Current analysis of the Covid-19 pandemic seems strangely lacking in reasoned discussion of what can go really wrong, of how we might go from bad to worse. But many of us are worrying about how bad things could get. We need to talk about it. I want to give voice to one fear, the fear this pandemic could lead to a collapse of our society in an urban area. But I don’t want to scream in panic. I want to explore real possibilities. This means voicing the fears that many of us worry about, but doing it in a sensible way. In insurance they call this Realistic Disaster Scenario analysis. The idea is to identify realistic disaster scenarios and then map out options to prevent or mitigate them.
One disaster scenario, the Urban Collapse scenario, starts to unfold when a major urban area is hit with supply shortages. The shortages start to multiply when a critical mass of truck drivers, dock workers, warehouse workers, and grocery store clerks falls ill from the virus. Shelves that are now bare of toilet paper and rubbing alcohol start to become depleted of other staples. Panic buying sets in and leads to a harmful feedback loop. At a certain point food riots break out with mobs raging through grocery stores grabbing every edible item in stock. If the streets are not well-policed, we could expect to see gangs, hoodlums, and later opportunistic hungry citizens rampaging and taking what they want from the weak or unarmed. People who have guns will band together to start patrolling their own neighborhoods. Groups will fight over whatever food is left. The mushrooming disorder will make it difficult for regular supply chains to function. Communication workers will be unable to maintain networks and cell service will become spotty. People will be cut off, people who have been glued to their phones and more dependent on them than they care to admit. Later stages of the burgeoning collapse will feature the loss of street lights, electric power, elevator service, and tap water. It will a horror we haven’t really experienced. It will be the riots of the 60’s only different in character and not so quickly quelled.
To prevent such a scenario, there first needs to be an organized effort to safeguard and maintain the urban food supply chain. Workers in the chain need to be preferentially given personal protection devices and they need to be tested for the disease and for antibodies against it. Though it is important to do more testing to better determine the denominator in contagion models, it is as least as urgent to do testing to protect the food supply. In some states, governors may need to mobilize troops to deliver food and supplies and to protect food supply chain workers.
Of equal importance is the need for proactive effort to maintain utilities. Extra electrical workers should be hired and new capacity added to handle the surge in electronic communications and fix the breakdowns in overloaded systems. Workers in those areas should also be given temperature checks, disease tests, anti-body tests, and protective gear.
Finally, every effort needed to be made to preserve law and order. Plans should made to deal with riots and public warnings should be broadcast to deter potential rioters. National Guard troops should be mobilized and given adequate protective gear. They should quickly build large numbers of barracks to house detainees while maintaining some social distance between them. Do we have plans for incarcerating people without packing them in tight quarters? If not, we should get them very soon. No inmates should be released. Laws against shoplifting should be enforced more stringently than usual. We may need to have governors posting troops on the street to deter looting. All this needs to be done within a well-thought out legal framework based on appropriate emergency order provisions.
It is imperative we avoid the Urban Collapse scenario. This demands we think about our strategy more broadly. Not only do we need to maintain food delivery and security protection for medical facilities and healthcare workers, we also need to send out protective gear to National Guard troops, prison guards, grocery clerks, truck drivers, dock workers, communication workers, and utility employees, and do a lot of testing on those groups. They all keep our society going.
We need to prevent our current medical and economic crisis from devolving into chaos in some of our urban centers. Yes this is scary. Let’s do what we need to do now to make sure we keep this a nightmare we can wake up from.