Issue 49: What the space shuttle disasters can teach us about our pandemic response

Tempting as it is to blame Donald Trump for America's pandemic disaster, plenty of experts thought the coronavirus would turn out to be no big deal. Blame human nature.

Andrew Potter is an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.

ONE OF THE CONCEITS JOURNALISTS HAVE ABOUT THEIR BUSINESS is that they write the “first rough draft of history.” Almost on cue, the past week has seen the publication of a number of pieces examining the decisions that were made in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and how those decisions continue to influence the scope and scale of the infection across North America.

Two of the most substantial are “The Three Weeks That Changed Everything,” by James Fallows for the Atlantic, and the Globe and Mail’s investigation “Canada’s Lost Months” by Robin Doolittle, Michelle Carbert, and Daniel Leblanc. But aside from timing and ambition, the two pieces couldn’t be more different. 

The hook for Fallows’ piece is to treat America’s pandemic response like an airline crash being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. The idea is that thanks to its careful and rigorous investigation of air disasters, the NTSB has helped the global air travel industry learn from its mistakes. The result is an industry that is one of the safest in the world.

And so Fallows looks back at the early days of the pandemic through the lens of an NTSB investigation, looking at whether American had the epidemiological equivalent to a flight plan, an emergency checklist, a control system, and so on. But what he focuses on, to the exclusion of almost every other factor, is the role of the pilot, i.e. Donald Trump.

Despite talking to “some 30 scientists, health experts, and past and current government officials,” many of whom had direct hand in things, Fallows concludes: “Our system has a single point-of-failure: an irrational president.” The result is “a federal disaster in its own right: Katrina on a national scale, Chernobyl minus the radiation.”

Like Fallows, the Globe and Mail reporters did their homework, interviewing “more than 50 individuals involved in Canada’s pandemic response.” But there the similarities end. Where Fallows focuses almost exclusively on political failures, the Globe investigation looks most closely at the institutional and bureaucratic actors. 

While the novel coronavirus has not spread through Canada with anything close to the ferocity that it has in the United States, that should be very small comfort to Canadians. With a few exceptions (notably British Columbia) Canada’s early pandemic response was very poor. Clear warnings from doctors and scientists were either ignored by or not passed on. The prime minister, the relevant ministers, and public health officials made crucial life or death decisions based on political concerns over how things might look, not on how they might protect Canadians. The capacity of some provinces, especially Ontario, to coordinate their response with disparate institutions exposed deep structural flaws and systematic problems with the workings of our federation. And so on.  

But the Globe story also makes it clear that whatever clear signals were being sent in January and February about how bad this could get, lots of people didn’t take them seriously. They quote Dr. David Fisman, a professor at UofT’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, who -- like a lot of his colleagues -- thought that COVID-19 would turn out like SARS or H1N1: something scary that never turns into a global health crisis. 

As it turns out, that sort of wishful thinking was endemic in the public health/virology/epidemiology communities of the West throughout those crucial early weeks and months. That is the clear take-away from a piece written back in April by the veteran health reporter Helen Branswell and published by Stat News. Tellingly, the Stat piece is entitled “The Months of Magical Thinking”, and it is a pretty strong indictment of the experts. They knew the virus was coming. There were plenty of warnings about how bad it would get. But still many people who should have known better were convinced that COVID-19 would either be safely contained or would just burn itself out.

As Branswell shows, there was a sharp difference here between Asian experts on the one hand, and Westerners on the other. While the Asians were freaking out, the Americans and Europeans remained confident that it wouldn’t turn into a global pandemic. Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, notoriously told the country from January into early March that the risk of the coronavirus to Canadians “remains low.” But her American counterpart, Anthony Fauci, was saying the exact same thing in mid-February. 

The amount of wishful or magical thinking that was at work shouldn’t be that surprising. It may even be understandable. After all, hadn’t we gotten away with it with SARS and MERS and swine flu and H1N1 and all the other infectious diseases that briefly make it onto the headlines and then fade away, forgotten? 

In this respect, the proper lens for interpreting the COVID-19 pandemic is not an airline crash. It is more like the explosion of first the Challenger space shuttle in 1986, and then its sister ship Columbia in 2003. The proximate cause of Challenger disaster was the failure of an O-ring that allowed a fuel leak from one of the rocket boosters. But the subsequent investigation found that there was a deep cultural problem at NASA, one of risk taking and corner cutting. They knew there were problems with the O-rings, just as they knew there were problems with foam falling off the fuel tank and hitting the shuttle (which led to the loss of Columbia.)

But they kept getting away with it, and this bred its own form of magical thinking. As NPR science correspondent Richard Harris said on a show on the 20th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, “it keeps happening and hitting the shuttle and nothing bad happens except little dings that we can replace later during repair so let's not worry about it.”

As Harris also goes on to argue, this isn’t just about failures specific to NASA, it is about human nature. The fact is, we take huge risks all the time and we usually get away with it. The worst almost never happens, things turn out ok, and we don’t think “whew we got lucky.” Instead we think magically — that it’s just not going to happen. After all, this is real life, not an apocalyptic thriller.

There should be a lesson for us here in how to evaluate our response to the pandemic and how to prepare for the next one. It might be narratively and emotionally satisfying to put it all on Donald Trump, and assume that if only Bush or Obama or Clinton had been in power, things would have turned out differently. It’s a lot easier to blame one single malevolent actor than to confront hard questions about human nature and the way that nature interacts with our systems. But isn’t taking the easy way out is how we got into this mess in the first place? (AP)

Space: NASA has renamed its HQ after Mary Jackson, its first Black female engineer

Space: Check out these satellite images of an enormous Saharan dust cloud

Film: This clip from a 1947 French film that eerily predicted how we would use our smartphones

Music : What’s going on in the November Rain video anyway?

___

Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to andrew2.potter@mcgill.ca. If you liked this, why not share it?

Share Policy for Pandemics