“This is about lack of imagination.”

Ali S. Khan, of the National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-Borne, and Enteric Diseases, New Yorker, May 4, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic caught the world by surprise and found us unprepared.  Dr. Khan is not alone in his assessment: writers in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Boston Globe, New York Times, Psychology Today, and elsewhere have called it a “failure of imagination.”

H-IQ focuses on improving imagination and stirring up ideas, not the failure of imagination.  But, with so many writers denouncing the current lack of imagination, it is valuable to understand how imagination might fail.  Of course, failure of imagination is only identified after the fact: it occurs when a harmful event was not anticipated, or the predictions were unheeded.

In the past twenty years, the warning signs of a coming global pandemic were there for anyone to see, recurring epidemics like the SARS outbreak (2002), avian flu (2003), swine flu (2009), MERS outbreak (2012), and Ebola (2014).

Ed Yong, writing in the Atlantic in 2018, wrote:

On average, in one corner of the world or another, a new infectious disease has emerged every year for the past 30 years.

These are new viruses.  But, old viruses also return.  Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 long before the 2015-16 epidemic.

At various times, the United States has prepared for medical calamity.  During the Cold War, the government built 32 storage facilities with stockpiles of medicine for the military. The program was shut down in 1974.  President Clinton established a pharmaceutical and vaccine stockpile to handle biological and chemical threats to the American people.  In 2003, Clinton’s program was renamed the Strategic National Stockpile and stocked with everything needed during a pandemic: respirators, masks, protective equipment, ventilators, and hospital beds.  However, the stockpile was depleted in response to swine flu (H1N1) in 2009 and never replenished.

Imagination is the ability to predict outcomes, visualize scenarios and engage in counterfactual thinking.  Why did imagination fail us?

One writer suggested that our brains are not wired to recognize “potentially apocalyptic challenges.”  A behavioral finance professor at Santa Clara University said we’re too optimistic: “We’re likely to have an excessively rosy outlook on life.”

The professor says that humans are bad at imagining everything that could go wrong, that we blithely whistle along, keeping on the sunny side of the street.

But we do imagine apocalyptic dangers.  They are stockpiled in our books and movies. In fact, Bill Clinton was inspired to establish the Strategic National Stockpile by a Richard Preston novel.  In The Cobra Event, the U.S. is threatened by a genetically-altered virus spreading through New York City.  That’s just one of dozens of books that predict horrific scenarios.

So, the human brain is certainly capable of imagining the dangers of the world.

Being unprepared for the current pandemic was not a failure of imagination.  It was a failure of leadership. Budget cuts blocked the restocking of the Strategic National Stockpile.  The day-to-day guardians of the National Strategic Stockpile issued warnings that failed to climb the leadership chain.  We were asleep at the wheel.

Research virologist Dennis Carroll describes the response to Covid-19 as “… attention-deficit disorder on a global scale.”  Carroll created a program called PREDICT in 2009 to detect threatening viruses before they spread.  PREDICT was shut down this March due to “the ascension of risk averse bureaucrats,” bureaucrats who think only in terms of the current fiscal year budget, according to Carroll.

Are we incapable of recognizing dire risk?

Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, describes us as “prisoners of our experience.”  We anticipate risks and dangers based on our past experiences.  Risks out of the ordinary or way in the future are ignored.  For example, you can imagine a UFO landing in your back yard, but you don’t spend much time worrying about it.

The failure of leadership, sadly, continues.

For students to return to classrooms, we need classroom space for social distancing and enough people to create small student groups.  We can have both if we understand that the severe crisis requires imagination and mobilization of resources.

The first thoughts are to reconfigure school buildings, hire more teachers, or send everyone home for online classes.  Considering these options only demonstrates that we are “prisoners of our experience.”

We have unused public and private space that can be used for classrooms.  Churches are mostly empty during the week.  Larger churches often have classrooms and small playgrounds.  Churches are tax-exempt, meaning that they are dedicated to the public good.  They should be eager to open their doors to help.

Community centers, public libraries, police stations and city halls have meeting rooms—often unused during the day—that can be converted into temporary classrooms.

How many corporate conference rooms sit empty and unused during the pandemic?  All the corporations that claim “we are here for you,” and “we will get through this together” should proudly step up to the plate and open their doors.

The wide-open spaces of airport terminals, gates, and lounges have only a trickle of passengers.  Municipally owned airports can surely squeeze out space for some classrooms.  The huge terminals are virtually empty—huge canyons of space for social distancing and playing.

Along with space, we need more teachers.  Instead of examining the student/teacher ratio, we can improve the student/adult ratio by adding adult assistants.

Colleges and college students are in an odd limbo—go to campus, or stay home; study in class or on-line?  Let’s draw on this vast resource of learners.  Close the colleges and send students into the schools to work alongside teachers.  Both sets of students will learn tremendously from each other.

When we face natural disasters, we call on the National Guard.  We are in a national disaster.  We should form a National Guard for Education.

Citizen volunteers and college students would receive training and active deployment.  The new National Guard members would carry a carbon pencil, not a carbine rifle.  And it would be cheaper: no need for expensive military toys.  National Guard for Education volunteers would be patriotically meeting a need in the defense of our great land.  They could parade on Memorial Day with their pencils held high.

We must improvise.  We can mobilize resources by looking beyond what we have always done.  This is also an opportunity to free students from being prisoners of their own experiences.

Effective problem solving requires predicting multiple outcomes.  The failure of imagination for this pandemic began when the leaders of the budget chain failed to imagine or listen to the pandemic warnings.

Life will always deliver the unpredictable.  Imagination is required.