Updated: Apr 23, 2020
I wouldn't expect anything revelatory, just my take on it all:
1. When the former Naval Officer and businessman in me tries to wrap my head around the coronavirus pandemic, I view it as two parts:
a. Execution: Leaders must make decisions and sometimes they make these decisions based on incomplete and/or inaccurate information. Sooner or later (with a bias towards sooner) a decision needs to be made. Sometimes these decisions are correct, sometimes not. While they need to be held accountable for their decisions, they should be given the benefit of the doubt for decisions made in the heat of battle.
b. Planning: Leaders must plan for the future. These plans do not have to be made with incomplete and/or inaccurate information. They do not have to be rushed. Additionally these plans can be revised based on new information. Failure to plan should not be given the benefit of the doubt. There is no excuse.
Over the last 15 years there have been a number of epidemics: MERS, SARS, the bird flu, swine flu, Ebola and even the plain old fashioned flu (2017-2018 was particularity severe). The idea of a virus or some other disease spreading between countries and continents is not new. I have to believe that even the least informed among us have a basic understanding of this.
I would like to think that any competent authority on this issue: The CDC, the NIAID, the Department of Health and Human Services, the NSC, the Surgeon General, the SOL, and state health departments would do some sort of rudimentary planning regarding epidemics/pandemics. I would also like to think that the first item on the plan would be to ensure that there was a stockpile of the basics: face masks, respirators, and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). I could possibly understand if this stockpile ran out after a couple of months of a pandemic, but to run out of basic supplies in the first month is inexcusable.
- Over 105 years ago, there was a similar lack of planning, when seven months into WWI, the British Army ran dangerously low on high-explosive (HE) shells, which had military consequences when shells needed to be rationed, which led to the failure of the British offensive at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. The similarity with our current crisis ends there though, as there actually was some accountability, as the Shell Crisis played a role in the fall of the British government in 1916.
2. On March 11, 2020, I took a flight from Denver to New Orleans in order to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with my brother-in-law. When entering the screening area, I was surprised when the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) officer¹ (gloved but sans face mask) took my license out of my hand. While this was still on the front end of the coronavirus pandemic, the engineer in me thought, why take the chance? Well, on my return on March 18, 2020, the same exact thing happened at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport (MSY), except this time I was ready. As the TSA officer (gloved, but still sans face mask) reached, I asked her if she had to touch my license, to which she replied, “This isn’t a game, you need to hand me the license”. As I didn’t think it prudent to discuss further (nobody in the screening area, TSA included, was social distancing), I quickly handed her my license.
On the other side of screening, I approached the TSA supervisor. He was sitting on an elevated platform flanked by two associates. I felt like I was lawyer approaching a tribunal. I pleaded my case with the head “judge“, he listened intently, but his associate “judge” was having none of it, as she repeatedly said “it’s procedure, she has to touch your license!”. So I asked to speak with a “higher court”.
The TSA shift supervisor, arrived five minutes later. I explained my concerns about a TSA officer who has just touched hundreds of licenses, now touching mine. He listened earnestly, while the same associate “judge” repeatedly said “it‘s procedure!”. The supervisor appeared sympathetic, but then said . . . “it‘s procedure“. I asked him if we could approach it from a different direction, “Do my concerns makes sense or is this crazy talk coming out of my mouth?”. As he said that he understood my concerns, I noticed the associate “judge“ was shaking her head back and forth. So I asked her if I was being unreasonable, and she quickly stopped shaking her head and begrudgingly agreed. So I asked to speak to his supervisor. Well, his supervisor was unreachable, but . . . he was nice enough to refer me to a website.
So I continued my quixotic quest and emailed an appeal to TSA-ContactCenter@tsa.dhs.gov, who promptly replied “. . . it remains Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for TDC Officers to physically handle the passenger's identification“, but . . . I could “travel with hand sanitizer in containers 12 ounces or less". I replied to the email with a detailed response which included this chestnut, “I used to be in the Navy, so I understand the value of procedures, though I also understand the value of leaders, as sometimes procedures need to be changed. As John Maynard Keynes once supposedly² said. ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?‘“. I’ve heard nothing further.
Epilogue: I continued to dream The Impossible Dream³, by emailing MSY airport operations, national and local tv and radio, and local politicians. I’ll update you with their response (Note: Do not expect an update).
3. I wanted to apologize before hand to anyone that has suffered or lost loved ones due to the coronavirus. I'm just trying to view this through the eyes of an engineer: This coronavirus pandemic could actually be a good thing. Imagine for a moment that coronavirus did not exist or that China had been able to prevent the spread outside its borders. Therefore, the effect on the U.S. would have ranged from non-existent to minimal. There is little doubt in my mind that the U.S. and state governments would have done nothing to further prepare for future pandemics. Now, imagine that in a few years a more virulent form of coronavirus struck the U.S., the consequences could have been cataclysmic. Let's just say that this more virulent coronavirus was two times as viral. As the effects would be exponential in nature we could expect the crisis to be exponentially worse. Instead of it occurring during a time of economic expansion, what if it occurred in the middle of a recession?
4. Thank you Dr. Anthony Fauci. I grew up on Long Island and all my friends were (and still are) Italian-American or Irish-American. I have to believe that my amici beam with pride every time Dr. Fauci appears on tv. He is truly the MVP⁴ of the coronavirus crisis. I can't imagine how we can make it to the other side of this without him. He is a throwback, as he exemplifies old fashioned America values of competence, intellect, humility and selflessness. And what does the good doctor get for his efforts? Death threats. Some may have responded to these threats with insults, hatred and counter-threats, but the 79 year old father of three coolly replied, "I’ve chosen this life, I know what it is.”⁵ As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, "I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made".
5. When reading all articles about coronavirus (except of course this epistle), please keep in mind the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is the cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability.
- If you've been watching YouTube over the last few weeks (and who hasn't), you may have come across the Neil DeGrasse Tyson Master Class teaser where he states "One of the great challenges in this world, is knowing enough about a subject to think you're right, but not enough about the subject, to know you're wrong".
6. Feedback and hand washing are appreciated.
¹ The TSA personnel who screen passengers, while commonly called agents are officially called Transportation Security Officers (TSO).
² While this quote (or something similar) is often attributed to Keynes, there is no proof he actually said it.
³ I decided to go with a version by Broadway's original Don Quixote, though this version by Jim Nabors may be superior.
⁴ Most Valuable Paisan.
⁵ I am reminded of what Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone in The Godfather II.