You Can’t MacGyver Your Way Out of a Pandemic

Here’s one problem our contact tracing system(s), such as they are, have (boldface mine):

It’s likely that the first time many Americans heard the term contact tracing was this spring. Before that, some public-health departments were little more than two people and an old computer, having lost a quarter of their workforce through aggressive budget cuts since 2009. Because the U.S. has had such an enfeebled public-health system for so long, the public doesn’t trust public-health workers at a time when it’s crucial that they do so. When called by a department they’ve never heard of and asked for a list of all their friends, Americans could be forgiven for thinking, Who the hell are these people?

I’m not sure it’s that bad, but one problem public health departments certainly did face was a lack of resources, to the point where it was very difficult to expand when faced with a crisis. Most didn’t have any surplus capacity, having been cut down to the bone, nor did they have the resources to develop tools they might need, since they couldn’t maintain what they currently had.

As dedicated as they are, they can’t MacGyver their way out of this. The time to prepare–and that means have some slack capacity–is before the crisis starts, and there was no way to do that, given the available resources.

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3 Responses to You Can’t MacGyver Your Way Out of a Pandemic

  1. dr2chase says:

    My brain has been playing with a theory of artificial-scarcity economics, both for socialism and capitalism. For socialism it ties in with racism; sure, we like this government program, but resources are limited, so what about people hogging more than their “fair” share? What about “those” people? For capitalism, any way you can create bottlenecks (through legislation, or just through finding quirks in old laws), then get people to pay to route around the bottlenecks, you win!

    And we create whole systems of this — zoning creates sparse population undermines public transit, everyone drives, so driving is awful, so then there’s Uber and Lyft (so someone else can drive) and Waze / Google Maps / Apple Maps (so you can route around bottlenecks) and now delivery services (first for take-out, then for groceries in general) so you can avoid the traffic — versus, say, just walking/biking to the store, but see above, sparse population — and maybe you could drivce to commuter rail instead to make your commute better, but PARKING IS SCARCE, and train schedule are scarce.

    We have a town with pretty good school systems, good mass transit connections to Cambridge and Boston, you’d like to think that it would be a public good to get more people to live here, but — SCHOOL CAPACITY IS SCARCE (the state mandates this; despite below-average spending and good results for DECADES [yes I know a lot of it is demographic] no, we wouldn’t want to scale that up, no sir, got to watch every penny).

    So, that’s my half-assed theory of scarcity economics, infecting both the public and private sector. The endless drive for epsilon-improvements in efficiency has pushed us into a place where we are increasingly unable to provide nice things and unable to react to new challenges (or even old challenges!), despite being able (on paper) to afford them.

  2. JDM says:

    A lot of this, I think, can be traced to the rise of the MBA and the values and techniques they taught. And one that just doesn’t work for epidemics and pandemics is “just in time” sourcing.

  3. Lisa says:

    My phone gets spam calls all the time even with blocking apps. I don’t pick up the phone any more unless I know the caller. Try doing contact tracing when our government is more committed to letting corporations harass you than saving your life.

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