The University of Michigan has already reopened with no plans of reversing course. The University has created a thorough reopening plan that is supposed to provide a safe and secure learning experience for all students. However, the plan — despite having good intentions and some good ideas — exists more to provide students with the feeling of safety rather than actual safety: a concept known as security theater.
To explain what security theater is, how it works and what its purpose is, one only has to look at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Current procedures of the TSA have frequently been cited as examples of security theater, such as the usage of full-body scanners which, according to The Atlantic, have been shown to be ineffective and easily manipulated. The TSA’s purpose, according to the article, is not to provide actual security but rather an illusion of security and was put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to give passengers the feeling that air travel was safe.
Bruce Schneier’s 2003 book, “Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World,” discusses why security theater exists and which parties benefit from it. According to Schneier, there are players who all have different defining interests and different relationships with one another such as elected officials, corporations and the public. Depending on the player, at times they might have other concerns that trump security. He writes, “Security is partially a state of mind … one of the goals of a security countermeasure is to provide people with a feeling of security in addition to the reality. But some countermeasures provide the feeling of security instead of the reality.”
In the example of the TSA, major airlines and elected officials’ chief concern was getting passengers back in the air and they needed to provide an appearance of security through a strict screening process — despite that process being ineffective. In a 2009 opinion piece written for CNN, Schneier noted that the best terrorist prevention is not combating specific plots but instead carrying out covert investigations, speaking to cultural experts and attacking the core ideologies that lead to international terrorism in the first place by building bridges with communities in the Middle East. However, these tactics do not provide the feeling of security, which is why the U.S.’s terrorist prevention strategy has morphed into the TSA.
Similar to the aftermath of 9/11, security theater has reemerged in the pandemic with certain countermeasures being of little use in the fight against COVID-19. The pandemic, and the subsequent lockdown associated with it, led to the entire economy coming to a near standstill. Therefore, a chief concern of many businesses, and even the government, was attempting to reopen as fast as possible to combat the economic downturn. However, as states began to reopen, cases began skyrocketing and the concern quickly went from attempting to reopen to convincing the general public that it was safe to resume normal life.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that temperature checks are not reliable in terms of detecting possible cases because things like hot weather can cause readings to be inaccurately high. Furthermore, many businesses such as Planet Fitness, AMC Theatres and Applebee’s have touted extreme and strict sanitation routines despite the fact that the virus mainly spreads through person-to-person aerosol transmission not fomites (surfaces and objects).
Similarly, the University, though currently pursuing actions that are effective, still misses the mark in terms of actual security. The University, to their credit, has made changes that will make this semester safer for students — for example, making 78 percent of credit hours remote, allowing many classes to be taught in a hybrid format and requiring all bus riders to wear masks. However, the reopening plan as a whole is still flawed.
On Aug. 12, a virtual town hall was held where the stated plan was to make the situation as safe as fully remote with contact tracing, a reserve of 600 quarantine rooms and outbreaks of disease being “anticipated.” Frequent universal testing was criticized by the administration as impractical during this meeting; however, the risks posed by proceeding without it were never addressed. University President Mark Schlissel later revealed in an email that Michigan Medicine could only process 10,000 tests a week and planned to increase capacity as the year continued. Even with that lowered expectation, according to the COVID-19 dashboard, only 1,500 tests were conducted during the week of Aug. 23. Without universal testing, an asymptomatic student could spread the disease and start an outbreak.
The biggest issue is that the University has not communicated its reasoning behind all of the measures implemented. When discussing testing, the University deemed frequent universal testing as impractical yet never explained how it was still safe to open without that in place. This is concerning since a Yale and Harvard University study found that students would need to be tested every two days to prevent an outbreak and that “symptom-based screening alone was not sufficient to contain an outbreak.”
Furthermore, the administration has given no quantitative risk assessment nor accounted for or explained how much risk is posed to the Ann Arbor community at large. One example of this behavior is that the administration has repeatedly touted that the plan was made with public health experts, yet have not explained how much risk will be posed to students, faculty and the Ann Arbor community. Moreover, there has been no adequate explanation on why the administration is deciding to focus on symptomatic students and not striving for universal testing when COVID-19 is known to spread asymptomatically; how residential advisers are expected to enforce the strict new guest policy when they can’t possibly know who might be an outsider; how exactly they plan on controlling parties and how effective that plan will be among countless other questions.
Despite having aspects that are known to be effective, the plan as a whole ends up just being a theatrical display created to convince students it is safe to come back to campus. If the University truly believes in the idea of a “public health informed” in-person fall semester, then they should strive to be as open and transparent as possible about what went into their plans and prove to the students, faculty and the community that their plan has the least risk with the most benefit for all parties involved rather than expecting us to trust them and find out for ourselves. This is especially relevant in light of recent faculty protests and outbreaks at other schools, and especially if they hope to have an in-person semester in the winter term.
The main issue with security theater, especially during a pandemic, is that it often takes away from measures that actually help. Applying that logic to the University, the proposals put in place and the school going hybrid, rather than fully remote, has convinced a significant number of students it is safe to attend when they may otherwise not have returned. That takes away from what has been proven to actually keep students, faculty and the community safe: a fully remote semester — which is a proven public health informed option.
Affan Syed is a junior in the College of Engineering and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.