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Disaster Preparedness

When Too Much May Not Be Enough

edward tenner, a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University, is currently a Visitor in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Published September 9, 2020


Many Americans (including me) who were appalled by their nation’s lack of preparedness for the Covid-19 pandemic viewed it as the predictable result of a broader disdain for the role of government in securing health and safety. So from this perspective, one would have expected the social democracies of Europe to shine, rising to the challenge and putting America’s chronically underfunded public institutions to shame. 

It was a shock, then, to read an investigative report in The New York Times with the headline (in the print edition), “Sure of Pandemic Readiness, Europe’s Pride Preceded a Fall.” Far from setting examples of rational foresight and the vaunted European precautionary principle of erring on the side of caution, many of Europe’s leading medical authorities and political leaders smugly believed they had the situation in hand. According to the report, Europeans’ self-image of a wealthy group of societies prepared for all contingencies masked a web of deception, questionable projections and inadequate stockpiles of masks and other essential supplies.

Birds Do It, Bees Do It …

Covid-19 has revived some ancient methods of coping with catastrophe. One of them, dating back at least as far as 14th-century Venice, is, of course, the quarantine. Another, which is both more mundane and neglected, is the idea of reserves of both materiel and people.

This latter idea hardly was born with humanity. Indeed, recent research has shown that, contrary to the popular image of ceaselessly industrious ants, about 40 percent of worker ants are idle at any time. These malingerers, scientists found, were “a reserve labor force,” occasionally helping out but mostly just ready to step in, if and when the colony lost workers or needed help in an emergency. Many other insects along with birds and mammals — think of squirreling nuts away — set aside surpluses.

Medieval and early-modern rulers rarely had literal war chests adequate to finance military action. According to the economists Jurgen Brauer and Hubert van Tuyll in their book, Castles, Battles and Bombs, castles remained a remarkably effective means of projecting power in part because of the value of storing ample provisions for a long siege. The downside was that the cost of building them — and of warfare in general in these wretchedly unproductive economies — left princes heavily indebted.

By the same token, the value of holding troops in reserve for battle has long been recognized by commanders — and the notion (sort of) applies in peacetime, too. In 1845, the Manchester sewing-thread heir Friedrich Engels coined the phrase “reserve army of labor” in The Condition of the Working Class in England, an idea developed by Karl Marx. Structural unemployment, Engels and his buddy Marx believed, was an inevitable feature of capitalism, serving to depress wages (and redistribute income upward) while also enabling episodic increases in production. (Engels, who had served in the Prussian artillery before joining his family’s English branch, was a serious student of military affairs, so the metaphor may have been natural.)

Personal protective equipment and medical supplies are not the only failing that counts in the inadequate reserve category in the horror show of the past few months. Arguably, one just as serious is the lack of emergency preparation on the part of (or on behalf of) households and small businesses.

American public higher education was established in part in acknowledgment of the value of reserves. One of the main purposes of the Morrill Act of 1862, which created the American system of land-grant colleges and state universities, was teaching military tactics to help amass a cadre of non-career officers. In 1916 the National Defense Act created the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and its graduates were crucial to American participation in both world wars and Korea. The New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, as a recent book has suggested, while entirely peaceful in its public works mission, also served as a training ground for future non-commissioned officers deployed in the Second World War.

Personal protective equipment and medical supplies are not the only failing that counts in the inadequate reserve category in the horror show of the past few months. Arguably, one just as serious is the lack of emergency preparation on the part of (or on behalf of) households and small businesses.

Last Laughs

For all the errors that Europeans did commit, their more generous systems of unemployment relief, childcare and medical insurance cushioned the blow of quarantine. By contrast, even during an apparent economic boom tens of millions of Americans had been living from hand to mouth before Covid-19 arrived. Rising inequality, stagnant working-class income and excessive debt were and are part of the problem. A full decade after the beginning of the Great Recession, 31 percent of Americans and 35 percent of young adults did not have as much as $2,000 available to meet an emergency. By the same token, almost one small business in three lacks sufficient cash reserves to last a shutdown for a month.

Besides emergency equipment and supplies (and liquid savings), there is a third and arguably greater need highlighted by the pandemic: reserves of brainpower. One of the notable revelations of the pandemic is how many research groups around the world are in the race to develop vaccines. In April, Nature counted 90 different projects worldwide, with eight distinct strategies being tested.

If that seems excessive, consider the story of penicillin. Alexander Fleming discovered its antibiotic properties in 1928 but did not believe it could ever be used for medicine. Only in the 1930s did the Australian-born pharmacologist Harold Florey grasp its potential. While the outbreak of World War II cut short British efforts, researchers in four American companies continued the project beginning in 1941. The first batch was produced by Pfizer in Brooklyn in 1944, 16 years after Fleming’s revelation.

In her book A Fragile Power: Scientists and the State, University of California (San Diego) sociologist Chandra Mukerji discovered from her fieldwork at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography that much of their Navy-sponsored work had no immediate military application. The government supported Scripps and other institutions like it so that in case of emergency it would be able to draw instantly on expert advice.

Similar principles may have applied in some companies that I have described as “deep organizations.” I recall a visit to one of the largest corporate laboratories (at IBM), where I met a human factors expert specializing in the usability of a familiar technology. He said he was rarely consulted by the engineers developing products, but the giant firm wanted to have top experts on their staff on call — and to keep them from working for the competition.

Seemingly esoteric academic subjects can also become suddenly urgent. When I worked at Princeton University Press, one of our surprise sellers at the time of the Gulf War was a 1,280-page doorstop, Hanna Batatu’s The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq.

Even when their specialties are not directly relevant, humanists often have strategically valuable skills. The codebreakers at Bletchley Park included classicists and other “men and women of a professor type,” as the original job specification put it. They could not do the same work as mathematicians, but they brought other skills in dealing with fragmentary evidence. What could be more similar to codebreaking than deciphering inscriptions on damaged artifacts written in poorly understood languages?

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Once Covid-19 is just a nasty memory, will any of the lessons about reserves be taken to heart? Cynicism is an easy refuge on this score. Reserves are expensive, and government officials facing competing fiscal demands and CEOs focused on next quarter’s earnings aren’t inclined to buy insurance that must be explained after the fact it isn’t used. But even if very modern managers can persuade themselves that the next pandemic will only occur after the next election cycle or after they’ve cashed out their stock options, the same can’t be said of the weather disasters coming down the pike thanks to climate change.

That, however, is another story.

main topic: Policy & Regulation
related topics: Human Behavior