Several years ago, I read a newspaper article that presented an alarming statistic – the proposition that in any given month, more than 40% of Americans would be unable come up with an extra $400 to pay for an emergency auto repair. At the time, I remember hoping that number was somehow incorrect, and in fact it has since been disputed as a possible misinterpretation of a polling question. What isn’t in dispute is the fact that many Americans were woefully unprepared to weather the economic shutdown that began in March of this year. Analysis of Federal Reserve data from 2018 revealed the median American savings was $5,200 and one in three Americans aged 45 years or older had zero savings set aside for retirement.
I admit I am having trouble grasping how a country with such breathtaking wealth could be so fragile at its foundation. Perhaps the rise of the U.S. economy and the stock market over the last few years had obscured the view of people struggling at the fringes until, as my father used to say, “lightning struck the out-house.” In a matter of weeks, the undeniable vulnerability of a huge segment of our population has been laid bare and our resilience as a nation is being tested like never before.
At the end of last year, our team sat down to select topics for the 2020 issues of St. Louis CNR. Ironically, we planned for our May/June issue to include a look at the world of environmental remediation, which is essentially the correction process for previous miscalculations. Amid these very strange times, I can’t help but see parallels to our current situation around the themes of fragility, resilience and recovery. As an example, had we known asbestos would later be identified as a human carcinogen, it would never have been adopted for use in construction materials like insulation and flooring. We simply didn’t know what we didn’t know, and as such we were vulnerable. It was a miscalculation that broadened our perspective on what could possibly go wrong and it ultimately birthed strong construction industry segments dedicated to both avoiding and recovering from mistakes.
“The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” written in 2005 by Tulane Medical School professor, John M. Barry, describes another kind of miscalculation. The book tells the story of the first world-wide pandemic which was caused, in large part, by American soldiers returning from Europe after World War I. It is estimated that between 21 and 50 million people succumbed to the Spanish Flu in 1918 and 1919. Others have estimated losses at above 100 million.
Surely, one hopes, the world is better positioned now to weather a problem of such epic proportions. Experts are racing to come up with medical treatment and ultimately an effective vaccine. To date, the quickest vaccine ever developed was for Mumps, which is a virus spread in ways very similar to COVID-19. That solution, developed in the 1960’s, took four years start to finish, but I am banking on mankind’s collective ingenuity and that faith is based on innovations brought to light in the face of other looming disasters.
In the early years of the 20th century, Europe was facing a population explosion and was desperate to produce large quantities of ammonia essential for agriculture when Fritz Haber, a Prussian chemist, figured out how to basically pull this vital element out of the air. The production of nitrogen-based products such as fertilizer and chemical feedstocks, previously dependent on acquisition of ammonia from limited natural deposits, suddenly became possible using an easily available, abundant base — atmospheric nitrogen. The ability to produce much larger quantities of nitrogen-based fertilizer increased agricultural yields and prevented billions of people from starving to death.
Perhaps the solutions we need will likewise come from an unexpected source. One that is not among the many currently undergoing dissection by our 24-hour news outlets. In the meantime, experts agree that testing is the truest arrow in our medical quiver and the surest path to a return to the life we all miss so dearly. What I know is this… Throughout history, smart, motivated people have accomplished amazing things. Right now, I sleep a little better knowing the world’s smartest people are hard at work on treating and preventing COVID-19, and they could not be more motivated. My hope is that when all is said and done, we will emerge with fresh perspective on the fragility of both life and lifestyle, and that we will be strengthened and unified by our resilience even in the darkest times.