COVID-19 pandemic points out our disaster preparedness gaps

"If only this were a drill," writes L.A. Times columnist Nita Lelyveld.


Los Angeles Times

By Nita Lelyveld

This is not a test. This is not a drill. This is the real thing. If only it weren't.

Less and less people are venturing outside or are doing their best to social distance themselves from others. Image: lehighvalleylive.com/Saed Hindash
Less and less people are venturing outside or are doing their best to social distance themselves from others. Image: lehighvalleylive.com/Saed Hindash

We are learning so much so fast about what we need to have in place when a pandemic happens, only it has happened and a lot of us weren't prepared — or were prepared but for very different disasters, for the grab-your-most-important-papers fires and keep-your-shoes-by-your-bed earthquakes.

The coronavirus is requiring us to be ready in new ways — and we are trying, we're adapting fast, but the pandemic may be spreading faster.

There are things we were supposed to have taken care of earlier for that long-expected guest that we've always called the Big One: stocking up on the basics — the water, the toilet paper, the batteries, the canned goods.

But even those of us who took the time out to put together great earthquake kits probably didn't include disinfectant spray. Even those of us who love disaster movies in which our world hurtles toward apocalypse probably didn't think in real life we'd ever need to be ready in an instant with bleach wipes and gloves.

We also maybe didn't quite imagine a new kind of crisis that might turn a lot of people who need us invisible.

We're used to people running out of burning and buckled houses. We're used to firefighters and police going door to door and finding them.  We're not used to people in need — older people, the sick, the frail — being commanded to stay in place behind closed doors and leaving us not knowing where they are or how to find them and help.

Some blocks and communities no doubt have done all the right things in advance: mapping out their neighbors' homes, putting phone numbers and email addresses next to names. But all over the city now there are blocks and communities that haven't done that prep work and, no matter how much they want to, don't know how to check in on or offer aid to people they've seen around but for whom they have neither addresses nor names.

This isn't a test. This is the real thing. And some of the things we are learning so fast feel too late.

I had the good luck the other day to see one of the elderly people I've been worried about as she paced down my block for her exercise. But when I tried to ask her if she was OK and if I could get her anything, I faced two problems: She told me she spoke only Armenian, and I don't know much more than the "Ari!" that another neighbor uses to make her dog come to her. Also, the woman, who I would guess is in her 80s, was terrified to come any closer to me than about 10 feet.

Another thing we're struggling to process now is that the way we behave as individuals can have profound consequences for our collective whole. In this new crisis we find ourselves in, the actions of one person just moving around the city touching things or getting too close to others could potentially start a chain of events that costs numerous complete strangers their health or even their lives.

This is true, too, of our hunting and gathering to make sure that we and our loved ones have what we need.

Because we didn't all have disaster kits in place, because even if we did we didn't have some of the specific things we now need, because no one is sure how long this will last and whether supplies will dry up, everyone is out hunting now for the same things at the same moment.

But we're still struggling to absorb how much all that moving around might have the power to harm others.

The last time I went to the supermarket, a few days ago, I watched a man get around a two-case limit on water by having his children line up, each with two cases of 24 bottles in a cart. Set aside the questionable belief that we might have a water shortage, the "us" clearly wasn't thinking about the "them."

But perhaps more seriously, this man was bringing three children into a crowded place that thus grew more crowded — children who could be carrying the virus and thus exposing others to it or could get exposed in the course of their shopping and bring it home with them.

Each day, in this coronavirus crisis, we learn new things: how to manage when forced behind closed doors, how to harness our inner resources, how to slow down, how to conserve what we have, how to alleviate stress through creativity.

How to find ways to be compassionate toward others when we can't hug them or sit by their sides or even walk into their homes.

We deserve to be proud. We have learned so much so fast that we can apply to the next time.

But we don't have the luxury of a learning curve. The more we stumble, the more we resist our new reality, the more lives we lose, the more time we spend on lockdown, the more businesses go under, the more people lose jobs and can't afford to pay their bills or their rent.

If only this were a drill, but it's not.

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