Scrabble, VirginiaIn a normal year…” So many conversations begin with or include that phrase. In a normal year here in Rappahannock County we would wait patiently until May Day to place our herbs in the ground.  But, of course, this is in many ways a most abnormal year. 

Climate change brings with it odd aberrations, often proving why it is wrong to call the phenomenon “global warming.”  This Spring unusual Arctic wind patterns brought a mid-Spring cold snap, driving temperatures at night here into the thirties.  The experts at the local nursery were adamant we wait even longer to plant. I was beginning to think Godot’s first name was Herb.

Thus, as much as I wanted to go out and put the basil in the ground every day for the last two weeks, I was forced to wait until today to place the annual herbs in the soil. Some herbs, however, have become perennials because of the mild winters. The sage, mint, chives, rosemary and thyme have already grown to robust proportions, showing no sign at all of winter damage. There was almost no real winter here in Rappahannock County, another result of climate change.

Much of America has been like the herb gardeners here, impatient to get out despite the warning of the experts. States and counties have been ignoring the guidance to wait to end the pandemic lockdown until new Covid case numbers begin to drop. Indeed, some areas are opening up at what appears to be the period of greatest risk when case-loads are rapidly accelerating. We know what the results will be, more dead Americans than there needed to be.

The fact that governors, county commissioners and mayors in some locations will defy the counsel of public health specialists and epidemiologists, knowing that they will be killing some of their constituents, is shocking at one level. At another level, however, we as Americans are beginning to accept that it is part of our culture that some elected officials, notably from one party and one swath of the country, regularly ignore scientific consensus and support policies that will endanger the population. One has only think of gun control and, of course, climate change.

It is horrific to me that the highest levels of our national government ignored clear warnings from public health and Intelligence officials. The fact that willful ignorance of such warnings is a pattern, and especially characterizes this administration, should not be something we come to accept. For more than two months, experts warned that a pandemic was coming, indeed, as we now know, was already here. What kind of person engages in magical thinking, hoping that the experts are all wrong and that the tsunami coming down upon them will dissipate before the damage? We all know some people who make those kinds of mistakes in their personal or professional lives, but we would never choose to give them responsibility for the lives of millions of others. And yet that is exactly what this country did.

We did it in 2000, when we elected a man who had spent most of his adult life in alcohol induced stupors and who had no record of accomplishment. That man engaged in magical thinking when experts told him the country was going to be attacked. Then he went on to accept concocted fantasies to convince himself that he should initiate a war, a war in which hundreds of thousands died. If you think that is an extreme judgement on the man, I invite you to watch the new American Experience “George W. Bush,” a four-hour documentary on PBS. How quickly we forget.

And we did it again in 2016. As a nation, we chose as our leader a clinical case of malevolent, delusional narcissism; a man who had never worked for anyone other than his father and himself, leaving in his wake many failed enterprises and even more court cases. If President Trump uses bullying as an offensive tactic, he uses fantasy on the defense. It should have been no surprise that he would turn to magical thinking when told an unprecedented disaster was about to befall the country. It is fitting that such a failure to prevent and prepare for disaster was followed by a parade of decisions, made to minimize his personal responsibility, once the calamity had become clear.

Both men, in their own ways,  remind me of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin, who, upon being told by Red Army intelligence that the Nazis were marshaling forces to invade, went into denial and did nothing. When the attack fell upon Russia like Jupiter’s hammer, Stalin went into a days-long clinical depression and issued no orders while the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg ate up thousands of square miles of Soviet territory, killing hundreds of thousands.

The past performance and the temperament of a leader both matter, especially when the wave is about to crash upon them, and to still a greater extent after it has actually done so. Personal temperament may be the most important determinant of a leader’s skill at crisis management. Alas, in the last two decades we have chosen two leaders whose personal temperaments cracked under pressure. In both cases, Americans have paid, and continue to pay, the price with their lives. We must not develop a tolerance for decision-making that imperils the American people.

In the Autumn, as every year, I intend to harvest the basil and make my pesto, heavy with garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Thus, I now have the Autumn to look forward to. And so does America.



Scrabble, Virginia – The variety of tree species in Rappahannock County is an aspect of its rural beauty that I find so rewarding. Poplar, maple, oak, pine, magnolia, cherry, dogwood, locust, ash, redbud and willow dot the county. Some of us have added non-native varietals, such as the myriad types of Japanese maple. Indeed, the largest source of Japanese maples east of the Mississippi is hidden away down a dirt road not far from here. 

For the last six weeks, this natural arboretum has been moving in stages from buds, to first leaves, and now going into full foliage. The many shades of green, along with the spectrum of flowerings, have provided an ever-changing palette throughout the first half of Spring. During much of this time, the density of leaves has been thin enough that on hikes (or with a small personal drone) one could see much farther than is the case later in the Spring and throughout the Summer. The absence of thick underbrush in early Spring has also allowed a hiker to see more of the protruding rock formations, creeks, and contours that later will be camouflaged by thorn bushes, ferns, and other under growth.

Even now in late April, what I can see from my perch has started to become a solid wall of green, hiding the individuality of each tree, obscuring the second and later rows of forest lines, blotting out from a distance some rocks and even foot paths. It will be this way now until many months later, sometime in October, when this green wall morphs into a variety of yellow, orange, red, gold, and brown, then begins to gradually fall away again, revealing what is behind the first rows of forest. For now, however, the multiple shades of green have given way to a single hue. This is our normal for now. We will adjust to that change and live with a condition of nature less beautiful than Spring, until the Autumn brings us color again.

A call this week from a friend dealing with corporate operations caused me to think of this annual flow in nature. He asked when and how to step out of the crisis mode in which his company is now operating. For several years I have been lecturing and consulting on crises and have developed a set of fifteen Laws of Crisis Management. The two most important of my laws are the first, Know You are in a Crisis, and the twelfth, Know When and How to Stop Crisis Mode. Surprisingly, most organizations fail at the first law. They realize too late that they should have been in crisis operations mode. 

These two laws aptly apply in the current crisis. The US government’s current reaction to the plague is a classic example of breaking the first law. Crisis mode should have begun in January.  Yet this government moved, kicking and screaming, into crisis mode ten weeks later than it should have, with consequent calamitous results. 

Similarly, the twelfth law, knowing how to come out of crisis mode, is also extremely well-fitted to the pandemic. In deciding at what point a transition out of the crisis mindset must come, leaders must choose between the lesser of two evils: One is the risk associated with operating before the cause of the crisis has been neutralized, and the other is the consequence of sustaining the unsustainable crisis mentality for a prolonged period.

My twelfth law of crisis management called for creating a Crisis Stand-down Planning Cell during the crisis. That group would determine whether the evolving crisis was a Class One or Class Two instance. In Class One, the crisis end is clear and the post-crisis environment is essentially the same as the pre-crisis world, requiring no significant changes.

A Class Two instance, however, is one in which there is a no clarity on when the crisis will be over and, consequently, when the organization should cease crisis mode operations.  In Class Two, the new world looks more like the crisis than it does what we knew before.  The Stand-Down Cell must develop the plans, procedures, resource requirements, and identify specific personnel to handle a crisis-to-post-crisis transition period. Only when that is all in place, can that transition commence.

In these altered states that can occur after a Class Two crisis, it is best to think of the post-crisis period as an Interim Normal along the way to a true post-crisis recovery. Resources still have to be diverted to deal with the crisis problem. Cumbersome new procedures have to be maintained, albeit on a modified basis. Despite the desire to give everyone involved a well-deserved break, it is imperative that an organization maintain capabilities to return quickly to full crisis mode, especially when the crisis is likely recrudescent.

The pandemic is a Class Two crisis. We will be shifting to an Interim Normal at least until a vaccine is available some year or two from now.  In effect a Stand-down Planning Cell of public health experts has already described what resources and capabilities we need to move to that phase. Unfortunately, we do not have them. 

We need mass testing and the capability to do widespread contact tracing. Currently lacking strategies for both, the economic burdens of crisis mode will likely be what dictate a gradual move to Interim Normal. Then, because that move was poorly resourced, the crisis will relapse, and we will return to full crisis mode. (Ramping back up will be so costly and unpopular that it may not happen, even if required for successful health outcomes.)

For however long the Interim Normal phase lasts, some aspects of our current crisis mode will continue. Social distancing may become standard in many situations. Work/Learn at Home will continue for many, in part because it is more effective and less costly for some jobs and educational requirements. Yet these conditions are peripheral to an experience with illness that is emerging as central to and common in American lives. Interestingly enough, none of our plans for this crisis, in the short time we had to make them, included getting sick ourselves or caring for ill loved ones.

The most painful part of the Interim Normal will be the higher rates of serious illness, strain on hospitals, and loss of life. The medical community is not yet prepared for that new steady state. As we do with the thickness of the Summer foliage, we will have to adjust to that change and live with a condition of nature less beautiful than Spring, until the Autumn brings us color again. (In this case, a figurative spring will come when the scientific community delivers a safe and effective vaccine at scale, likely late in 2021 or 2022.) Prepare for the Interim Normal, and in the meantime, consider what facets of the past normal are worth clinging to.



Scrabble, Virginia – Perhaps I have never paid as much attention to them before, but I do believe the Spring flowers in Rappahannock this year were unusually beautiful. Or maybe it was just that any sign of color, beauty, or promise seemed more needed and more welcome during this period of the plague. The tulips around my house were magnificent and remarkably resistant to deer (or more likely the deer were deterred by the obvious and more consistent human presence in the area). For several weeks I was able to harvest new tulips, varied by colors and mild scents, for dining table bouquets. Mixed with a sprig of forsythia, redbud, or dogwood, they brought the glory of the outdoors inside. 

It was easy, while casually enjoying the tulips, to forget that they are not a naturally occurring, native species in the Virginia woods. In fact, some of them came to me directly from the Netherlands last Fall. Before the first frost in the Autumn of 2019, I spent many back-breaking hours planting tulip bulbs. That activity involved selecting what color combinations belonged in what locations, digging holes, then covering them up in a way that I hoped would out-smart the squirrels, deer, and other bulb-eaters which have reduced my tulip harvest in past years.

Not far from here, ten thousand tulips bloomed in bursts of splendor in Patrick O’Connell’s public gardens on the campus of the Inn at Little Washington, whose unparalleled restaurant regrettably remains shuttered due to the pandemic. Nonetheless, Rappahannock’s citizens came out to walk in the gardens, being sure to observe social distancing. I wondered how many of those enjoying the beauty considered those whose backs ached months ago from the tedious process of inserting the bulbs in the soil.

When things work well, or as we expect them to, we seldom think about the people or the actions that made it possible. Y2k, the computer software glitch that manifested at the end of 1999, was perhaps one such case. Say the two letters and one number “Y2k” now and those who even recall what it means will more often than not tell you it was a hoax, a scam, or a case of “the boy who cried wolf.”  From my perspective, admittedly a biased one, Y2k was a prime example of government foreseeing a problem and averting it. 

In case your memory is as foggy as a Rappahannock morning, most software written in the last century had a little problem when it came to the format for the day, month, and year. The code writers had not anticipated that their products would still be used to make critical systems work when the millennium turned. Thus, if nothing had been done to fix it, many software programs would have shut down or malfunctioned when 99 became 00. Critical machines would have frozen and many necessary services would have stopped.

Most people who realized the gravity of the problem, and the magnitude of fallout due to inaction, only did so late. We had mere months to fix an enormous code base around the country and the world. The United States, where most of the code had been written, spearheaded the fix and, working through the UN and NATO, assisted other nations in a global effort to identify and remediate the problematic code. Congress appropriated billions of dollars in a crash effort to update the federal government’s software, therefore leading by example. The White House organized partnerships with industry groups to ensure the private sector addressed the issue. When the clock struck midnight and ushered in 2000, there were few computer malfunctions.

Some will say that there were never going to be many malfunctions anyway. Those who spout that line are usually unaware of the Herculean efforts taken to avoid disruption. John Koskinen, who led the US government effort, is not remembered as he should be, as one of the finest public servants of his generation. John, however, never wanted thanks and had been around Wahington far too long to expect gratitude. Koskinen knew that those who avert disaster are forgotten or, more likely, ridiculed for predicting a problem that never happened. 

My co-author of the book Warnings, RP Eddy, and I muse in that volume: If England had paid attention to Winston Churchill when in the 1930s he warned that the allies needed to quell Hitler, had French and British troops evicted the Nazis following their move into the Rhineland, had the Royal Air Force production of new fighter planes kept pace with Germany’s, England may have prevented a war and Churchill recorded in history as an alarmist. As Churchill later noted, there was no great satisfaction, and indeed an immense disappointment, in having been proved right.

It is in that spirit that RP Eddy recently quoted back to me a paragraph from Warnings: “Regardless of what deadly microbe comes up next, if we wait, we court disaster. It’s not sexy, but when the next pandemic strikes, all that will matter is the capacity of our public health system to detect and respond. All eyes will be fixed in the Oval Office awaiting a solution.”

When we think of Barak Obama’s eight-year presidency, few among us think of his rapid response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Not many Americans know that he sent the United States Army into the hot zone of the outbreak in Africa to help knock the disease down, to prevent its spread to Europe and the United States.  

Tulips do not grow naturally in the Virginia woods. Computer code does not, yet, write itself. Pandemics do not extinguish themselves. In some ways, however, we are right to take certain practices and processes for granted. In the 21st century, we should assume that systems are in place to deal with the predictable, indeed the predicted. We should be free to enjoy spring flowers, to use a global Internet, to live healthy lives without fear of plagues and pestilence if we take responsibility for our democracy. Likewise we should expect to fall short when leaders do not have foresight, do not listen to experts, do not know how to use the instrumentalities of government.



Scrabble, Virginia —Wind ripped at Rappahannock and much of the southeast last night. The unofficial rainfall counter on the farm across the road indicated that three inches of precipitation had fallen in twenty-four hours. However much it was, it caused the pond to overflow, pushing water down the sluice and into the tributary of the Rappahannock. When the storms cleared in the afternoon, the sky was more vivid that the most high resolution flatscreen. 

The absence of cars and aircraft these days has made it easier to see great distance. Even in India, people recently reported seeing the Himalayan mountains for the first time in thirty years. In the Rapp, looking south this afternoon after the rain had washed the pollen from the air, I could see Cedar Mountain with a clarity I do not recall ever having. One afternoon, in August of 1862, thousands of Americans fought for that hill. Over five hundred died and over three thousand were wounded. The events of that day are noted only subtly on signage often driven past and seldom read. Few realize that Americans once cared enough about government’s role to give their lives on that Virginia hill one steaming summer day. 

Cedar Mountain – Culpeper, VA

No one wants Americans’ dissent to manifest itself again with violence, but the country would be better off with a kind of revolution, a peaceful and democratic one, where more Americans turned out to vote. According to a rigorous effort by the Pew polling organization, more eligible voters failed to cast a ballot in 2016 than either the total of all Trump or all Clinton voters. Almost four in ten eligible voters did not show up at the ballot box. They decided the election outcome. 

Some who stayed away from the ballot box said they were not attracted by either presidential candidate. Others say they thought the outcome was fore-ordained and their participation unnecessary (and they were wrong). Yet others claimed that they would not experience the results of policy choices made by the President, regardless of the candidate selected to sit behind the Resolute Desk. Recent events demonstrate that anyone who took such a stance in 2016 had more agency than they thought. The price for disenfranchisement is being paid in the lives and livelihoods of our fellow Americans.

Virginia taught non-voters lessons in 2017 and 2019. Control of the Virginia House of Delegates in the 2017 election came down to one district. The outcome there would determine what party was in control. After several counts, it was clear that that district’s vote was tied. A toss of a coin gave the seat and control of the House to the Republicans. After that, could anyone still think one vote did not matter?  In 2018 and 2019, Democrats showed up in strength, taking what had long been Republican Congressional seats and then last year gaining control of both houses of the state legislature. Did that change of control matter?

Yes. The new legislature extended Obamacare to citizens. It passed reasonable gun control laws. It significantly increased funding for education. In symbolic moves, it terminated the annual celebration of a rebel leader’s birthday as an official Commonwealth holiday, and then authorized cities and counties to remove monuments erected during the eras of Ku Klux Klan terror and “Jim Crow” racism. Some of those who failed to vote because the outcome would not affect them (in their estimation) now have healthcare and their children improved educational opportunities. 

Nonetheless, I understand the cynicism many citizens harbor for their government. After all, I wrote a book entitled Your Government Failed You, reviewing decades of mistakes by the national government on policies affecting war, intelligence, terrorism, cyber security, energy, and the environment. Later I co-authored a book entitled Warnings, with case studies of how various governments failed to heed clear, data-driven, expert predictions of impending doom from foreign enemies, engineering flaws, financial regulatory gaps, and, of course, emerging infectious diseases. In the books Cyber War and, ten years later, The Fifth Domain, my co-author and I documented the misfeasance and nonfeasance of the national government in tackling the task of defending the nation from cyber attacks. My first book, sixteen years ago, entitled Against All Enemies, documented the failure of he Bush (43) administration to deal with bin Ladin and al Qaeda before September 11, 2001. 

If you detect a leitmotif among these volumes, you are correct. I lament government failures, in part because I know what government successes look like: the terrorist attacks that were prevented, the wars that did not take place, technological advances in space, the internet, funding for DNA sequencing, and countless health improvements. In Siena, Italy, there are two large murals dating from 1338 A.D. In one, entitled “Good Government,” the people prosper, learn, build, and celebrate. In the other, Bad Government, people are stricken by poverty and befallen by sickness.

The people we elect do matter. Elect the wrong person president? The unnecessary war he starts can cause thousands of our fellow citizens to die or be maimed, physically and emotionally. Abstain from casting a ballot? A person intellectually and emotionally unsuited to lead the government may downplay a pandemic for his own perceived political advantage, costing thousands of Americans their lives and millions their financial stability. Voters’ choices of one candidate over another can change their lives, and will impact others’, for better or worse. Evidently, the choices those eligible make not to exercise their right to vote bears just as heavily on the outcome and on their own lives. The philosopher Harvey Cox once wrote that “not to decide is to decide.” He might have added “not to vote is to undermine your fellow Americans’ lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness.”



Scrabble, Virginia — We are planting trees where we used to hay, my neighbors and I, hundreds of little trees so small that you could step on them if you weren’t looking. We decided to stop growing hay because, frankly, we didn’t like the ecosystem to which haying was integral. Hay is grown in Rappahannock to feed beef cows, of which there are a lot around here, very fine species I am told. Beef, however, puts a lot of demand on the ecosystem and haying requires a fleet of single purpose cutting, fluffing, and bailing machines that would make Rube Goldberg proud.

Haying also requires fertilizer and our fields are laced with streams that lead to creeks that run away to rivers that create the Rappahannock, which feeds into the Chesapeake. Fertilizer is destructive in the Bay, causing algae blooms and killing oysters and fish. Trees, on the other hand, take little maintenance and have the great added feature of capturing carbon naturally. As part of the generation that caused an enormous spike in carbon in the atmosphere, our planting trees, putting up large solar arrays, and driving all electric cars seems to be the least that we can do. So, we are omitting to grow hay this year and are committing to create a forest.

I have been thinking about acts of omission and commission, sins of failing to act and sins of acting wrongly. When I was a boy in the Congregational Church, our Scottish pastor believed that children should memorize certain passages of scripture and important prayers. Things remembered by rote at a young age never leave us, even when we no longer participate or believe in the institutions associated with them. Thus, I recall a chant of confession that included these lines: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent.”

It is hard to escape the conclusion that our country, or at least our national government, or more specifically its leaders, have left undone those things which they ought to have done. Indeed, in many respects they have done those things which they ought not to have done. And certainly, as a nation there is no health in us. We are, however, a forgiving nation. We respect those that confess their faults and are penitent.

When this plague passes or becomes a part of the normal, there should come a time to examine what acts were omitted, what mistakes were committed, who was involved in each kind of act, and who wishes to confess and seek forgiveness. Other nations have done this with mixed success through the vehicle of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, South Africa being the best example as it dealt with the sin of Apartheid. We in this country tried to gain answers to an American tragedy through the 911 Commission.

The Bush Administration initially fought against there being a 911 Commission and then sought to limit its scope and powers. They tried to exert Executive Privilege to prevent the counter-terrorism coordinator from disclosing what the President had said to him and to excuse the National Security Advisor from testifying at all. These efforts failed because the families of the victims organized and demanded the truth. The Commission declassified top secret documents that made clear the President’s culpability and that of others in his administration through their acts of omission. It did not, however, fully investigate the acts of commission by the CIA, which intentionally blocked responsible authorities from knowing that al Qaeda terrorists were already in the United States. Overall, however, the public generally believed that the Commission did good work and helped them to understand why their government had failed them.

It is time for another such commission. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff has proposed one, with its chair chosen by the President. Republican Congressman Rodney Davis has suggested a commission whose chair would be someone whom the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader could agree upon, assuming that is not a null set. It strikes me that Davis has it right, a commission that may end up investigating the President should not be chaired by someone he appoints.

Critics of a Pandemic Commission proposal will say that it would feed political animosity and pour salt in open wounds better left to heal. I disagree because the American people long for and deserve accountability in public officials. They deserve to know why their government failed them because maybe this time, just possibly, we will learn lessons once we understand the what, why, and whom. And, moreover, a Commission may provide a venue where some may confess and ask forgiveness. It would help us heal.



Scrabble, Virginia — My neighbor on the farm across the road and I had a conversation on the shore of his pond yesterday. We kept a safe distance from each other, but enjoyed sitting in the warm sun together and comparing notes, including on the rate at which various trees and shrubs have bloomed this Spring. Some of his forsythia were just beginning to bloom, while on the other side of the pond, the yellow flowers had all fallen off the forsythia and the trees were turning green. “Being out here every day this month, “ he said “I have for the first time watched the full blossoming cycle of the red bud trees. It’s fascinating to watch the emergence as they move from tiny growths on the branches to full blown vibrant arrays of pinks and reds.”

We also talked about the other thing we have all watched bloom, from hundreds infected in a city most people had never heard about, to a full on global pandemic striking hundreds of thousands. “What if we had acted on the early warning signs when it was just emerging,” he asked, “would we have still wound up with hospital beds in Central Park in Manhattan?”

What-if alternative history exercises are usually only useful as sensitivity analyses, reminding us that the present and the future were not and are not pre-ordained, that minor changes at the right time can have monumental results. Some historians will debate such What-ifs as whether Hitler had been killed in World War I would that have prevented WW II and the Holocaust, some arguing the Great Man Theory and others taking the side of inevitable historical trends. Alternative Historian Jeff Greenfield brought a richly detailed insider’s expertise to his What-if stories about the 1968 and 2000 elections. In the latter, President Al Gore pays attention to warnings from his Security and Counter-terrorism Coordinator about an impending al Qaeda terrorism, but some of the 9–11 attack still occurs. We will never know. That’s the thing about What-ifs.

We can, however, do analysis of the facts as they are before us on this arrow of time and history. If we had acted on the Wuhan warnings, we could have had more testing earlier and perhaps contained the virus better, as other nations have done. We would still, however, have probably exceeded our capacity for respirators and for hospital beds. Why in the richest country in the world are there not enough hospital beds and people are in make shift hospital tents in Central Park?

Why? Because we as a nation decided to eliminate excess hospitals and excess hospital beds over the last twenty years as a matter of policy. Hospitals were closed, others closed wings. Insurance companies and Medicare/Medicaid saw excess beds as unnecessary overhead, to be cut in a cost consultant’s campaign of efficiency. It is akin to the manner in which such consultants effectively eliminated empty seats on US passenger flights (until the plague, of course. Now, planes are flying almost empty of passengers, if they fly at all.)

Efficiency, of course, is generally a good thing, but not always one to be mindlessly praised on an alter of gold by private equity players and management consultants. Sometimes excess capacity or preparedness measures are, or should be, a cost of doing business. We should have adopted a national policy that gave us surge capacity in hospitals in case of disasters with high casualty hospitalization rates, or in case of, uh the plague. Those who argued for such preparedness were drowned out by the cost cutting consultants.

Maybe the better debate would have been to ask not whether we should have maintained some excess capacity, but rather what budget was going to pay for it. If the Center for Medicare/Medicaid did not want to pay, if Blue Cross, United and Cigna wanted to save on overhead costs, perhaps it would have made sense to have Homeland Security or the Public Health Service budget carry the cost.

We see the same kind of penny-wise/pound foolish thinking when it comes to another security issue related to health, cyber security. Hospitals do not have the funds, they say, to pay for effective IT security. Government and insurance cost regulators won’t let them charge more and without more funds, they cannot afford what have become “table stakes” (ugly term) for managing any corporation or institution, effective software to prevent hacking. Thus, we have witnessed hospitals close temporarily when hit by a ransomware cyber attack. There have been medical devices taken over by hackers’ bots.

Most companies, ones that do not have their customer on life sustaining machinery, have been able to do a far better job of securing their networks than hospitals. The reliably secure companies are spending about ten percent of their computer and IT budget to secure their networks. Hospitals average around three percent. The results are easily predicted.

We learned the hard way in the World Wars that not having excess military capacity in peacetime is a dangerous risk. So it is with excess medical capacity. Even after this plague passes, or fades into a new normal, we will need excess hospitals and bed capacity for when the next disaster or pandemic strikes. If we will not pay for that out of the health care insurance pocket, then pay for it out of the Homeland and FEMA budgets. Take the closed hospital wings and entire hospitals that were shuttered and get them ready so that they can be reopened quickly when needed. Then, create a data base of doctors and nurses, retired and active, who can be re-purposed in an emergency as part of a National Medical Emergency Corps. Pay and train them the way we do the military reserve forces.

Excess capacity is not always a bad thing, for when you see a problem emerging, you can activate that capability. Then it is not excess, it is prudential.



Scrabble, Virginia — It sometimes takes us a while to notice when certain things stop happening. We slowly become aware that something is missing, that somehow things are different. With me yesterday it was con-trails, the elongated white clouds that form from condensed (the ‘con’) and heated air being ejected from jet engines in the cooler upper altitudes. Normally, when there is a bright cerulean sky over Rappahannock County, the blue over my house is striped with puffy, white, tell-tale lines formed by high altitude aircraft. A parade of aircraft regularly pass high above my home, traveling in an east-west air corridor. Not this week. The airlines are, as a matter of their own decisions, operating minimal flight schedules for want of passengers.

Something similar happened on 9–11 and for the several days thereafter, but in that case it was because the government closed the national airspace. The initial closure was to determine how many aircraft had been, or were about be, hijacked. The closure continued while we struggled to create something like the what became the Transportation Security Agency and its’ screening processes, in a matter of days.

During those days without airlines, the only sound emanating from the skies at night over Washington were the steady engines of the giant radar aircraft, the AWACS, circling overhead and the occasional roar of the F-16s on Combat Air Patrol over the National Capital Region. Many of us called that roar “the sound of Freedom.” We found it reassuring, not unnerving.

The absence of flights after 9–11 gave climate scientists an experimental environment that they could never have convinced the government and airlines to provide them under any other circumstances. Without flights there were no con-trails. Without con-trails there were, as some had predicted, fewer clouds and thus, warner days and cooler nights. While only the lunatic fringe of conspiracy addicts think that jet aircraft create “chem trails” filled with some government sponsored biological weapon to attack people in the “flyover states,” many experts now believe that the by product of jet engines at altitude is an unnatural barrier that contributes to warming. Thus, the significant reduction in flights during the pandemic may marginally and temporarily slow the pace of climate change.

Whatever the effect on climate, the impact on the finances of the airlines is clear. As after 9–11, when many feared to fly, airlines are being financially devastated and their employees, as well as workers at supporting industries, are the first order victims of the pandemic’s effects on aviation. Congress overwhelmingly passed a bail-out, offering airlines (and aerospace manufacturers) free money and low interest loans. There were few objections in Congress from either party. Thus, as has been the case in many other countries for a long time, the airlines in the US now once again exist because of government, i.e. taxpayer, financial support. Dare we call it socialism?

Earlier this year the President and his supporters were throwing around the word “socialism” to describe the policies being advocated by some Democrats. They equated socialism with Communism and economic ruin. They suggested that having the government sponsor new programs to provide healthcare was socialist and, therefore, alike with the economic devastation that has befallen Venezuela. They mocked candidate Andrew Yang’s proposals to provide direct cash payment to citizens. Then came the pandemic.

Within weeks of the virus arriving on our shores, there was a consensus in both parties that the federal government should contribute to paying the costs of testing and treatment of the virus, the provision of equipment to both public and private hospitals, direct cash payments to those earning less than $75,000.00 and forgiven loans to small businesses. Few if any said the obvious, that these measures were socialist, or that, in the absence of tax and spending reforms, they will be paid for future generations.

It’s easy to criticize Big Government and to decry socialism, until you are in trouble. Victims of earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods want FEMA grants. Farmers, devastated by climate or presidentially imposed tariffs, want cash from the government. Airlines, auto manufacturers, banks, all do not hesitate to demand public funds when they are in trouble, often brought on in part by their own greed and failure to plan for economic down-turns. It’s only socialism when other people are getting federal money, not when the government is saving your posterior.

So when the pandemic passes, or its lingering effects become part of normal, could we please stop the bashing of Big Government and the sloganeering about socialism. Let’s begin by thanking the government employees and the medical personnel who sacrificed and some of whom risked their lives to battle the disease. Please include a special note of gratitude to the poorly compensated civil servant experts at places like the Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes for Health. Then let’s admit that most or all modern economies have a degree of socialism, both corporate and citizen-oriented. The debates we have are really just about resource allocation, who gets what from the government and who pays how much for those programs to exist.

We have chosen, as a matter of public policy, to ration quality health care generally to those in the higher income brackets. We have chosen, in general, to adequately fund public education and those who provide it only in upper income communities. We have chose to permit those employed in major financial organizations and consultancies to amass extraordinary personal wealth, implicitly deciding that what they do moving each others’ money around, is vastly more valuable than the work of teachers, nurses, care-givers, the millions of hourly workers providing essential services, and the government employees who protect us and make our essential national systems work.

Life, President John Kennedy admitted, is unfair. And regulated capitalism is an engine for economic growth and technological progress. But of the many possible questions we might think about as a nation during and after this pandemic, a couple should be whether we should only have the federal government pay for better health care delivery during a pandemic, or whether we could not be more fair and caring as a nation, not just to ailing corporations but to hourly workers with little ability to create a safety net of their own, not only when we are in a disaster, but always.



Scrabble, Virginia — The redbud trees are opening. Tulips, daffodils, and forsythia have been in full bloom for almost three weeks. The tree pollen has not peaked yet, but you can see it in the air when a beam of sun hits at the right angle. In short, its early Spring in Rappahannock County, Virginia, or as many of we locals call it, the Rapp. It may be too early to plant the basil or have dinner outdoors, but it is time to begin clearing garden beds and, as the showers increase in regularity, think about when the first grass cutting will be needed and what new trees might be planted.

This year I am privileged, and compelled by the plague, to spend more time in the Rapp than I might otherwise have done. Having lived here slightly more than fifteen years, I am still in the minds of locals a “come here,” not a “been here.” Yet, I think of it as home and have grown increasingly appreciative of it in these weeks of “lockdown.” What better place to be grounded? The population density is normally so low that social distancing is a routine condition. Even if government owned parks are closed in some places, there are miles of hiking trails available in the Rapp simply by walking from one neighbor’s farm to another. With hunting season over, the only risks in the fields come from the occasional unfriendly dogs and bulls. In a few weeks, the copperheads and black bears will stir, but for now the fauna are largely limited to timid deer, turkeys, and red fox.

Early Spring here also brings an increase in avian life. Today the first bright red cardinal of the season visited my garden, a sight which always cheers me. Yesterday, however, a feather intruder announced itself with a bang, or rather a sustained series of loud bangs. A large, red-headed wood-pecker decided to attack the eves near my bedroom, waking me from a pleasant morning slumber.

All of this activity in nature has served to distract me a little from the destructive and disruptive part of nature that is the pandemic. I need that distraction because when I think of the federal government’s response to this crisis an anger rises in me that disrupts and disturbs my life. I feel anger because for decades I was part of the federal government, a crisis manager, someone charged with anticipating risks and threats and providing warnings, someone often asked to direct crisis response. I know what we could have done, how this crisis could have been so much less damaging. It is not twenty-twenty hindsight. None of this is a surprise.

In the mid-1990s, the Administration identified emerging infectious diseases and bio-terrorism as threats likely to increase in importance and for which the US was badly prepared. For the first time, the White House adopted an all-of-government strategy for dealing with the emerging infectious disease problem. As part of that, the President requested a significant increase in funding for the Public Health Service’s (PHS) surveillance network, creating local testing laboratories and a national reporting system. A little known part of the PHS, the Epidemiological

Intelligence Service, was strengthened. Later, disease surveillance specialists were deployed overseas, including one in China.

A National Emergency Medical Stockpile was created and stashed in “undisclosed locations” around the country. In anonymous looking warehouses, we deposited personal protective equipment (masks, gloves), ventilators, body bags, and specialized medicines. Stocks were rotated out routinely and used just before hitting their expiration dates, with replacement materials procured and warehoused. The National Security Council staff was expanded to create a small office, headed by a PHS admiral, to monitor and respond to disease and bio-terrorism threats. Cabinet members were directed by the President to participate personally in crisis training exercises.

All of this preparedness and consciousness raising proved useful several times, most notably in 2014 when the Administration moved forcefully to contain an outbreak of Ebola by deploying US Army units into the disease hot zone in Africa. Had the US not acted as it did, the Ebola outbreak would certainly have spread out of west Africa and put at risk Europe and the United States. That “near miss” energized the outgoing administration to impress upon the incoming presidential team that they needed to be prepared for such a crisis. Indeed, the outgoing team held a crisis exercise for their replacements to familiarize them with the risks and the response plans and capabilities.

That attempt to pass on the importance of being prepared for an emerging disease pandemic failed. The incumbent administration eliminated the National Security Council office, withdrew disease surveillance officers from many nations around the world, including China. Funding for the Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control were slashed and hundreds of expert job positions left vacant or eliminated. Despite all of that, CIA was able in January to warn that a disease was loose in China that could result in a devastating pandemic in the US. That was the time to act, to increase production of equipment for the emergency stockpile, to plan for an effective nation-wide testing effort. None of that was done.

Precious time was lost, as the President acted as if in denial of the threat, or seemingly pouted that the disease would upset his agenda or reputation. Again, this is not Monday Morning Quarter-backing. The threat was known and planned for, a system had been put in place to deal with it. This administration dismantled much of that system and then ignored warnings. That is not a partisan claim, it is an undeniable set of facts. Moreover, the past is not irrelevant to the present. In the present, we must insure that this country is led by those who heed scientists and other experts, who prepare for predictable disasters, and who know how to use all the instruments of government to respond effectively and in time.

A few years ago my colleague RP Eddy and I wrote a book called WARNINGS, about why governments have failed to act on clear indications of impending disasters. In it, we examined a hand full of crisis in waiting, those that experts had predicted and which were being inadequately addressed, one of those was Emerging Infectious Diseases (Chapter 11). The threat was neither unanticipated, nor a secret. We were warned. Our government failed us, again.

In the coming weeks, as Spring spreads over the Rapp, I will explore this phenomenon of warnings and government failures, among other issues, in occasional missives from my lockdown site in the Rapp. Until next time, be attentive and be well.