Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

The Coronavirus Blizzard

Empty store shelves in San Rafael, Calif., March 13 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
An epidemic is like a storm in more than the metaphorical sense

Blizzards apparently cause Americans to desire French toast — why else run to the store for milk, eggs, and bread? Coronavirus has, on the other hand, sent Americans in search of toilet paper and better Wi-Fi connections. 

The parallels are worth thinking about: An epidemic is like a storm in more than the metaphorical sense. 

Consider a hurricane. In a powerful storm, the windows in your house may leak — even if they are really good ones and properly installed. But the big variable isn’t leaky windows: It is keeping the roof on. The damage done to houses that lose their roof during hurricanes is dramatically worse than the damage typically suffered by houses that keep their roofs on. The kind of roof fastening that will stand up to a hurricane is overkill in practically every other situation. It can be expensive — the Institute for Business and Home Safety, an organ of the insurance lobby, estimates that complying with its “Fortified Home” program (which addresses hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and other natural disasters) can add from 3 to 8 percent to the price of a house compared with complying with minimum local building-code standards. And nobody wants to pay for that: Builders, who work on relatively small margins, do not want to bear the cost and are not confident they can pass it on to consumers; consumers do not want to pay any more for their houses than they have to, and they pass their risk on to their insurance companies. The insurance companies do not want to go around writing a lot of six-figure checks for totaled houses after every major storm, and so they lobby for stricter “wind uplift resistance” rules in the building code, which means that every homeowner living under the code gets a more hurricane-resistant roof whether he asks for it or not. 

Somebody has a strong financial interest in making houses more hurricane-resistant. It isn’t the homeowners, but that doesn’t really matter: When the roof comes off, somebody pays. 

And that is why we are better prepared for hurricanes than for epidemics. 

With COVID-19 sending people around the world into quarantine — voluntary or involuntary — critical pieces of infrastructure, public and private, are being tested in the United States and abroad. The results — as of this writing, early in the episode — have not been catastrophic, but they do point to weak spots and possible problems. 

Begin with the good news: The Internet does not seem to be having very much trouble with all the extra traffic, although specific services, such as Microsoft Teams, a remote-collaboration platform, have failed. (Microsoft’s Xbox network also crashed — not everybody at home is working. A pornographic site announced that it was offering free “premium” service to Italians.) A spokesman for Downdetector, an outage-reporting site, told Slate, “We’ve definitely noticed a wave of outages/issues correlated to coronavirus traffic spikes.” But the Internet seems to be chugging along, with the notable exception of a few stock-trading sites. One reason for that is that the Internet already has a lot of excess daytime capacity — people watch Netflix and use other video-streaming services, which make up most Internet traffic, at night, when they are off work. A spike in teleconferencing by home workers is not going to challenge the communication infrastructure the way the Game of Thrones finale did. An uptick in online banking or corporate VPN traffic is not likely to present much of a challenge to the digital infrastructure in the United States or abroad. 

The most notable problem so far has not been virtual commerce but the old-fashioned kind. 

Toilet paper is, at this writing, difficult to find in much of the country, which should be no surprise: It is a big, bulky item with a very low margin. How much do you think has been invested in ensuring its availability during times of crisis? 

Hand sanitizer and other hygienic products have disappeared from the shelves, and there were literally lines out the doors at grocery stores in New York and other big cities. Some retailers, such as Apple and Nike, have closed their stores entirely in the service of social isolation. Others, such as San Antonio–based grocery giant H-E-B, have nimbly responded to the crisis. H-E-B modified its store hours, closing early in order to give its overnight crews more time to restock store shelves; the company’s theory is that the fear of shortages may contribute to panic stockpiling and thereby turn that fear into reality. The chain also has instituted free next-day-delivery curbside ordering to prevent crowding in its stores. Like Kroger, Walmart, and other big players in the market, H-E-B is hiring, from stockers to cashiers to pharmacy techs. Some grocers have suspended less essential work (such as stocking the floral departments) in order to deploy those resources elsewhere.

Retailers have some experience with this kind of thing, because their stores get mobbed a few times a year — at Thanksgiving for grocers, and at Christmas for businesses of other kinds. The farms are not going to stop producing food, and, barring some truly catastrophic deepening of the current crisis, the food-processing factories are not going to stop preparing and processing what the farms are growing. 

The vulnerability is the “last mile” problem, getting products from warehouses and distribution centers onto store shelves. In 2018, the American Trucking Associations estimated that the United States was more than 60,000 drivers short of what was needed. If the coronavirus should sideline some appreciable part of the U.S. workforce, this could cause bottlenecks in the distribution network — something that would be of even greater concern as many households turn to online shopping, which will increase demand both for commercial big-rig drivers and delivery-van drivers. 

But even that kind of risk is reasonably manageable. What we should be worried about is the resilience and excess capacity of basic systems: electricity, water, roads and rail. These systems are more vulnerable than we think: In summer of 2019, a thunderstorm hit Dallas, leaving 330,000 people without electricity for days and 41 percent of the city’s traffic signals inoperable. A few months later, the same city was hit by three tornados, which left thousands without power for weeks and took down the traffic-light system again, with some city streets unpassable and traffic snarled up. In 2017, gasoline pumps went dry all over Dallas when the hurricane that soaked Houston and shut down 25 percent of the U.S. refining capacity took a major gasoline pipeline out of commission. That’s just one city in a relatively short span of time. These things happen, and they can happen during an epidemic, too. The hurricanes and the viruses are not coordinating their schedules. A sustained interruption in the local electricity service or gasoline supply in any part of the country during this epidemic is the sort of thing that sets off cascading system failures. If the trucks don’t get fuel, the food doesn’t get to the stores — or the hospitals. If the power goes down, the pumps don’t work. 

What to do about that? 

This is precisely the kind of coordination problem that governments exist, in theory, to address. But in reality, political incentives complicate that. Just a few months before the coronavirus hit, the Trump administration submitted a budget proposal that included, among other things, a $35 million cut to the Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Reserve Fund’s annual contribution. For a politician, it doesn’t pay to sock away money as a hedge against some future crisis. Presidencies last, at most, eight years; more realistically, they operate on two- to four-year timelines. The same kind of immediacy bias infects politics at all levels, which is why Democrat-dominated states (and some Republican ones, too) are facing the prospect of insolvency in the face of retiree obligations they spent decades refusing to fully fund. 

Go back to those hurricane-resistant roofs: Without the building code, a more libertarian settlement would permit homeowners to do what they really want to do, which is cheap out on roof fasteners and upgrade their kitchen countertops to marble instead. On a case-by-case basis, that would be tolerable, but hurricanes hit everybody in their path at the same time, and all those roofless houses and suddenly homeless people create a social crisis — an externality — that can overwhelm local resources. People would prefer not to face the risk of hurricanes, but the risk appears to them manageable because — they assume — even if the roof comes off, everything else in the world is going to be working more or less as it should. We Americans have long assumed that we can get by with barely sufficient electrical and transportation systems because they are fine, short of an unexpected national crisis. And here we are. 

The contours of the crisis are impossible to predict in any detail. But the fact of recurrent crises is not impossible to predict — it is impossible to miss. And that is why an intelligent society fortifies what is fortifiable (including its public finances) in order to have room to maneuver and assets to exploit when disaster strikes. Coronavirus is not going to be our last national crisis. And, despite cheap partisan claims to the contrary, these problems are not going to be solved with any of the old bromides: Italy has a “universal” health-care system, but that is no insurance against what the Italians are suffering right now. This is a genuine test of American leadership at home and abroad — and American leadership has been found wanting. 

This article appears as “The Viral Blizzard” in the April 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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