What disaster experts know

Tuesday, October 6, 2020 - 1:58pm

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Design courtesy of Madison Grosvenor

I have found myself asking the following question, set to repeat like a lagging, skipping record: How much time will our leaders spend quantifying the obvious before they act? I’m exhausted from waiting to see it manifest in appropriate action. Our leaders seem preoccupied with data, as if numbers are gods and they are beholden to them. National frustration on all sides is at an inflection point and radiating outward with the abrupt shattering of hallucinatory American life. But the question remains, rephrased here to abandon the hopelessly rhetorical: How will we decide to enact good citizenship at all levels to meet the moment?

We’re seeing the dissolution of American childhood ideals of equal opportunity and romance and the stab of expectations unfulfilled; A president who has fallen ill with no one sure whether to believe him. Many of us have been watching for our suspicions to manifest while desperately hoping they won’t. None of the problems that have been exposed are being fixed while we wait and therefore the days feel doomed to repeat themselves. When the University of Michigan’s data on COVID-19 signaled the crossing of another threshold, I felt the baffling commingling of dread and lack of surprise.  

One way to move forward could be looking to experts who study disasters. Scott Gabriel Knowles, a disaster historian and professor at Drexel University, has been studying and historicizing disasters for decades. I have been tuning in to his podcast COVID-calls, streaming live every day at 5 p.m. EST. In the past, Knowles has suggested we build memorials for the victims of natural disasters and his habit of commemorating what many of us have grown worryingly numb to is a small, measured surprise, as well as a tiny piece of validation amid my daily doom scrolls.

On his recent COVID-call with Michael Yudell, a professor at Drexel University who focuses on public health, Yudell noted how W.E.B. DuBois embarked on a project to document public health disparities in Black men 124 years ago. Yudell added, “Here we are, 124 years later, still trying to quantify health disparities that we know exist. Yes, the Band-Aid has been ripped off … but how do we pivot to push society to really take up these issues in a way that leads to change? Because we can measure this stuff to death, which in some ways is what we’ve been doing.”

Data represents a complex matrix of stories documenting either a steady accumulation of numbered lives or sudden tragedy. Knowles has made it his life’s work to not only gather data in his academic research but to, as he so aptly puts it,“put knowledge (and data) to work.” Diametrically opposed to this idea is the bureaucracy of today’s mortality counts, which seem to have been borrowed directly from the British empire. I cannot help being reminded here of how so much American legal doctrine is similarly, and sometimes quite bizarrely, descended from archaic British common law. 

Another guest on Knowles’ COVID-calls, Dartmouth University Professor Jacqueline Wernimont, talked about how the mortality count was commercialized in England during the bubonic plague years. She spoke at length about women called “searchers,” enlisted to perform the dirty work of counting the contaminated corpses filling the streets. Wernimont added that not only weren’t most people officially counted, but church parishioners sold the resulting periodicals for profit along with listings for the price of bread: The mundane mingled inappropriately and deceptively with flattened, two-dimensional tragedy. 

Wernimont has recently identified a blurry historical line between COVID-19 dashboards today and “mortality bills” in bubonic plague times, adding how their numbers can "blunt the pain of deaths." During the COVID-call she described how the gruesome labors of these "searching” women, usually poor, recently-widowed London women, were erased. The similarities there — between the invisible labors of medieval “searchers” and today’s workers on the front lines — are striking.

To further complicate assumptions about the efficacy of data science, the belief that electronic health records and their standards for “meaningful use” somehow mitigate inconsistencies in the data is wrong. In an article recently published in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Management Review, the authors write that “data standards for the pandemic are not codified in EHRs, and data on the equipment needed to fight it isn’t in them at all.” 

What this means is our official sources of data are inadequate and inconsistent at best. News companies, university groups and even nonprofit organizations have strained to compensate by attempting to fill knowledge gaps. In the Sloan article, the authors write that this “leads to multiple versions of pandemic truth, adding cost and uncertainty,” and that it also “builds a false sense of confidence … The New York Times reports very specific death counts, camouflaging the uncertainty and severity of the issues, and distracting people from addressing the root issues.”

When the national death toll of our modern plague reached 200,001 Americans on Sept. 12, 2020, there were no bells announcing the establishment of the fact. During bubonic plague times in England, every burial event was marked by reverberating acoustics from ringing parish bells. But I knew multitudes of people somewhere were mourning deaths and medical professionals had clearly determined COVID-19 as the cause of each. When I heard the numbered news it felt as if an abstracted national reality was converging with my personal sense of isolation. 

But the defining shock of the alleged collapse of American democracy reached me later in a delayed reaction — like the long peal of a bell’s toll — when I read an essay on Medium that had gone viral. The essay is by Indi Samarajiva, who survived the Sri Lankan Civil War as a member of its majority and declares America has been in the process of collapsing for some time. He points to how in thirty years of bloody civil war in Sri Lanka around 18,000 people died — fewer than the number of people who died in the United States from COVID-19 in the past three months alone. 

For still more context, 2,977 people perished in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Knowles conducted research on the ground in the aftermath of the attacks, and his research has uncovered evidence that in this country civil preparedness for disaster is a myth as old as American exceptionalism. For example, the 1918 Spanish flu was covered up expertly by the federal government, despite how it wound up killing more Americans than the war. While excavating an archive of daily newspapers from the time, Knowles didn’t find any evidence of the flu sweeping the nation. In another example from his book “The Disaster Experts: Managing Risk in Modern America,” Knowles describes a civil preparedness plan for a possible nuclear attack on Philadelphia during the Cold War, a plan depicted by Knowles with wry, comedic flair. The plan invoked municipal calls for volunteers rather than including a coalition of volunteers who’d already enlisted. In so many words, the plan outlined nothing and would have provided no cushion.

Maybe the most practical solution for right now, then, is to plan for the worst while smuggling in hope. While collapse coexists inexplicably with the mundane, the beginnings of the Renaissance were filled with traces of what had been lost. Just as this pandemic defies and contradicts acceptable genres of American life, we might consider asking ourselves going forward: How can we push for a collective reckoning with the abstraction of tragedy even when some of us aren't directly impacted? What are our new American values going to be and how will they evolve from here?

Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at hsierra@umich.edu.


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