[Readers needing background may refer to the first member of this series, Don’t Panic: Against the Spirit of the Age, posted last month. This post, unlike that one, was hastily written due to time constraints involving, perhaps ironically, international travel to a Third World country.]
Constructive foreword: suggested case studies in disruption are the Chicago blizzard of 1/13-14/1979 (~3 million commuters immobilized) and the Milwaukee Cryptosporidiosis outbreak of 3/23-4/8/1993 (~400k residents sickened simultaneously).
Thesis: I argue that, at least with Ebola, inept and overwrought responses pose far greater risks to American society than the disease itself. With regard to managing the risks associated with Ebola in the US, it is vital that we identify easily disrupted institutions and design our processes intelligently to avoid creating bottlenecks, mostly by resisting the urge to overreact; likely candidates include …
Airports – Domestic air travel in the US is deeply vulnerable to disruption at the margin, such that the distance over which people will choose to drive rather than fly increases significantly if changes make flying seem too arduous or dangerous. Either lengthy medical screening procedures or rumors of disease transmission at airports or aboard airplanes will cause just such a shift. Driving only 20 kilometers on even the safest (that is, limited-access) highways is as risky as flying 5,000 kilometers from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. Vehicular fatalities will increase by at least several thousand per year in the event of any substantial stress on the airline industry, just as they did in the year after 9/11/2001.
Hospitals – Massive redirection of ICU and other resources – typically high-double-digit numbers of staff – to the care of even a single suspected Ebola patient will severely draw down, and for all but the largest hospitals exhaust, patient-care resources available for most other acute-care needs. Any breach of protocol which appears to threaten any critical-care staffers with infection will greatly exacerbate the problem by both directly removing those staffers from the available resource pool and by requiring the dedication of their own sizeable retinue of caregivers. Such a positive-feedback loop would bring any hospital to a standstill in a matter of weeks, effectively eliminating medical care for hundreds or even thousands of people at a time.
Mass Transit Facilities – Similar to the airport case in that cumbersome screening and perceived infection risk would be immediately disruptive, except that alternatives to mass transit, especially for commuting, are logistically problematic for many people. The specific risk is of a general economic slowdown as workers are unable or unwilling to report to their jobs. Telecommuting can mitigate this in many cases, but only insofar as management is flexible. In the extreme case, this would become a selective pressure in the Darwinian sense, eliminating unresponsive American businesses in metropolitan areas characterized by heavy use of public transit.
Schools – The problematic response in this area is most likely to consist of parents simply removing their children from school for the perceived duration of the infection-risk period. Sharply lower student populations would reduce funding, but the effect on institutional functionality would be minor by comparison with the atmosphere of general hysteria.
Large Entertainment/Sport Venues – Not an immediate matter of life and death, to be sure, but precisely for that reason, any sufficient combination of cumbersome screening and perceived infection risk would hit them hard. As for churches and synagogues, I suppose we’ll find out just who has, and has not, internalized Psalm 91.