Notes from the Rapp


Scrabble, Virginia –– It sometimes takes us a while to notice when certain things stop happening. We slowly become aware that something is missing, that somehow things are different. With me yesterday it was con-trails, the elongated white clouds that form from condensed  (the ‘con’) and heated  air being ejected from jet engines in the cooler upper altitudes. Normally, when there is a bright cerulean sky over Rappahannock County, the blue over my house is striped with puffy, white, tell-tale lines formed by high altitude aircraft.  A parade of aircraft regularly pass high above my home, traveling in an east-west air corridor. Not this week. The airlines are, as a matter of their own decisions, operating minimal flight schedules for want of passengers.

Something similar happened on 9-11 and for the several days thereafter, but in that case it was because the government closed the national airspace. The initial closure was to determine how many aircraft had been, or were about be, hijacked. The closure continued while we struggled to create something like the what became the Transportation Security Agency and its’ screening processes, in a matter of days. 

During those days without airlines, the only sound emanating from the skies at night over Washington were the steady engines of the giant radar aircraft, the AWACS, circling overhead and the occasional roar of the F-16s on Combat Air Patrol over the National Capital Region. Many of us called that roar “the sound of Freedom.” We found it reassuring, not unnerving.

The absence of flights after 9-11 gave climate scientists an experimental environment that they could never have convinced the government and airlines to provide them under any other circumstances. Without flights there were no con-trails. Without con-trails there were, as some had predicted, fewer clouds and thus, warner days and cooler nights. While only the lunatic fringe of conspiracy addicts think that jet aircraft create “chem trails” filled with some government sponsored biological weapon to attack people in the “flyover states,” many experts now believe that the by product of jet engines at altitude is an unnatural barrier that contributes to warming. Thus, the significant reduction in flights during the pandemic may marginally and temporarily slow the pace of climate change.

Whatever the effect on climate, the impact on the finances of the airlines is clear. As after 9-11, when many feared to fly, airlines are being financially devastated and their employees, as well as workers at supporting industries, are the first order victims of the pandemic’s effects on aviation. Congress overwhelmingly passed a bail-out, offering airlines (and aerospace manufacturers) free money and low interest loans. There were few objections in Congress from either party. Thus, as has been the case in many other countries for a long time, the airlines in the US now once again exist because of government, i.e. taxpayer, financial support. Dare we call it socialism?

Earlier this year the President and his supporters were throwing around the word “socialism” to describe the policies being advocated by some Democrats. They equated socialism with Communism and economic ruin. They suggested that having the government sponsor new programs to provide healthcare was socialist and, therefore, alike with the economic devastation that has befallen Venezuela. They mocked candidate Andrew Yang’s proposals to provide direct cash payment to citizens. Then came the pandemic. 

Within weeks of the virus arriving on our shores, there was a consensus in both parties that the federal government should contribute to paying the costs of testing and treatment of the virus, the provision of equipment to both public and private hospitals, direct cash payments to those earning less than $75,000.00 and forgiven loans to small businesses.  Few if any said the obvious, that these measures were socialist, or that, in the absence of tax and spending reforms, they will be paid for future generations.

It’s easy to criticize Big Government and to decry socialism, until you are in trouble.  Victims of earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods want FEMA grants. Farmers, devastated by climate or presidentially imposed tariffs, want cash from the government. Airlines, auto manufacturers, banks, all do not hesitate to demand public funds when they are in trouble, often brought on in part by their own greed and failure to plan for economic down-turns. It’s only socialism when other people are getting federal money, not when the government is saving your posterior.

So when the pandemic passes, or its lingering effects become part of normal, could we please stop the bashing of Big Government and the sloganeering about socialism. Let’s begin by thanking the government employees and the medical personnel who sacrificed and some of whom risked their lives to battle the disease. Please include a special note of gratitude to the poorly compensated civil servant experts at places like the Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes for Health. Then let’s admit that most or all modern economies have a degree of socialism, both corporate and citizen-oriented. The debates we have are really just about resource allocation, who gets what from the government and who pays how much for those programs to exist.

We have chosen, as a matter of public policy, to ration quality health care generally to those in the higher income brackets.  We have chosen, in general, to adequately fund public education and those who provide it only in upper income communities. We have chose to permit those employed in major financial organizations and consultancies to amass extraordinary personal wealth, implicitly deciding that what they do moving each others’ money around, is vastly more valuable than the work of teachers, nurses, care-givers, the millions of hourly workers providing essential services, and the government employees who protect us and make our essential national systems work.

Life, President John Kennedy admitted, is unfair. And regulated capitalism is an engine for economic growth and technological progress. But of the many possible questions we might think about as a nation during and after this pandemic, a couple should be whether we should only have the fdereal government pay for better health care delivery during a pandemic, or whether we could not be more fair and caring as a nation, not just to ailing corporations but to hourly workers with little ability to create a safety net of their own, not only when we are in a disaster, but always.

Scrabble, VirginiaThe redbud trees are opening. Tulips, daffodils, and forsythia have been in full bloom for almost three weeks. The tree pollen has not peaked yet, but you can see it in the air when a beam of sun hits at the right angle. In short, its early Spring in Rappahannock County, Virginia, or as many of we locals call it, the Rapp. It may be too early to plant the basil or have dinner outdoors, but it is time to begin clearing garden beds and, as the showers increase in regularity, think about when the first grass cutting will be needed and what new trees might be planted.

This year I am privileged, and compelled by the plague, to spend more time in the Rapp than I might otherwise have done. Having lived here slightly more than fifteen years, I am still in the minds of locals a “come here, not a “been here. Yet, I think of it as home and have grown increasingly appreciative of it in these weeks of “lockdown. What better place to be grounded?  The population density is normally so low that social distancing is a routine condition. Even if government owned parks are closed in some places, there are miles of hiking trails available in the Rapp simply by walking from one neighbors farm to another. With hunting season over, the only risks in the fields come from the occasional unfriendly dogs and bulls.  In a few weeks, the copperheads and black bears will stir, but for now the fauna are largely limited to timid deer, turkeys, and red fox.

Early Spring here also brings an increase in avian life. Today the first bright red cardinal of the season visited my garden, a sight which always cheers me. Yesterday, however, a feather intruder announced itself with a bang, or rather a sustained series of loud bangs. A large, redheaded woodpecker decided to attack the eves near my bedroom, waking me from a pleasant morning slumber.

All of this activity in nature has served to distract me a little from the destructive and disruptive part of nature that is the pandemic.  I need that distraction because when I think of the federal governments response to this crisis an anger rises in me that disrupts and disturbs my life. I feel anger because for decades I was part of the federal government, a crisis manager, someone charged with anticipating risks and threats and providing warnings, someone often asked to direct crisis response. I know what we could have done, how this crisis could have been so much less damaging. It is not twentytwenty hindsight. None of this is a surprise.

In the mid-1990s, the Administration identified emerging infectious diseases and bioterrorism as threats likely to increase in importance and for which the US was badly prepared. For the first time, the White House adopted an allofgovernment strategy for dealing with the emerging infectious disease problem. As part of that, the President requested a significant increase in funding for the Public Health Services (PHS) surveillance network, creating local testing laboratories and a national reporting system. A little known part of the PHS, the Epidemiological 

Intelligence Service, was strengthened. Later, disease surveillance specialists were deployed overseas, including one in China.

A National Emergency Medical Stockpile was created and stashed in “undisclosed locations” around the country.  In anonymous looking warehouses, we deposited personal protective equipment (masks, gloves), ventilators, body bags, and specialized medicines. Stocks were rotated out routinely and used just before hitting their expiration dates, with replacement materials procured and warehoused. The National Security Council staff was expanded to create a small office, headed by a PHS admiral, to monitor and respond to disease and bioterrorism threats. Cabinet members were directed by the President to participate personally in crisis training exercises.

All of this preparedness and consciousness raising proved useful several times, most notably in 2014 when the Administration moved forcefully to contain an outbreak of Ebola by deploying US Army units into the disease hot zone in Africa. Had the US not acted as it did, the Ebola outbreak would certainly have spread out of west Africa and put at risk Europe and the United States. That “near miss” energized the outgoing administration to impress upon the incoming presidential team that they needed to be prepared for such a crisis. Indeed, the outgoing team held a crisis exercise for their replacements to familiarize them with the risks and the response plans and capabilities.

That attempt to pass on the importance of being prepared for an emerging disease pandemic failed. The incumbent administration eliminated the National Security Council office, withdrew disease surveillance officers from many nations around the world, including China. Funding for the Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control were slashed and hundreds of expert job positions left vacant or eliminated. Despite all of that, CIA was able in January to warn that a disease was loose in China that could result in a devastating pandemic in the US. That was the time to act, to increase production of equipment for the emergency stockpile, to plan for an effective nationwide testing effort. None of that was done.

Precious time was lost, as the President acted as if in denial of the threat, or seemingly pouted that the disease would upset his agenda or reputation. Again, this is not Monday Morning Quarterbacking. The threat was known and planned for, a system had been put in place to deal with it. This administration dismantled much of that system and then ignored warnings. That is not a partisan claim, it is an undeniable set of facts. Moreover, the past is not irrelevant to the present. In the present, we must insure that this country is led by those who heed scientists and other experts, who prepare for predictable disasters, and who know how to use all the instruments of government to respond effectively and in time.

A few years ago my colleague R.P. Eddy and I wrote a book called Warnings, about why governments have failed to act on clear indications of impending disasters. In it, we examined a hand full of crisis in waiting, those that experts had predicted and which were being inadequately addressed, one of those was Emerging Infectious Diseases (Chapter 11).  The threat was neither unanticipated, nor a secret. We were warned. Our government failed us, again.

In the coming weeks, as Spring spreads over the Rapp, I will explore this phenomenon of warnings and government failures, among other issues, in occasional missives from my lockdown site in the Rapp. Until next time, be attentive and be well.