Interview of the Week: Juliette Kayyem on What To Expect Now With Coronavirus

Photo: Kolby Knight, Exhale

Juliette Kayyem is a Friend of the Planet and a former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. She is also an analyst for CNN and chair of Homeland Security Department of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and she is the author of the book “Security Mom.”  We caught up with her for a quick question on coronavirus and are also excerpting this informative radio interview she did on Wednesday with WGBH in Boston.

ODP:  Do you think the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis are similar?  Why don’t Americans see these two crises the same way? 

JK:  I think they are very similar — but they are playing out on different time scales.  In crisis management, we often think of disasters as having a “boom” — a catastrophic moment or defining event.  The coronavirus outbreak is a more slow-rolling crisis — every day things get worse and our ability to deal with the crisis diminishes as well.  In that respect the climate crisis is similar to coronavirus — it is slow-rolling but the true extent of the climate crisis is not apparent within days or weeks, but rather it will take years to fully “hit” us.  They are also similar in that our failure to act with urgency early on to deal with the impending crisis will cause us to suffer more than we might have if we had taken the warnings of scientists more seriously.  Americans hopefully will learn from the coronavirus the importance of early prevention in decreasing the disruption of a slow-rolling crisis — hopefully, it will help the public to appreciate the need to take what seems like drastic action now to minimize and mitigate the eventually catastrophic impacts of climate change.  

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WGBH:  Governor Baker [of Massachusetts] declared a state of emergency…Give us your take on the Governor’s overall plan and his declaration of a state of emergency?  

JK:  He is doing the right thing.  We are just at the beginning.  Brace for the long haul.  This is barely the beginning. The numbers will increase significantly….the lack of federal guidance and [the lack of] a President who can handle the situation I think means that the role of Governors will be particularly important.  The announcement of a state of emergency does not change our day to day lives but frees up resources and the distribution of resources for the Governor to deploy quickly.  

WGBH:  There are four confirmed cases in the state of Ohio and their Governor said no spectators at sporting events.  We [Massachusetts] have 92 cases but our Governor is not doing the same.  Why?

JK:  These events are often locally executed and state-managed…We are in the hodge-podge stage of the response…I think we are going to get federal guidance over the course of the week.  It will look more consistent in terms of gatherings, nursing homes, school closures…We are heading towards the battle rhythm stage where everyone knows what they are doing and supposed to do until we can get ahead of this thing…The only thing I can say to people … is get your head around it. Mass gatherings are not likely to happen.  We canceled March and we are likely to cancel April. But if we cancel them successfully, we will have a May because we are able to get ahead of testing and identification…the worst kind of social distancing is inconsistent and too late…If we do this right, five years from now we will talk about this as a really weird, freaky, odd period in our country…not a before and after…You are already in a world where bad things are happening…Trust me, it is not going to be a footnote. I would like it to be a chapter and not the book.

WGBH:  There is a lot of inconsistency in what is going forward.  Lots of schools are open, schools are closed, and events are going forward.  What do you tell people? Not to go?

JK:   Cancel everything…anything in March, I am saying cancel…The hardest thing about this is that healthy people and people who have not been exposed to anyone who has had it are being asked to sacrifice in ways they have never been thought of before…We are preparing because we are going to ask you to sacrifice. I am going to make recommendations for one week at a time.  Get your head around it.  We are going to be OK.  Thank God for Mayors and Governors.  

WGBH: You wrote in the Atlantic that we are not ready for the coronavirus — the U.S. is unprepared.  What did you mean?

JK:  There was squandered time. We were not preparing ourselves for the inevitability of this…But at the 64,000-foot level, a crisis hits a nation as it is, not as you want it to be. That is important to remember. Our imperfect systems of healthcare delivery, workers’ rights, equality.  All those systems are imperfect…and people will be asked to relieve the stress of those imperfect systems.   

WGBH:  What about all the incompetence?

JK:  It turns out that expertise in government is really helpful and not denigrating your systems of response is really important…We will save more lives with less outrage right now.  But I do believe there ought to be a reckoning.  

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