate data). I’m focusing on impacts to our communities; there are many others that need to be considered as well.

What is the “aim point” for our response in the future? The current strategy in the US is aimed at limiting the number of deaths from the virus. Thus, we’re not really trying to prevent the virus from occurring; rather we’re accepting that people will catch the virus but trying to slow down its spread. If we are unsuccessful, then people will needlessly die because we don’t have enough ICU hospital beds, respirators and ventilators to treat the potential spike in cases. If we had a cure OR a vaccine OR more hospital beds and needed equipment, we could potentially employ a different strategy.

How will those who live in cities and those in rural areas do? I must admit I have often been bemused by our country’s lurch toward urbanization. Cities concentrate risk – you’re more likely to be exposed to the virus if you live in a city (New York City is currently experiencing a death every hour.). Conversely, cities also concentrate resources – there are more hospitals, medical equipment and medicines in cities to deal with the sick. In the Spanish flu epidemics of 1917-19, mortality was less than 1% in urban areas (probably due to partial immunity from previous influenza outbreaks) compared to up to 90% in some rural communities. Right now, we have too few ICUs in rural communities and too many cases in some of our cities. We need to recognize that rural and urban health care needs are different and develop better means to address both. But to do that we need to have a better handle on what those needs are.

How will the homeless fare? Most of the permanently homeless are in poor physical and mental health. Most of them are men. Drugs, alcohol, and poor environments have compromised their immune systems. They are likely at high risk. I’m fairly certain that our communications with the homeless are – at best – spotty. We need to consider what actions we ought to take to both communicate with and care for this slice of the homeless population.

How useful were our models of the virus’ spread and mortality? As George Box famously said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Our models for the spread of a pandemic are generally pretty good BUT like all models their accuracy depends on their input parameters. The ones we’re using are based on the Chinese experience, or what they’ve indicated was their experience. We don’t know how well that translates to American demographics or the American health care system.

Is the approach we’re taking to social distancing the best overall? Taiwan, South Korea have taken a different approach to achieve the same ends as our draconian shutdowns of businesses and schools. While our approach may be best for containment of the virus, we need to know how it impacts other aspects of community life, e.g., businesses, education and other social facets. We are taking action to determine the impacts on small businesses and the economy at large; we need to have the same urgency about the pandemic’s impacts on our kids’ education and our communities’ social fabric.

Can we track contacts more effectively? Tracking the contacts of those potentially infected is a key part of the strategy followed by Taiwan. This is much harder to do in our country with its patchwork of health departments at community, county, state and national levels. But I’m sick and tired of hearing the phrase “community spread” as a sort of code for “we don’t have a clue how Grandma was infected.” We can do better, but it will require that each of us takes a hard look at the balance between individual privacy and community health security.Along those same lines, we need to begin using Big Data techniques to determine potential future hot spots. There is all sorts of data indicating people flows; we need to start using them for future casting. We undoubtedly will initially stumble – make bad calls – but we can’t do better unless we start doing.

How should we deal with those crossing our nation’s borders? Our immigration policy – such as it is – is a mess. Was and is, but we need to fix it for the future. Further, many of us Americans (like She Who Must Be Obeyed) have a lot of unsatisfied wanderlust. The government took what appears to be appropriate and relatively effective action to selectively close our borders but it is clear that foreign visitors or returning Americans triggered at least some of the hot spots. While I hate to contemplate it, we need to consider actions such as required medical screening at every border entry for anyone coming into the country.

This is a difficult time for all of us. The approach we’re taking toward the virus in the US is the one most likely to deplete our social capital, at least for a while. As I’ve often said, never underestimate the power of a party – I hope the human love of partying will help us to recapitalize our social infrastructure. But once the parties start again, we need to look back honestly at the crisis past, and be better prepared for the next one – knowing full well that it won’t be like the last one.

In my next post, I’ll turn from crisis planning to putting together a plan for coming back. Given our approach to the pandemic, what sorts of things ought to be considered in planning for our communities’ recovery?

One more thing. With all of the guidance on hand washing and use of sanitizers, we tend to overlook the obvious: healthy people are going to fare better than those who aren’t, no matter their age. All of us need to find ways to keep fit while we’re isolated. During the week, I’m usually out by 630am walking 3-4 miles. Others are using video exercise or tai chi classes. Whatever you do, please make sure you, your elderly parents and your kids find ways to stay active even while avoiding unnecessary contacts.

The challenged and community resilience

Several years ago, CARRI embarked on a massive undertaking focused on developing – and then testing – a community resilience system.  During a meeting of its Community Leaders Working Group, I was asked why we had included “The community works to maximize the value of those with special challenges” as one of our important community functions.  In fact, two of the most in-my-face questioners (both former mayors of sizable cities) actually accused me of being politically correct (If this were true, it would come as a huge shock to anyone who has ever worked with me, not to mention my wife!).

I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about who are the challenged, and why it makes practical sense for communities to treat them as potential assets, not liabilities.

If we look at our communities today, 5-10 % of the population have some debilitating mental or physical condition.  One in eight Americans receive at least part of their food through food stamps; one in five of our children lives in poverty or extreme poverty.  Those with disabilities are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to live in poverty than those with no disabilities. Fully one-third of those who could be employed have exited the labor force.

After a community is hit by a disaster, recovery makes huge demands on the permanent personnel who actually keep the community running.  More people are needed to remove debris.  More people are needed to handle the flood of permits for rebuilding.  People are needed to reconnect families and to help get services to those who need them.  Many communities meet these needs by hiring “outsiders” to provide these services, but if they do so, they lose in at least two ways. 

  • These communities send the resources to pay for these services outside the community.  Since the federal government will pay for many kinds of temporary workers after a disaster, it makes good sense to hire these workers from within the community – to keep as many precious dollars within the community as possible.  The challenged – particularly the employable unemployed – should be the first resource tapped by a community (To their credit, BP agreed to do just that in southern Louisiana communities affected by the oil spill.).
  • These communities have to spend more of their resources helping the challenged recover from the disaster than they otherwise would. That means much less accomplished with limited resources and possibly a longer recovery period.

In other words, communities who don’t use the challenged to aid in the extraordinary challenges of recovery are turning potential assets into real liabilities.

Thus, by making use of its members who face significant challenges to meet the extraordinary demands of recovery from a disaster, a community can keep dollars in the community while maintaining a more productive and motivated permanent staff.  This isn’t political correctness but enlightened self-interest.