Tag Archives: failure

An Excellent Summary

My husband recently recommended that I read a lengthy article from the Atlantic by Ed Yong.  Despite the fact that I am a pretty devoted reader of that publication, and a subscriber, I’d missed it.

If you are trapped at home with nothing pressing to do (clean out the refrigerator, or knit face masks, or whatever), you should click through and read the article in its entirety. In case you don’t have the time or inclination, I am cutting and pasting paragraphs that–in my estimation–are insightful and important.

A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”…

As my colleagues Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer have reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed and distributed a faulty test in February. Independent labs created alternatives, but were mired in bureaucracy from the FDA. In a crucial month when the American caseload shot into the tens of thousands, only hundreds of people were tested. That a biomedical powerhouse like the U.S. should so thoroughly fail to create a very simple diagnostic test was, quite literally, unimaginable. “I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University, who works on legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases.

The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure….

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

The quoted paragraphs are followed by predictions of what will come next–best and worst case. Bottom line: even in the best-case scenarios, this isn’t going to be over any time soon. The “President” may think a vaccine or cure can be magically discovered and mass produced in a couple of weeks, but scientists and sane people know better.

And then there’s the aftermath…

As my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote, the economy is experiencing a shock “more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced.” About one in five people in the United States have lost working hours or jobs. Hotels are empty. Airlines are grounding flights. Restaurants and other small businesses are closing. Inequalities will widen: People with low incomes will be hardest-hit by social-distancing measures, and most likely to have the chronic health conditions that increase their risk of severe infections. Diseases have destabilized cities and societies many times over, “but it hasn’t happened in this country in a very long time, or to quite the extent that we’re seeing now,” says Elena Conis, a historian of medicine at UC Berkeley. “We’re far more urban and metropolitan. We have more people traveling great distances and living far from family and work.”

After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. …People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness. Asian people are suffering racist insults, fueled by a president who insists on labeling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Incidents of domestic violence and child abuse are likely to spike as people are forced to stay in unsafe homes.

The article does end with a thin ray of hope–or perhaps “challenge” is a more appropriate word. Pandemics can catalyze social change.

Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

If we are very, very fortunate, in November we will not retreat further into authoritarianism and fear; instead, we’ll recognize that all diseases aren’t physical, and all tests aren’t medical.

Our test is whether America will repudiate the virus of bigoted “America first” politics, reject kakistocracy, and pivot from isolationism to international cooperation.

 

 

A (Collapsed) Bridge Too Far

The liberal political site Daily Kos maintains an infrastructure series; recently it posted an entry titled “Another Week, Another Bridge Collapse in America.”

This past Monday, news came of another bridge collapse in the United States, this time in Chattanooga. The fact that a bridge collapse has to be qualified with the determiner ‘another’ in the richest Country the World has ever known is distressing, even more so considering said bridge was also part of the largest infrastructure project the World has ever know.

Late Monday morning, the side of an overpass on I-75 collapsed, tumbling onto the ramp headed to Chattanooga. This bridge had been built in the 1950’s, and was recently inspected in July 2018. The condition of the bridge was found to be ‘Fair,’ which sounds more like a weather report than something very large that can collapse and kill you.

This particular collapse was evidently caused by an oversized truck that had slammed into the bridge and weakened it. But nationwide, the number of structurally-deficient bridges is staggering; assuming funding at current rates, engineers estimate that it will take 82 years to repair all of them.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association has issued a report based upon 2018 data. It shows

  • There are 616,087 bridges in America
  • Of those, 47,052 (nearly 8%) are “structurally deficient” and need urgent repairs
  • 235,020 bridges (38%) need some sort of repair
  • Americans cross structurally deficient bridges 178 million times a day, including such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge and the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge over the San Francisco Bay
  • The average age of a structurally deficient bridge is 62 years

Structurally deficient doesn’t necessarily mean that the bridge is in imminent danger of collapse, but it also isn’t a label affixed to bridges with minor problems. The post included the definition used by Virginia’s Department of Transportation:

Bridges are considered structurally deficient if they have been restricted to light vehicles, closed to traffic or require rehabilitation.Structurally deficient means there are elements of the bridge that need to be monitored and/or repaired. The fact that a bridge is “structurally deficient” does not imply that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe. It means the bridge must be monitored, inspected and maintained.

More than 1200 bridges in the state of Indiana are considered structurally deficient.

The Daily Kos post links to a list of the bridges in the worst shape. As the list makes clear, the worst bridges are exclusively urban interstate bridges.

Why are highway bridges in urban areas the most dangerous of all in America?

  • Decades of neglect of urban infrastructure by state and federal authorities who feel taxpayer dollars are better spent on rural and suburban constituents. (Thanks to gerrymandering, this is the case in Indiana.)
  • Lack of public transportation, or overcrowding of public transportation, forcing these structures to carry far more vehicles than they were ever designed for.
  • Replacing these structures in an urban environment, where service cannot be interrupted and there is no available real estate to build a new bridge alongside, is extremely costly.

When you think about it, governments exist to provide infrastructure–not just physical infrastructure, but also the social infrastructure that prevents what Hobbes called “a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

When a government can’t even sustain the physical infrastructure, it is a failed government.

Facing Up to Reality

When something absolutely unforeseen challenges your worldview, it is probably prudent to take a step back and re-examine your assumptions.

After the shock of a Presidential election that successfully appealed to festering bigotries and primal hatreds that I naively thought had declined, and after a period of disbelief (and nausea), I made myself take that “step back.” You may or may not agree with my conclusions, but I’d ask you to consider them.

America’s democratic institutions and processes haven’t worked properly for quite some time. All of us can tick off evidence: a Senate that simply refuses to hold hearings on a Presidential nominee for the Supreme Court; legislators’ willingness to petulantly shut down government when they don’t get their way; the widespread, obstinate denial of science and rejection of empirical evidence in favor of policies based upon ideology and/or religious dogma; and of course, the toxic partisanship and racial resentments reflected in the decision of Congressional Republicans to block anything and everything proposed by our first African-American President, irrespective of the merits of any particular proposal. I could go on.

Had Hillary Clinton been elected President, she would have faced the same ferocious, partisan hostility that Obama has had to deal with–but on steroids. Irrational hatred of the Clintons, especially Hillary, is baked into Republican DNA. Not only would she have faced constant, repetitive Congressional “investigations,” several House members were already drawing up Articles of Impeachment. (Why wait for her to actually do something impeachable?)

Meanwhile, lawmakers in both parties continue to block policies seen as threatening to the interests of the oligarchs that effectively control our national and state legislatures. It is irrelevant that large majorities of Americans favor background checks for people buying guns, higher taxes on the rich, a discontinuation of obscene subsidies to oil companies or numerous other measures. Especially at the federal level, the policy preferences that count are those of the big donors as conveyed by their lobbyists–many of whom used to be legislators in the incestuous political stew that is Washington, D.C.

This is not the way a working democracy operates.

Although the self-dealing and the nastiness has unquestionably gotten worse, most of this isn’t new. It has become more visible in the Internet Age, but the inability of our governing structure to deal with a technologically integrated, inexorably globalizing, demographically diversifying modern world has been apparent for decades.

American government does not work as it should, and it hasn’t for quite some time. It certainly hasn’t ameliorated or addressed–or even explained– the dramatic changes that have created economic and social distress among so many of our citizens.

Dissatisfied citizens look for someone to blame. To the extent they blame the status quo in Washington, that’s probably fair enough. Given human nature, however, a lot of our fellow-citizens blame immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, “uppity” women…the “other”…for cultural changes that disadvantage them or make them uncomfortable, and for a government that doesn’t work for them.

Social scientists tell us that the two strongest predictors of support for Donald Trump were racial resentment and misogyny.

So now we have a President-elect whose profound ignorance and incompetence is likely to deliver the coup de grace to creaky government institutions and even more likely to exacerbate the social divisions and bigotries he cultivated during the campaign. Whether he serves out his term, or we end up with Mike Pence (a rigid theocrat who is equally incompetent, equally uninterested in the mechanics of governing), all signs suggest we are on the cusp of an era of massive social upheaval.

The question is: when the incommensurate passions triggered by impending conflicts subside, will we be able to construct a fairer, more streamlined and responsive, more (small-d) democratic governing structure, one that is more adapted to the realities of the modern world?

Can we salvage the best parts of our governing philosophy, and create institutional structures that work for all our citizens? Or will four years of authoritarianism and continued exploitation of racial, religious and ethnic divisions leave the oligarchs and white supremacists firmly in charge?

What would a better, more trustworthy American democracy look like?

I have some ideas I’ll share tomorrow. I invite yours.

The Value of Pontificating

I’ve been scanning the local news I missed during the past month, and duly noted coverage of a recent speech by Melina Kennedy on education. Kennedy (no relation–honest!) has focused her mayoral campaign on public safety, education and economic development, and has been delivering substantive proposals on those and related issues.

In her education speech, she criticized Greg Ballard for a lack of leadership in education, pointing out that he has done little other than continue the charter school initiative begun by Mayor Peterson. Asked for his response to the criticism, Ballard said that just because he hadn’t been “pontificating” about the subject didn’t mean he hadn’t been engaged.

Wrong.

The biggest problem faced by educators today isn’t whether a school is public or private. It isn’t whether reading instruction is via phonics or “whole word” methodology. It isn’t even discipline. The biggest problem is cultural: Americans today do not value education. If we do not change the culture, nothing else we do is going to work. And let me be VERY clear: I am not talking about the regrettable tendency of some inner-city black students to label peers getting good grades as “acting white.” I am talking about the broader American disdain for expertise of any sort–the widespread attitude that intellectuals are “elitists” to be scorned.

There is a long history of anti-intellectualism in this country, and it has clearly been on the ascendance for the past decade or more. The mere fact that anyone takes political figures like Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann or Mike Pence seriously ought to be evidence enough that the American electorate prioritizes celebrity and pandering over substance. A terrifying percentage of the American public rejects science–whether the subject is global climate change or even something as basic and settled as evolution. Stephen Colbert has captured our current culture brilliantly in his riffs explaining why he elevates his “gut” over the exercise of reason.

This is the culture we need to change, and we cannot and will not change it unless those we elect make it their business to “pontificate” about the importance of education. Real leadership requires political figures who are willing to elevate the value of knowledge and expertise–who are willing to remind citizens that this country was a product of the Enlightenment, a philosophy that prioritized reason, evidence and intellect.

A Mayor who fails to use the bully pulpit on behalf of those values is not “pontificating.” S/he is leading.

When Will They Ever Learn?

One of the problems with highly ideological politics of the sort we have these days is that there is no Republican or Democratic way to pave streets and pick up garbage. At the local level, very few voters care whether the Mayor is pro-life or pro-choice; they are much more likely to rate their political leaders on such decidedly non-partisan and practical matters as police protection and snow removal. 

Here in Indianapolis, that homely truth is apparently unknown to Mayor Ballard. Snow removal last year was abysmal; you would think that our Mayor might have used the summer to correct the problems preventing acceptable snow removal. Evidently not.

At 8:00 a.m. this morning, I approached the interection of 15th and College. Now, living downtown, I’m used to MY streets, at least, being plowed and/or salted. Since traffic coming into the regional center is a given, past administrations have taken care of the major streets in the mile square no matter how well or poorly they did elsewhere. This morning, however, with a mere 2″ of snow, traffic was crawling down College on a sheet of ice. I saw no city trucks anywhere during my (admittedly short) commute. I also saw no evidence that there had ever been trucks–not on College, not on Central (!!), not on Michigan. It wasn’t until I reached the IUPUI campus that I saw signs of snow removal–courtesy of IUPUI’s buildings and grounds folks.

This is unacceptable. It’s bad enough when the Mayor bills his junkets as “Economic Development” even though he takes his wife and NOT his Deputy Mayor for economic development. It’s bad enough that he has taken all sides in the debate over broadening the smoking ordinance. The LEAST he could do is see to the nuts and bolts of municipal governance–the basic tasks we expect any Mayor to discharge.