COVID-19 is just a pop quiz. The real test is coming.

Created on 2020-03-15 23:10 Published on 2020-03-16 00:2

Now that the new corona virus has our attention, let’s consider what a real crisis will look like. Currently we can still drive to the store, shop for groceries that were delivered over night from global distributors supported by millions of farms and factories. We can go to a hospital and see doctors who will admit us and treat us. Masks, test kits, gowns, and medical equipment are manufactured around the world and delivered where they are needed. We call our families, read the news, and stream TV shows and movies.What if all that we take for granted disappeared?

Garrett Ward sprays disinfectant behind a plexiglass panel at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Overland Park, Kan., on March 26. Stores have begun installing the shields in checkout aisles to protect clerks and help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

FEMA disaster planners actually consider this possibility. In 2003, a massive solar plasma flair escaped the sun. Luckily, it missed Earth. Had it hit North America we would still be recovering. Every computer board would have been disabled, every satellite, every automobile, every cell tower, every electric transformer. We would literally have entered the dark ages. The consequences of a solar flare are so severe that humankind has parked a satellite between Earth and the Sun. If it detects a flare, the alert will reach the White House twenty minutes before our electricity and communications systems are severly disabled. Just time enough to hit the panic button and head to the presidential bomb shelter.


In places like Denver, Colorado, officials estimate that 70,000 people who are dependent on electric medical devices for oxygen, dialysis, refrigerated medicine and other treatments will die within seven days. Hospitals may have fuel and generators to power critical functions for a week or two, if their back up power equipment still works. Back up generators are not designed to run constantly for weeks, and fuel cannot be pumped into tankers or delivered if the pumps have no power or the digital instruments in the trucks are fried.

The cities along the Front Range of Colorado are supplied with food on a just-in time basis. Every day, 350 semi-trailers and rail cars come up from Texas, Mexico, and California ports of entry with tomorrow’s groceries. When the power goes out, every morsel in the stores will disappear, and warehouses will be captured by private interests or government agencies.To undertake table top disaster drills, like this solar flare instance with FEMA, is to realize that electricity and electronics are the foundation of our lives. Try just sending a message without them.

Denver’s emergency management office maintains a fleet of 200 bicycles and 50 manual typewriters with a store room full of carbon paper. (Remember carbon paper?) For some amount of time, the City government will be able to issue orders, collect information, and operate basic emergency leadership. But there’s a hitch. The 15,000 emergency responders who have contractually agreed to show up and work in the darkest of dark days will only do so if their families are safely housed and cared for. Those services and supplies are expected to last only two weeks. After that, the plan is to send everyone home to fend for themselves.It’s not just the one-in-a-billion chances of a solar flare.

The earthquake in Port-au-Prince and the hurricane in Puerto Rico knocked out every public service and basic infrastructure the countries had – including many roads. A cyber attack on the electric grid could take down vast regions of our country’s electric service as cascading outages cover the continent. The difference is that it might take only days to deliver life-saving supplies to a nearby island nation, or some weeks to re-boot the software controlling our electric grid. The difference is that mutual aid is available – a functioning US administration would support its nearby protectorates and allies, and temporary power generation could reestablish communications systems, at very least for the military and emergency responders.

When the Big Test comes, its effect will be so widespread and long term that every city and county will be forced to fend for itself, with little left over to share. And the ability provide mutual aid is just wishful thinking when transportation and communications are impaired.

When the last days’ worth of food, batteries, toilet paper and fuel are gone, panic will likely set in. Without coordinated disaster management, many people will walk out of their cities to escape possible violence, pestilence, and famine. Others will wait for help to arrive. And wait. And wait. For FEMA, the greatest fear is civil unrest. They admit they have no resources of their own, only the authority to move around what resources others make available. When the Big Test comes and the government says to stay calm and shelter in place, that’s because they have nothing else to offer.

After the Port-au-Prince earthquake, 3 million or more people walked out of the city into the country side. They relocated in whatever place would take them. They begged food, desperately sought news of family members, and tried to contribute to the new community that tragedy and crisis had forced them to join. Years later, many of these refugees are still in the rural towns and hamlets they landed in: a rare instance of reverse migration out of cities caused by the new and frightening realization of the weaknesses of both the infrastructure and social support systems found there.Walking out of Denver looking for food, shelter, and medicine would be harrowing.

Walk to where, exactly? In a widespread long term crisis, every community is hungry and fearful. The Denver emergency management staff had been deployed to Haiti after the earthquake there and thus understood better than most the difficulty of responding without resources like phones, internet, roads, food stores, potable water, hospitals, fuel and medicine. At one point during the FEMA planning session I attended, I asked Denver what they would do to help Boulder.“Nothing. You are on your own.”

The Pop Quiz called COVID-19 has many families thinking about What If for the first time. What if I have to survive on only what is in my house right now, for two or more weeks? That’s really good preparation for the Big Test. At the moment, we still have communications, gasoline, food, heating, water and medical services. COVID-19 is dangerous, but most of us will remain comfortable, if cautious. As startling as the question is, we also need to ask What If we lose all of these necessities as well, and lose them for an extended time with no sure end in sight? That really changes the answer.

Who and what can you depend on?

COVID-19 has engendered a set of social maxims which are a good place to start. First, don’t be selfish and make matters worse for others by carrying on in public when you may unknowingly be a contagious carrier of the virus. Have a week or two of supplies on hand so you can get by in a pinch, and, more importantly, not feel panicked. If you can, have enough extra supplies that you can share with others in need. (And wash your damn hands and cover your cough, but you should have passed that test years ago.)

Passing the BIG Test will need more thought and preparation. If you can’t go anywhere else, and there is no place else to go, your local neighborhood becomes your lifeboat. So, who do you know? What skills and resources do they have? Do you trust them? Do they trust you? Who would you look to for leadership? Who would assume leadership but does not deserve to? In isolated communities across the globe, these are questions that everyone learns early in life. They hone this skill of knowing where they stand, often over generations. City life often allows us to skip these lessons. Take out Chinese to the rescue.

The Big Test will not just require you to find the things you need to survive. That’s the easy part. The Big Test will require that you share what you have and create common cause with people you formerly considered strangers. You may find that only one house can stay heated in winter, so you’ll move in with 35 others. You’ll have to make the case why your child deserves the last antibiotics. You’ll share a latrine. You’ll bury your aunt whose insulin ran out. You will figure out ways to do things that can only be done in cooperation with and dependence on others. The difference between panic and hope will be mutual aid with others.

The difference between panic and hope will be mutual aid with others.

Where I live, a lot of places are closed or people just don’t want to congregate until the virus infection rate is under control. The number of people walking and hiking today is five times what it normally is. We’re bored. We need fresh air. The dogs are going stir crazy. What’s great is how many neighbors are stopping to talk, in small dispersed groups. We kind of know each other, but we sense there is common cause now and we may need each other more than usual in the future. “Let me know when you need anything” is the new goodbye.

“Let me know when you need anything” is the new Goodbye.

It’s unlikely we will form an armed contagion-defense committee or quarantine the neighborhood from outsiders. That’s not the point. But if the Big Test comes, I have a pretty good idea of what I can contribute to the survival and safety of my community. And I have started asking others the same questions: Who will need help? How would we share news? Where would we agree to meet?

What if?

Leave a Reply