Burt the Turtle is getting old enough that he requires an introduction where for a long time none would have been needed. In the 1950s through the 1980s, there existed a real threat that everything on Earth would end in a flash. I use the word “real” because it was something that people thought about and had to come to terms with. They wrestled personally, or they accepted it and moved on – but it was always there. There was a genuine possibility that the flash might happen in your hometown, and that your school building, work building, church, or home would be vaporized. The threat was nuclear war, and there might be a warning, or there might not be one.
Communities across the country prepared. They sounded sirens as families practiced at home for the end. My own experience as a kid growing up in the 80s in Western Pennsylvania was that my neighborhood tested the air raid sirens regularly, and I grew accustomed to their wail. It wasn’t until I visited Paris in 2017 and heard the same sirens, at that point many years removed from my aural landscape, that I was struck by the out-of-place-ness of air-raid tests.
After President John F. Kennedy recommended publicly that every American family should build a fallout shelter “as quickly as possible,” many American communities gained pockmarks of backyard dugouts or basements outfitted with survival gear. Individuals took action against the danger. Cities designated particular buildings to be rescue buildings to provide safe haven. Individual businesses offered their basements to be labeled as public fallout shelters. Some communities tattooed kids’ blood types on their arm so that in an emergency we’d know who could give and receive what types of blood. And then there were duck-and-cover drills.
Enter Burt the Turtle. If you know him, you’re already humming or singing the song featuring his cautious and wise persona. If you don’t know him yet, you really should watch the video (here’s the Library of Congress copy) that introduced him to the world of kids preparing for the apocalypse.
Burt was here to show us – the kids in school (and out of it) – what to do. Teachers showed this film in class, and everyone practiced. What should we do if we get warning? We should duck, and we should cover. If we have a bomb shelter or are near a building, we should get inside – quickly. Then we should duck, and we should cover. The film demonstrated the ways and places one might duck and cover, and then kids and their teachers would practice in their classrooms.
What should you do if you’re at home and have time to get to your shelter? When the bomb comes, you must go to your shelter right away, and you must remain there for 14 days. Be sure to stock up on food and water in advance so that you can pass the time safely and comfortably. The Civil Defense Administration had a whole host of other recommendations to help people feel prepared for the unknown.
By the time I first heard about duck-and-cover drills, they had become something of a joke. What good will covering your head and neck do if your building disintegrates around you? You’ll be ash. That’s it. You’re dead in a flash. Anyone who had seen The Day After on nighttime television knew that if the blast didn’t kill you, the fallout would do the job well enough soon (or later) afterward.
“Those drills were just there to help us feel safe – but they weren’t going to save anyone.” Everyone I talked to said something like this. It was the feeling that “there’s a plan” and “someone’s looking after me” that comforted people. Is that bad?
We’ve got our best people on it, and they’ve come up with these recommendations. Let’s all work together to follow them.
Here’s the thing about those drills: following their guidance really would help you to stay safe and stay alive in many possible instances of nuclear blasts. If you’re in the direct blast area – for sure, you’re a goner. The building is gone, and you are toast right along with it. But if you’re outside that initial blast zone, things are different. Your building windows will shatter, sure – but the severity of your injuries are mitigated by your location underneath your desk. If the roof begins to collapse, being under a desk makes a big difference to your chances of survival. Of course, if you’re standing at the window – ignoring Burt and the plan’s advice – and staring outside, you will be blinded, you may receive 3rd-degree burns, and the exploding glass will do pretty awful damage, as well. All in all, it’s much better to be under a desk than not under one. If there’s a fallout shelter, too, things are improved for you. In the short term, it helps to be inside. The heaviest fallout occurs in the first few hours after a blast, and then there’s a settling period when you won’t be rained on by falling particles (hence the term “fallout”). If you’re just inside a normal, everyday house, it’s a lot better than being outdoors.
Imagine that you’re about 50 miles from the initial blast. You get the Civil Defense warning, take shelter in your basement – the windows are sealed. You wait for a message from the Department of Defense. That’s the plan we still tell people to follow today, in 2020.
And maybe the plans don’t comfort you. Maybe you’re skeptical. You still think: the plans are only here to calm people. If the nuclear apocalypse comes, it won’t matter. But you’d be wrong about that, by the science.
And onto COVID-19.
This disease and its effects are our reality. It’s an existential threat to countries the world over. In 1961, when Kennedy issued his warning about the threat of nuclear war, hundreds of thousands had not died in the prior several months. The threat was real, and we were willing to spend everything and do everything (have you heard Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex? It was about surviving the Cold War without giving our entire being over to the Department of Defense and its spending plans.) Back then, there was a fear that many could or would die – but note that at that time no one had died from nuclear war except in one instance, years earlier, and that was a case of the United States using the bomb on another country’s civilian population. We spent ourselves into oblivion figuratively (and the USSR did so literally) fighting the risks associated with the bomb we’d only seen in action in August of 1945.
But COVID is real, and it’s here now. So we need to feel and to be prepared. Like the nuclear duck-and-cover drills and fallout shelter plans, the COVID-19 reopening plans have serious impact on our ability to act as though everything is okay. And just as with nuclear holocaust, there are no good plans if the bomb comes for us, but there are better and worse versions of bad plans.
The first thing a good bad plan does is to calm people. It helps them to function as they would normally function – or to function as close to normally as practical – in a world in which their existence may end rather suddenly and with little to no warning. We need that, if we are to carry on. (Fun fact – the “Keep Calm and Carry On” campaign never saw much air time during the Blitz, but it’s a nice saying.)
Another function of a good version of bad plans along this spectrum of bad plans is that the plan does mitigate risk. We can’t live risk-free, but we can lower our chances of annihilation, personal, familial, and/or societal, whether the risk is nuclear or viral. A good plan – let’s say it includes air filters for sealed buildings, mask-wearing for building inhabitants, and an explicit social contact to stay home if you’re sick (setting aside that it takes 5.4 days for a person to show symptoms, shedding the virus for at least some of that time )… A good version of a bad plan would account for all of this.
And reducing risk is important. This isn’t a black-and-white issue of “safe” or “unsafe,” and that’s tough for human beings with a natural tendency toward misjudging (in the wrong direction) risks that exist in perpetuity. No plan is a good plan that doesn’t dissolve the risk, but some plans will help to reduce our risks. They’re duck-and-cover plans.
There are plenty of differences here in the analogous cases, but one that strikes me is that a nuclear attack is detectable, but we won’t notice an explosion of COVID-19 cases until it’s already underway. The bomb will already have detonated by the time we notice it’s been triggered. We’ll find out how many of these virus bombs are detonated in the weeks and months to come. The bomb looks like a dove until the body count rises.
I’m offering no judgment here about whether or not the plans on that spectrum of imperfect responses are sufficient for us to carry on with our lives, but I would argue they are necessary to that end. We’ve been here before. When we re-enter school buildings this year and listen to guidance about covering our faces, about encouraging students to keep to physical distancing expectations, and the rest, remember Burt the Turtle.
(Incidentally, the Swiss still keep up those shelters. They have enough shelter space for every person in the country, actually. I’ve visited one of them in person. I’d like to have one, myself.)