Off the Shelf: Using “Upheaval” to Assess the C19 Crisis

I’ve been thinking lately about the Jared Diamond book that I read last year, Upheaval. In this book, he analyzes the resilience of several nations in the face of crisis, through a lens based on characteristics that describe how people respond to personal crisis. Here is the lens he came up with:

  1. National consensus that the nation is in crisis.
  2. Acceptance of national responsibility to do something.
  3. Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved.
  4. Getting materials and help from other nations.
  5. Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems.
  6. National identity. [Features of language, culture, and history that make a nation unique, contribute to national pride, and that the nation’s citizens view themselves as sharing.]
  7. Honest national self-appraisal.
  8. Historical experience of previous national crises.
  9. Dealing with national failure. [and ability to explore other solutions if first solution fails]
  10. Situation-specific national flexibility. [The ability to be extraordinarily flexible, in areas where one is usually rigid, in specific situations to solve a problem.]
  11. National core values.
  12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints.

He finishes the book looking at the US, what will and won’t support us in a national crisis. (A real crisis – like Covid-19 – not just the national regret of having mistakenly elected Donald Trump.)

So let’s look at how the US has responded to the Covid-19 crisis.

1. National consensus that the nation is in crisis.

I give us a “F” on this. It took us a long time to agree that we were in crisis, in fact it was like watching a slow-motion train wreck. We saw what was happening in China and did nothing to prepare. We saw it spread through the Pacific Northwest and then suddenly it was in New York and it was everywhere. Contrast this to Taiwan or Germany, who saw what was happening, focused their resources on preparing in December, and now have low infection rates and spread.

2. Acceptance of national responsibility to do something.

I give us a “D” on this. Although most states are locked down now, there is a vocal minority of right-wing nuts who still insist that we are not in crisis – that it’s fake news – and as of today there are still 4 states – including Iowa – who are not taking it seriously. Even in states where we are socially distancing, people are not adhering effectively to social distancing. A friend who has lost taste and smell still takes long walks in his neighborhood because exercise and fresh air boost your immune system, and has done little to isolate from the rest of his family. Even between states, there is no consistent definition of social distancing – some states allowing churches, gun shops, golf courses, and nail salons to remain open; others basically shutting down even parks entirely.

3. Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved.

“C” While Congress and the White House have finally come together on three ridiculously large funding bills – a spirit of bipartisanism that is are these days – there still doesn’t seem to be consensus on the problems that need to be solved. Equipment, supplies, and staffing for hospitals? Financial relief for people who have suddenly become unemployed or “furloughed” by the closure of nonessential businesses? Testing so we can track the extent of the virus and / or identify who has antibodies against it and could potentially go back to work? A vaccine? Preventing the stock market from tanking and eviscerating our 401Ks? Bailing out large employers? We seem to be all over the place without a national strategy that ties all these things together and looks at other options. It’s too bad our political system doesn’t include a national leader whose job it is to execute such things. Oh.

4. Getting materials and help from other nations.

Well, we’re certainly getting help on the financial side, borrowing trillions of dollars from China, while also picking a fight with them, something that doesn’t make sense to me. But I think of two recent news stories:

  • US Government trying to persuade a German company who is leading the pack on the vaccine research to move their research to the US. The company refused because they were afraid that the US would keep it for themselves instead of sharing with others. (Our recent selfish behavior coming back to haunt us.)
  • The White House reaches out to South Korea to request medical supplies. Their reply, “Uh, you just sent us the second of two shipments of the very same supplies. Do you want them back?”

Over the last three years, we’ve become too America First to believe that others can help us and have eroded the relationships required to secure that help if we do ask for it.

5. Using other nations as models of how to solve their problems.

Other nations developed strategies during SARS and MERS that are paying off now. We learned nothing from their experience and are not using their solutions as models for how to solve this problem.

6. National identity.

[Features of language, culture, and history that make a nation unique, contribute to national pride, and that the nation’s citizens view themselves as sharing.]

Our national identity as the young, independent rebel who spits in the face of tradition and goes our own way is not serving us well now. One antivaxx idiot was even quoted as saying that, when a vaccine is developed, her children will be vaccinated over her dead body. Well, probably, yes. You will die from Corona Virus and your kids will then be vaccinated.

7. Honest national self-appraisal.

Oh please. Politicians, the media, they all have their slant. Citizens either fall into righteous indignation or check out entirely, exhausted by the whole thing, which makes at least one side happier. In the era where the news we disagree with is called Fake News, there is no room for honest self-appraisal.

8. Historical experience of previous national crises.

This one is interesting. One of the fascinating things about the 1918 flu is how little impact it made on the historical record, both in the news, in family oral traditions. Until recently, it was a huge blind spot in our history. If you look more recently, at 9/11, we treated that crisis very differently and then forgot what made us strong and successful in that response, possibly because the immediate domestic response was quickly followed by a botched international response – going it alone, pursuing phantoms – and then a domestic splintering into partisanship.

9. Dealing with national failure. [and ability to explore other solutions if first solution fails]

What, failure, US? We do not deal well with failure (“Mission Accomplished”) – we tend to hold on to failed strategies long after it has become clear that it is not working. Korea. Vietnam. Afghanistan. Healthcare. The two-party system. And now we’re being led by someone who refuses to admit failure at anything, denying the news, denying his own words on film, and with the power and influence to make marginalized OWGs follow him blindly.

10. Situation-specific national flexibility.

[The ability to be extraordinarily flexible, in areas where one is usually rigid, in specific situations to solve a problem.]

Eh, “B”. We’ve managed to be flexible in putting aside our relentless capitalism in lieu of safety. But we continue to protect the right to sell guns – I am not sorry to say that gun shops, really not essential businesses – or to bus people in to worship in megachurches, then bus them back out to their communities to spread virus.

11. National core values.

The principle value of America is freedom. We’ve taken free will to a ridiculous level, fighting seat belts, vaccines, reasonable gun laws, those jerks who picket funerals, and allowing the Kardashians. And now some people believe that they have a right to hold Coronavirus parties, film themselves coughing on vegetables in grocery stores, congregate on the beach.

It is important to maintain your core values. Freedom is essential, it’s what sets us apart from Russia and China, from North Korea. But we have to use common sense and shouting fire in a crowded theatre is not an expression of freedom.

12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints.

Our country shares few borders with other countries. But we didn’t begin to monitor the health of international travelers during the peak spread, when hundreds of people per day were coming through international airports from infected areas. Also, we are dependent on national and international supply chains that could soon affect our ability to get what we need to continue to supply our hospitals and homes. Just a few years ago, the LA port went on strike, which impacted the movement of goods and services in ways that may not have been visible to you but were highly visible to retailers. We’re starting to hear rumbles about reductions in global shipping capacity (Google it for details) and truckers – who have been increasingly disillusioned with their professions over the last 10 years – are complaining that they are experiencing long lines and traffic when dropping off their loads, and trucking costs are increasing. So the very thing that makes us strong, can also be a risk for us.

* * *

What do you think? Clearly I’ve been pretty negative in this assessment. I’m a little angry, I have to say, a little frustrated. My natural abilities for organization leave me impatient with situations which calls for organization and don’t receive it.

I love living in the US, I love America. And it doesn’t make me unamerican to see clearly what we need to work around, what we need to address in order to avoid such problems in the future.

So what do you think? How can these things make us stronger instead of weaker in this situation?

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