The Crisis: A Warning

2020-08-01 (Phase Shift, The Crisis)

This is part one of a series of articles about the COVID-19 pandemic. The audio version of this article became the first episode of Phase Shift, my podcast.

There is a widespread public misperception, particularly among the New Age sector, that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of elements that signify “danger” and “opportunity”…

While it is true that wēijī does indeed mean “crisis” and that the wēi syllable of wēijī does convey the notion of “danger,” the jī syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify “opportunity”…

The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits. In a crisis, one wants above all to save one's skin and neck!

— Victor H. Mair, from the website.

I will tell you a story about a global crisis, one which continues to unfold. In early 2020 a novel virus spread throughout the world, causing a disease called COVID-19, short for “Coronavirus Disease 2019.”

You can find many facts, as well as speculations, about COVID-19 on the web. In this story I will focus on my experiences. I may not remember the details clearly or accurately. That is the nature of memory. Indeed, most memories are more like stories we tell ourselves rather than recordings of the past. Perhaps writing this will help me remember the events more clearly, and help me process what happened.

I recently learned the word liminal, which means “relating to or at a transition or boundary between two states or stages.” Is 2020 a liminal time? If we’re in a transition, where are we transitioning to? The old normal was broken; what will replace it?

During the 1990s many people were concerned about the Year 2000 problem, also called the Y2K bug. Many computer systems stored dates using two digits for the year and date comparisons would fail when the year 2000 rolled around.

This was a real problem, which turned out to have little impact because of all the work done to fix it. In 1999 I recall a local market which couldn’t process credit cards for several days; their point-of-sale software had the Y2K bug.

The Y2K bug got me thinking about how interconnected and fragile our systems are. For example, the loss of the power grid, if not restored fairly quickly, would lead to other systems failing. Without power, gas stations cannot pump fuel. Without fuel, trucks cannot deliver food. Most of our systems are just-in-time; grocery stores have only a few days of food on hand.

This inspired me to learn about preparedness. I was never a very thorough prepper, but I learned a fair amount about the topic. Preppers think about potential disasters and their impacts. Planning for a pandemic is nothing new in the preparedness community.

I enjoy watching YouTube. I like the videos which Styxhexenhammer666 produces. (His real name is Tarl Warwick.) In January 2020, Styx started talking about the Wuhan Coronavirus, as it was called then, and I learned about the John Hopkins website showing of the number of cases and deaths in each country. When the virus spread outside the Hubei Province, Styx warned that this may become a pandemic. When it began spreading to other countries, Styx warned that people might panic when it reached their city, and that the panic could be worse than the virus itself.

Styx introduced me to Dr. John Campbell, a retired nurse and nurse educator. Dr. Campbell was also tracking the coronavirus and was concerned that it may become a pandemic. In his YouTube videos Dr. Campbell presented evidence-based information, linking to studies in established scientific journals. He included information on how to prevent the spread of the virus and avoid getting sick. After Dr. Campbell posted a video on hand washing, one person commented that in 1980 we were promised flying cars, and in 2020 we learned to how wash our hands.

The worldwide response to COVID-19 was ineffective. Early on, China lied about the severity of the virus and how it was spreading. The World Health Organization (WHO) did not declare COVID-19 to be a pandemic until March 11. The WHO may have acted with political motivations. Similarly, in the United States the response to COVID-19 was politicized.

In late January I began sending emails to friends and family warning about COVID-19. In mid-February I suggested that a pandemic was possible. By the end of February, the disease was spreading rapidly in South Korea, Italy and Iran and there seemed to be cases in new countries each day.

On February 26 I awoke. I was the President of Birmingham Unitarian Church (BUC) at the time, and I realized that I had been warning friends and family but not the BUC Board of Trustees. The Board’s governance document states “The Board will govern with policies that emphasize … future rather than past or present vision” and “proactivity rather than reactivity.” I sent an email to the Board, stating my concerns and encouraging discussion about COVID-19.

On March 2 I created risk mitigation documents in our shared workspace.

On March 4 I became frustrated with the lack of response from the Board. I sent an email saying, “It’s difficult, but try to think exponentially about this. Things may change at a faster rate than they are changing now. Please see the attached chart showing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases outside of China.”

COVID-19 cases outside of China on 2020-03-04

COVID-19 cases outside of China on 2020-03-04
From the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard

This stimulated a flurry of discussion and the Board agreed to address COVID-19 at a special meeting on March 9. The situation developed rapidly and on March 14 the church building was closed. We began having worship services online.

This timeline shows two things: how quickly changes can occur when exponential growth is involved, and how challenging it can be to integrate new information.

Although I was following the spread of COVID-19 and had studied preparedness, I was late realizing my responsibility to my church. I did not integrate my knowledge fully and take action soon enough. And once I had initiated the discussion, it took a while for the Board members to integrate the information and cohere as a group.

The next article in this series, called The Crisis: The Starting Gun describes my experiences during February and March of 2020 as I rushed to prepare.