By David Krogh
When Bob Dylan wrote this song in 1963, the Vietnam War was just getting under way, racial tensions were increasing, President Kennedy was assassinated and Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during a massive civil rights march in Washington, DC.
Who was to know that Dylan’s words so applicable to the 1960’s would also prove to be prophetic for 2020 as we are now faced with identifying a “new normal?”
The recent University of Oregon’s Urbanism Next Virtual Conference termed COVID-19 as a game changer and stated that government officials will need to start identifying a new normal once the pandemic is over.
What also needs to be considered is just how widespread the impacts of the virus are in a big picture scheme along with land use planning, emergency management planning, transportation planning, climate change and the interactions of these, including major protests over racial injustice and police brutality and inequities.
Two of these fields have been unprepared for dealing with a pandemic like this.
Land use planning has historically encouraged densification and the use of mass transit. However, densification and increased public mobility are two factors that have greatly contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19.
Similarly, emergency management planning is intended to develop plans and coordination for major emergencies and disaster responses. A worldwide pandemic of an unknown origin cannot be as directly responded to or as well understood as floods and fires and response plans are often generic at best.
In Oregon, the State Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is responsible for emergency management planning and coordination (oregon.gov/oem/Pages/default.aspx).
OEM has specifically acknowledged that a pandemic is something that cannot be reasonably anticipated, especially in terms of responses required and the needs for supplies.
As we’ve seen, emergency material stockpiles (masks, respirators, protective gear, test kits, etc.) have been lacking. Government agencies have historically relied on the American Red Cross, religious groups and other nonprofits for disaster services and supply support devoted to sheltering and food stuffs rather than direct medical assistance on a massive scale.
On a national scale, a pandemic advisory group existing in the Obama administration was eliminated by the Trump administration early in its term and it took several weeks after the pandemic was first identified to re-establish the group again.
Budget priorities in the Obama administration led to a failure to restock federal stockpiles of emergency supplies, and many of those were “out of date” and/or dysfunctional by the time COVID-19 appeared.
Many manufacturers of such equipment were also no longer operating in the US and were primarily situated in China, South Korea and other Asian countries already dealing with COVID-19 and supply shortages of their own.
Due to the lack of federal support for equipment purchases, states ended up having to bid against each other for supplies from those countries where they were still being manufactured. Even now, supply shortage needs are only adequately met.
Years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was largely responsible for providing guidance, coordination and training for emergency situations of all types. However, FEMA ended up losing considerable functionality after it was consolidated with 21 other federal agencies into the Department of Homeland Security following the adoption of the Homeland Security Act in 2002.
The result of federal government delays in initially addressing the pandemic and providing for adequate testing kits ultimately has led to the current two million plus COVID-19 cases and close to 120,000 deaths in the US.
Due to the initiation of social distancing and the closure of businesses and restrictions on other people intensive activities (shopping malls, churches, amusement parks, schools and sporting events), the US is experiencing a 20 percent unemployment rate and 40 million people left unemployed.
Only recently are states starting to “re-open” although many health experts suggest this could be coming too early and could spark a resurgence of virus cases (actually being noticed in some states, Oregon included). Federal pandemic adviser Dr. Andrew Fauci has suggested life might not get back to “normal” until next year.
Adding to the situation are the mass protests that have been underway daily in the US since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police on May 25. In the six weeks prior to that, there had been other deaths of Black individuals at the hands of police.
The frustration over the racially motivated deaths by police with subsequent lapses in accountability, and the added frustration of many people being out of work in dire financial straits because of COVID-19, the situation has been ripe for mass protests. Lack of effective governmental response has exacerbated the situation.
It will take months (if not years) before a vaccine is developed and distributed for mass use. Until then, some form of physical distancing and/or occupancy limiting measures may be necessary to prevent a resurgence.
Bus, train and airline capacities have already been reduced substantially due to the need for safe separation. On the plus side, outdoor air quality has improved because of less motorized transportation. However, adjustments will be required to meet and balance overall transportation needs.
Land use and transportation planners should step back and re-evaluate the directions they are taking in growth and density management and transit mobility in consideration of both the pandemic and climate impacts.
If density planning results in reductions to urban landscaping with no additions being made to public parks and open spaces, losses of vegetation and tree canopies will promote warming in the form of heat islands and reductions in photosynthesis.
A balance will need to be established to meet housing density and transportation requirements so the needs of all citizens are adequately met.
Emergency plans will need to be more all-inclusive and better coordination established for the consideration of medical supply stockpiles and the availability and the sharing of resources. If the federal government shirks those responsibilities, it will have to come from the state level.
Ongoing protests will likely continue until law makers and law enforcement finally get serious about the elimination of racial injustice and inequities.
Equity must include the creation of equality in the workplace and fair and affordable housing opportunities. This will require a revamping of law enforcement practices and judicial systems and a serious response by the business community for equal pay and work practices.
With 40 percent of COVID-19 victims being elderly nursing home residents, new rules and oversight of such facilities will be necessary.
Many will soon be returning to the workplace while others work at home, shortages in store items will gradually decrease as supplies again meet demands and hoarding ceases, and the economy will start picking up again.
The pandemic is a wake-up call for local, state and federal officials to do a better job of planning and problem solving.
As elected officials find the best ways to address this multitude of interactions and determine how to examine things from a big picture mode, it will be up to the public to remind and encourage them to resolve these matters in a positive and transparent manner and to create a new normal that works for all of us.