Friday, March 13, 2020

In a Time of Virus: People are Terrible in a Crisis

I'm not going to lecture you on COVID-19/ the coronavirus.  You know what it is. 

The plan was not to return to work on Monday (it's Friday, for posterity's sake).  I'd received approval from higher-ups to show some caution and work from home until we had the all-clear.  In the morning as I readied for work, I was checking a news story about our local K-12 school district closing and telling people to deal with their situation, and half-way down the page it mentioned my employer, the University of Texas at Austin, was also closed. 

I checked the emergency page, and it said "all clear", but literally at the same time, my Slack channel for work started popping and I saw that, no, we were closed.  An email had come through and we weren't to come to campus today. 

Over a week ago, my boss had said to start taking your computers home at night, and so I did.  Kind of hoping we'd be smart and start doing something preventative.  But the thing is:  a huge University like UT has innumerable moving parts.  Classes need to be canceled - and classes canceled need to be accounted for.  And if we were shutting down with no "open" date in sight? 

That's the thing: I'd talk to people at work, and it seemed like maybe roughly 1/3rd really understood what was happening once COVID-19 hit Seattle.  The cancellation of SXSW - which people were begging for as it would bring hundreds of thousands of people to Austin and mix them together in close quarters and was going to make Austin ground-zero for something really heinous - was seen as a total bummer by my younger colleagues who would smile and say "I don't smoke, I'll be fine".  Others would declare how they just worked in their office, and you'd point out all the door handles and elevator buttons we shared, and you'd get blank stares.  The guy from another office who I don't think ever washes his hands in the bathroom?  I still don't think he washed his hands. 

We like to think we're smart.  We like to think we're smarter than everyone else.  We like to think we're smarter than the doctors and scientists who tell us things that are complicated, might inconvenience us or which suggest a harm we can't immediately see.  A tiger about to eat you?  A threat.   The possibility of large cats from storybooks who live in a place you've never been (but have tickets to) who may decide to eat you?  I mean, that's just sort of an abstraction. 

Years ago my workplace was part of an active shooter event.  A guy ran in the building with a gun, and, fortunately, chose only to end his own life, not take anyone with him.  But it raised a lot of questions and got people properly freaked out.  Flash forward to six or seven years later, vastly the same people in the building from the first time, extensive measures put in place by the university for security protocols - and we got a text message.  "Armed incident near your building, shelter in place".  I did.  I made my team shut themselves away and turn off their lights and monitors.  I went out to see about securing the exterior doors and outside my work area, everyone was still just plugging away working. 

"We have an incident.  Someone armed.  We're supposed to shelter in place."
"It's nothing," they'd say as I went from cube to cube. 
"It's not a drill."
They'd stare at me blankly. 
"You need to go hide out in the back room.  This is wide open."
More stares. 
"Go.  It's probably nothing.  But... go."
They'd eventually gather their things and get up and go. 

Over and over.  A peer running another team zipped past me. 

"Hey, we're in lockdown."
"I have a meeting."
"We're in lockdown, there's no meeting."
"I gotta run."
He didn't even slow down for me to ask "what about your team?"

There was a kid who'd snapped, came to campus and killed another kid with a bowie knife (a kid he didn't know) about 150 feet from the door of my building.  He happened to head into a building where an officer was nearby and heading his way to respond. 

Later I'd hear from second hand sources that I'd been helpful.  That's good.  As horrified as I was by the actual murder, and it was absolutely horrible, some part of me could deal with the random acts of someone who snapped but was more frightened by the lack of reaction from my peers.  But all that came later that day when I reflected on how it unfolded.

I get their reaction.  I didn't know anything more than they did.  This was not anything remarkable: I was going through the motions of the playbook because it made more sense than sitting in place during an alert.  You never want to be the character in the movie who looks like an idiot for not doing the obvious thing in the moment of crisis.  But, wow, a lot of people are exactly that character. 

When I figured I'd done what there was to do, I went back to my office, sat in the dark and posted something snarky to facebook about sitting in my office with no lights like an idiot.  A few minutes later, I saw a tweet from a news source about what had happened and immediately scrubbed my timeline. 

And that's all I can think of.  That was a teeny-tiny scale with a single death, but all the signs were there.  Nobody had been hurt in the first incident but the gunman.  In the second incident, with all the warnings and training and prior experience...  people wanted to put their heads down and go about their business. 

Which, of course, is where we were at til 7-something this morning. 

I worked from home, did what I could, checked the news.  Looked at social media too much as my anxiety levels rose. 

Later, we'd hear that the President of the University and his wife were actually in self-quarantine with a positive test result.  They'd gone to New York last week for something.  A relative of there's was also an issue. 

At the end of the work day I got another message - that relative?  Works in my building.  No, I don't know them.  It's a big building.  We share an air system and elevators and I'd been on their floor during the week.  But I also had down my hand-washing technique, was slathering myself in Purell and hiding in my office as much as possible.  So, who knows...?  I suspect I'm okay.

I don't think I even talk to people who work directly with this person, so...  I'm not losing my mind at the moment.  It just all went from existential dread to practical dread in a very short time span. 

It did explain the very sudden pivot to shutting down the university, which I figured would happen next week sometime when I was already long gone.  But this is where we're at.  We've kind of got to shut it all down or more people you think of as being fine might pick this thing up, and you don't know who they have at home.  We can't be still sitting here confused why we need to move or change.  Or try to rush off to meetings that aren't happening.  Anything but grapple with the crisis in front of us, whether we get it or not.

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