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Humans and technology

What past disasters can teach us about how to deal with covid-19

Technology historian Mar Hicks reflects on how catastrophes often reveal long-running structural inequalities and force those in power to fix them.
April 15, 2020
Mar Hicks
Mar Hicks teaches a course at the Illinois Institute of Technology on the history of disasters.

What has the role of disasters been in shaping society throughout history?

Disasters tend to make structural failures and long-running structural inequalities glaringly obvious. They force them to a crisis point. And ideally these terrible events then force people to reckon with ongoing problems that have been ignored by those in power.

You distinguish between useful and useless disasters. What causes disasters to turn out one way or the other?

A useful disaster in some way produces regulatory or legislative change. But it should never come off as glib when we’re talking about a disaster somehow being
useful. We always have to be attentive to the fact that in almost all cases people died and lives were ruined.

One of the first disasters we look at in the course is an episode of cholera in London in the mid-19th century. That particular episode was really useful for getting London to install more sewers so that people’s drinking water was not mixing with their waste.

One of the dark sides is that a useful disaster is something you pretty much always and only see when the richer and more privileged people in a society get hit. You see a lot of “useless” disasters when the people who are affected are disproportionately poor or minoritized. Their problems are seen as not the problems of those in power or of all citizens, and they can be pushed to one side.

Do you think the current pandemic risks becoming a useless disaster?

I would hate to make a firm pronouncement on that right now, because things are still unfolding. But if you look at things historically and you look at how changes usually come into place, we definitely are at risk of not having those mechanisms.

Could you give an example of how different systems—social, political, technological—worked together to create change after a disaster?

The coronavirus disaster is not a discrete event but a combination of systemic, infrastructural failures over a period of years. The outcomes we’re currently coping with may appear sudden but have been designed into our health-care, political, economic, and social systems.

The example of the auto industry in the early to mid-20th century drives home the need to think about how disasters are both sudden and gradual.

A new technology came into play. Then as roadway infrastructure built up, it started killing and maiming lots of people. People were hitting dashboards that had sharp edges, or they were getting impaled on steering columns, all because auto manufacturers refused to spend the extra time and money to put a collapsible steering column in place or make seat belts standard.

So there was this huge push in the middle of the 20th century, in large part led by consumer safety advocates like Ralph Nader, to try to get the federal government to pay attention. People knew what was wrong for a long time: doctors had been retrofitting their own automobiles with seat belts for decades. But it had to be forced to a head before there was the political will to say auto manufacturers had to be regulated and that cars had to have certain safety equipment.

At the same time, the laws weren’t enough. There also had to be an agency to ensure auto manufacturers would follow these laws. That’s how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came into being. The price of heading off disaster is this constant process of trying to mitigate harms and plan systems that don’t scale in harmful ways.

You can also look at the history of pollution and the setting up of the EPA. Or the Triangle Factory Fire in 1911 and how that brought into place a lot of labor laws. Oftentimes these disasters cause change, but only with struggle. People really put their lives on the line and then constantly have to make sure that those changes don’t get rolled back.

As you’ve been experiencing this pandemic personally, how have you used history to make sense of the challenges we’re currently facing?

In general, with our current situation, it seems like we have a good handle on the root causes of what’s going on, but we’re having a lot of trouble mobilizing support for potential fixes. One thing that’s really difficult about public health disasters is that even in democracies, public health measures have to be coercive to a great extent. Vaccines, sanitary sewer systems—you can’t opt out of these systems as a citizen, because then it doesn’t work.

So that raises a lot of dicey issues regarding authoritarianism. Especially in a moment of crisis, there tends to be government overreach. On the other hand, without top-down public health measures, you can’t mitigate and stop the spread of a virus.

People are definitely concerned that the covid response will be used as an excuse to erode privacy protections. What lessons are there about how to prevent this type of exploitation?

If we flash back to September 11, it was a moment ready-made for governments to put into place things that abrogate people’s civil rights and then never roll them back. In other words, you have lost rights not for the duration of the crisis but for the foreseeable future, and potentially forever.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest lessons that we can learn from previous disasters is to have a robust disaster response. We can’t let a disaster get to the point where you have to play catch-up in ways that require really strict authoritarian measures or that seem to make surveillance and abrogation of people’s right to privacy necessary. Once it’s under way, it’s very difficult to arrest the slide into more and more measures that take away privacy in the service of a greater good.

Have we already passed that point?

I don’t think anything is a foregone conclusion, and I think that state and local governments in particular are trying to be very sensitive to this issue. But I do think that on the federal level we have a real crisis of leadership. A lot of bad decisions were made to get us into this situation.

It seems like we’ve never really seen a disaster that affected so much of the world at once. That means that we don’t have one particular governing body to take responsibility for producing new kinds of regulations. How does that change the challenge of recovery?

It’s definitely challenging, but there are precedents for what’s happening now. There have been pandemics that cross borders. You can also look at pretty much every situation where there’s been a war that touches many different countries, or in more recent memory, economic disasters like the 2008 mortgage-backed-securities crisis.

One of the reasons this disaster might seem different is that certain countries, including the United States, were just so unprepared for it, so it’s gotten really bad really quickly. But the covid-19 crisis is actually kind of similar to other disasters where we’ve needed national and international cooperation to try to do things like cut down on carbon emissions and we haven’t had an adequate response.

Is it inevitable that we’ll always ignore warnings until disaster strikes?

The thing is that a lot of times, warnings are not ignored. But when infrastructure works, we don’t see it. When there’s actually a good federal disaster response, it heads off the disaster altogether. So do we need these disasters to effect systemic change? I don’t think we do. But sometimes those in power can’t be forced to act without a disaster that they can’t ignore.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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