“I hope it’s arborio rice,” my friend told me, after I said I had stocked up on rice and dried beans and lentils in preparation for a potential coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. (In fact, I did buy arborio rice, but that doesn’t mean you have to; advice ahead.)
I bought the rice in part because I had been asking myself a question I suspect a lot of you have over the last few days, as coronavirus outbreaks have spread outside China and the stock market has fallen nearly 7 percent based on the expectation that this thing is going to be disruptive for longer and over a wider geographic area than people had previously hoped: What should I do about this now, besides wait?
So I called up Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security who now serves as faculty chair of the global health and security project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She’s a frequent guest on my radio show Left, Right & Center, and she’s who I call when I have questions about disasters.
“Preparedness for a pandemic is relatively the same as the preparedness that people like me have been urging on the American public since 9/11, whether it’s for a hurricane or an earthquake,” she said. The first rule of thumb she offers is that “the first 72 is on you”: If you can, you should have on hand what you would need to live self-sufficiently in your home for three days, as you wait for a government disaster response to ramp up. That’s food, water (a gallon per person per day), medication, diapers, pet food, etc. — and it’s why I bought the rice and beans. This is a good practice even if you’re not currently afraid that a pandemic is about to strike.
Besides having essential supplies, Kayyem noted that people should make sure they are up-to-date on their vaccines, including flu shots, because a community that is more resilient overall and less likely to get other diseases is going to be better positioned to handle a novel pandemic. And schools and employers should be preparing their plans for what they will do if the epidemic hits where they are located — what measures they will take to increase social distancing and reduce the spread of the disease, if and when it comes to that.
This led me to ask whether three days worth of supplies is enough. A pandemic, after all, is not a hurricane. I’m not imagining that I will be waiting for the government to reopen a damaged bridge or tunnel. I am imagining a situation where it’s inadvisable to leave my apartment, or perhaps if I do leave my apartment, the grocery store shelves are sparse because of panic buying, like we’ve seen in Milan, or supply-chain difficulties. Kayyem’s answer was, essentially, that protecting the flow of groceries will be a core government-disaster-response function. People are going to need food and other essential supplies, and a large majority of American households have not taken steps to put together a three-day preparedness kit, according to a 2015 survey from Chapman University. So three days is a floor, and it’s fine to have more — especially if you really like arborio rice, as I do. But it’s not going to be practical to expect people to hunker down in their homes until the epidemic is over — there’s going to have to be a supply chain that includes people leaving their homes, shopping for essentials, and working.
If and when it comes to social distancing, that will entail telling more workers to work from home if they can and canceling large events and social gatherings. Employers will need to take precautions to reduce essential workers’ risk of disease exposure. In some epidemic hot spots, there may be school cancellations. (This is precedented: As Kayyem notes, there were extensive school closures in Texas during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak.) But we are not at the stage yet where increased social distancing is necessary or advisable in the U.S., except in specific cases of people who may have faced a specific risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus. In fact, as I spoke with Kayyem, she was just getting off a transcontinental flight.
“I have not canceled any vacations,” she told me. “I just got back from Costa Rica with one of my kids. I’m not changing our summer plans. I’m not changing our April plan yet.”
Kayyem said she would follow State Department travel recommendations as they change. Currently, the department is telling people not to travel to mainland China and discouraging nonessential travel to South Korea. It has more limited coronavirus-related warnings about travel to Japan and Italy, and it suggests reconsidering cruise plans within Asia. (There is also a CDC advisory about coronavirus in Iran; the State Department already warns against travel to Iran for unrelated reasons.) There is no blanket recommendation against traveling the world, except to specifically impacted places. Still, Kayyem is watching and waiting for the very real possibility of increased disruption to travel and events. She has plans to attend the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo for professional reasons; she thinks it is “fifty-fifty” that the Games will actually happen as scheduled.
As global stock markets have fallen sharply this week, travel-related stocks have been especially hard hit: airlines, hotels, travel agencies, cruise lines. These companies face several problems at once: major travel disruptions already occurring in Asia, concerns that those disruptions will spread globally, and fear that people will become less inclined to travel even in places not yet specifically affected by the epidemic.
And I get it. I wouldn’t book a cruise right now, either. But then, I wasn’t going to go on a cruise anyway. Overall, my intention is to keep living my life normally until such time comes that I may need to reduce my social contacts — and to have on hand what I need to stay in my apartment for a few days, if it comes to that.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that only six percent of American households are compliant with government recommendations to hold three days of emergency supplies.