Mt. St. Helens, COVID, and the Politics of Emergency Orders
Forty years ago today, Mt. St. Helens blew up. The explosion cost the equivalent of $1.1 billion in today’s money, killed 57 people, and resulted in great amounts of environmental damage that still linger to this day. The aftereffects of the events of the May 18, 1980 can be seen in the debris choked Spirit Lake and by the unmistakable hole in the side of the mountain.
Among the 57 people killed as a result of the eruption was a man named Harry Truman — not that one, another one — and his tale, according to some is relevant for today. This Harry Truman is best known for his lodge at Spirit Lake and his stubborn refusal to evacuate despite warnings.
According to his Wikipedia page, Truman said of the possibility of an eruption, “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow, but I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up.”
Another quote showed Truman’s complete lack of understanding of volcanic dangers, “If the mountain goes, I’m going with it. This area is heavily timbered, Spirit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain is a mile away, the mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.”
Yet another shows his contempt for the scientists, “the mountain has shot its wad and it hasn’t hurt my place a bit, but those goddamn geologists with their hair down to their butts wouldn’t pay no attention to ol’ Truman.”
Perhaps, Washington Emergency Management Division’s Twitter account had Truman in mind when it tweeted:
The lesson from this tweet is simple: people ignored the expertise advice of the scientists before and it cost them their lives, let’s not make that mistake again.
The problem is the two events are not analogous. The main difference is a volcanic eruption is a single violent event. Once Truman made the decision to stay at Spirit Lake, there was no chance of survival. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is something that’s much slower. It’s going to be around for a while, but people can take precautions. They can wear masks, stay at home, stay six feet away from others when they do need to go out, whereas with the volcano, the only possibility would be to relocate.
Furthermore, not everyone who gets COVID dies, some do, some get sick, some more seriously than others, and others are asymptomatic and the condition of one’s immune system plays a role in that. Getting crushed by ash and debris as a result of not heeding the warnings of geologists is more analogous to getting hit by a bus because you did not bother to look both ways before crossing the street.
Then there is the politics of all this.
When St. Helens was about to blow, people were urged to evacuate. When COVID came around, people were urged to stay home and most people obliged. Sure, there were some deniers and conspiracy nuts, but most people when they saw the charts that predicted 2 million dead Americans if no social distancing was implemented said, “It’ll suck, but it’ll be worth it. Plus, there’s been worse things people have had to endure than a couple of weeks at home with the modern convinces of the internet, television, and other modern technologies.” It’s not like we had to crawl into our bomb shelters every night while the Luftwaffe was overhead.
But, while the stay at home orders may have been scientifically necessary, they were always politically arbitrary. While the science may say that certain businesses are not necessary for the sustaining of human life, calling anybody’s job that they use to pay the bills and put food on the table, was always politically risky. If politicians and their scientific advisors were not careful, they could do more to undermine support for stay at home orders than any internet nut case ever could.
Unfortunately, this is what happened. We went from “flatten the curve” to not overwhelm the health care system to worrying about raises in case numbers regardless of capacity. This is problematic for multiple reasons. One, the goal post shift was not accompanied by with any public relations explanation as to why. Two, known cases were bound to go up as testing went up, but the imbalance in media coverage on those two topics may lead some to believe it is worse than it actually is. Third, we were told that eliminating the virus without a vaccine was unrealistic given the large numbers of asymptomatics.
To make matters worse, some politicians went from orders that, while inevitably arbitrary, could be justified scientifically to orders that do not appear to be scientifically justifiable. It’s one thing to say movie theaters should close, but department stores like Walmart can stay open. It’s quite another to say that Walmart can stay open, but the toy section or the home and gardening department has to be roped off. Back in the Evergreen State, Governor Inslee said public construction was essential, but private was not.
That was never the tacit agreement the governors made with the governed and when the mayors of Chicago and New York City are doing things they have banned for other people, that is not going to sit well.
And it only got worse. Not only did governors believe that the orders would be obeyed because they as the emperor or empress of their state decreed it, but the imbalance in media coverage of different states started to look less scientific and more political.
Ron DeSantis is a villain for opening up some of Florida’s beaches, meanwhile Andrew Cuomo’s news conferences are carried every day on cable news leading him to receive praise from the press despite only recently reversing the order that compelled nursing homes to accept COVID patients. Kristi Noem in South Dakota was vilified for refusing to issue a stay at home order and got more press when an outbreak happened at an essential meat packing plant that would not have closed even if she had than New York City’s refusal to clean the subways until late April.
The straw that may eventually break the camel’s back is that as people inevitably lost their jobs and never-fireable government bureaucrats, politicians, and other people who can afford to work in their pajamas started lecturing about how anyone who wants to reopen wants dead grandmas.
Meanwhile, the IRS when tasked with giving every American a stimulus check, went from the organization that will chase you down to the ends of the earth if you so much as owe them a dollar to all the incompetence of the DMV.
But don’t worry, some guy who can attend a Zoom meeting while in his underwear will tell you that you’re the problem.
When this pandemic began we were told that this was analogous to war. It is commonly accepted that for democracies to wage war, especially a long and protracted one, successfully, they need public support.
If the war does not enjoy support, the people will vote for the peace party. To ensure success for the war, civilian leadership needs to present the public with clear goals and a definition of success. Support for military operations almost inevitably goes down when politicians fall victim to “mission creep,” that being a change in mission, often without public consultation.
If politicians want to keep support high for their orders amidst historic unemployment then they need to explain to people why the orders are necessary, not why people who disagree with them are in favor of death. They also need to adjust them to fit the reality of the situation. It is one thing to say that putting 40,000 people in a baseball stadium is not workable, it is another to say that thou shall not go camping. Finally, people just need better analogies.