By Scott Sumner
James Fallows has a very good article in the Atlantic, documenting the many failures in the US government response to the Covid-19 epidemic. While I don’t contest his specific points, some of which document appalling lapses in intelligence gathering and processing, I do not accept his framing of the problem. The failure here went well beyond government incompetence—there was a major failure of imagination.
By the middle of March, Trump had switched to blasting the “Chinese virus,” which he continued doing through much of the month. On March 11, he gave a poorly received national address from the Oval Office, in which he bungled the announcement of an upcoming ban on most (or maybe all; it wasn’t clear) air travel to the U.S. from Europe. Several people who have dealt with past disease outbreaks told me that, in a normal administration, one option for mid-January would have been a temporary, but total, ban on all inbound international flights to the United States. “A serious option in all contingency planning would be total closure of the airspace,” a former senior official with experience in pandemic response told me. “We learned from the bird flu that as long as the airspace was open, we were completely vulnerable as a population. It is a draconian approach that could strand thousands of people. But as we look back—when taking early intelligence into serious consideration from the start—this one option would be an early choice for the president to make. It would be followed immediately by humanitarian support, and then transitioned through hubs to permit a measured flow of people to key locations. Follow-on screening would also take place prior to any further travel.”
Hindsight is 20-20. It’s very unlikely that a “normal administration” would have imposed a travel ban in mid-January. The first European travel ban was January 31st, the same day as the US ban. Fallows underestimates just how deep the failure of imagination actually was.
On January 23rd, 2020, I knew that Covid-19 was a major problem. I knew that it was transmittable between humans. I knew that some experts suggested that it could become a worldwide pandemic. I knew that the Chinese government was so concerned that they took the unprecedented step of locking down an entire province of 60 million people. The US government also knew this. The Canadian and European governments knew this. The media knew this. The Democrats knew this. The Taiwanese knew this.
Unfortunately, all of those groups (except the Taiwanese) didn’t take the threat seriously. We didn’t even ban flights from China until January 31st, and some people even opposed that ban. A ban on flights from Europe did not occur until mid-March, by which time large numbers of infected people had flown from Europe to the East Coast.
In my view, this was a failure of imagination. My initial view was that “this is another SARS”. I’m pretty sure that most other people felt the same way at the time—despite having all the relevant facts that we have today. Only when it began to spread widely in the West did we start taking it seriously, but by that time it was too late to stop.
So yes, in retrospect a total ban on all inbound flights in mid-January would have been ideal. That might have allowed the US to achieve a much lower death total (albeit only with effective follow-up steps). But there was almost no support for such a move at the time because Westerners were unable to imagine how bad it would get. We had the facts (by January 23rd at the latest, but actually earlier); we simply refused to believe the doomsday predictions that were being made by a few epidemiologists.
There is no bureaucratic fix for a failure of imagination, just as there is no bureaucratic fix for the failures of imagination that led to 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. All we can do is learn from our mistakes.
The next 10 times this occurs we’ll almost certainly overreact, just as we overreacted to later 9/11 and Pearl Harbor type threats. Most of those next 10 virus outbreaks will be less severe—more like the first SARS epidemic than the Covid-19 epidemic. But having seen what happened in 2020, we’ll react more like Taiwan did this time, if not even more vigorously.
That’s just how the world works (horse, barn door). People don’t have enough imagination to take steps to prevent disasters until they’ve seen the effects of a disaster. After our electrical system gets knocked out for months by a huge solar flare, then we’ll start stocking up on some extra transformers. We’ll have arms control after the next accidental nuclear war. It’s not that we don’t understand the risks at an intellectual level, it’s that we can’t really imagine the worst-case outcome.
HT: David Beckworth, Matt Yglesias