Exactly two years ago this week, I wondered in this column why the United States was so unprepared for a pandemic. I wasn’t trying to foretell the future, although I did note that pandemics are a relevant fact of life that had, at that point, skipped a few generations. No, I was prompted by the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu epidemic, which also started in September.
As I said, I can’t take pleasure in predicting something that so far has cost more than 180,000 American lives — notwithstanding a gross misinterpretation of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control that some have used, in recent days, to try to minimize that number.
Mine was far from the only voice of warning back then, although few listened.
Utah’s leaders did prepare financially, which is worth noting. The website 247wallstreet.com last week proclaimed the state as having the best economy in the land. The unemployment rate here is at an astounding 4.5%, compared to 10.2% nationwide.
Writing for Forbes, Adam Millsap of the Charles Koch Institute credited Utah’s leaders for going beyond the common practice of setting aside rainy day funds in the state budget. Here, state leaders conduct regular stress tests, similar to what the Federal Reserve uses for banks, to see how ready the state is to withstand a recession. The test includes different scenarios, ranging from a mild recession to something more catastrophic, “and these shocks are used as inputs for a model to predict what would happen to employment, personal income, population, tax revenue and government spending in Utah,” he wrote.
This, he said, prepared the state for COVID-19 — financially, anyway.
But where were the stress tests to determine how prepared the state and the nation was for the other disruptions from a pandemic — everything from online schooling to medical supply chains and pre-arranged strategies for testing and imposing restrictions?
The answer is similar to why politicians aren’t attacking the national debt. Unless a crisis is upon them, it isn’t good politics. As someone wisely said, no one looks good in a pandemic. If you overplan and nothing happens, you look wasteful. Underplan, and you seem disorganized and lacking vision.
Writing for Newsday, former UN scientific communications specialist Matthew Burnett points to Roselyne Bachelot, a former French government official, as an example of this. When the swine flu broke out more than a decade ago, she ordered 1.7 billion face masks and millions of doses of flu vaccine, most of which ended up in landfills. She lost her job and her political career.
The United States has its own example. In 1976, President Gerald Ford initiated a mass vaccination program ahead of an expected flu outbreak. The outbreak never came, and the vaccine was linked to serious side effects.
Burnett would call these examples of “outcome bias,” in which leaders get judged by the eventual outcomes of their decisions, rather than on their intentions given the information at hand at the time.
Maybe some of that will change now. After all, in the years leading up to World War II, the nation spent relatively little on building its armed forces. That changed after the war, as threats from the Soviet Union made constant readiness important.
Maybe after this pandemic ends, politicians will have cover to prepare for the next one. Maybe those who had to learn so much on the fly this time, both on local and national levels, will be called on to form committees, write histories and otherwise preserve their wisdom as a bulwark against future threats.
Two years ago, I finished that column by noting, “it’s hard to drum up urgency when other things seem so much more important.”
Now, six months into a pandemic that has disrupted life in countless ways, few things seem as urgent.