By Shawn Yuan
In the software incident response world, the guiding principle is always “Mitigate now, root-cause later.”
Almost two decades ago, two planes crashed into the World Trade Centers on 9/11, killing 2,996 people. Right after 9/11, the US went into mitigation mode.
The root-cause was unknown at the time, and it didn't matter, at first. the US needed to prevent this from ever happening again. Within hours, all flights were grounded and the border crossing was halted. Days later, liquid over 100ml was banned, shoes had to be taken off, and laptops had to be inspected. This set of risk mitigation strategies would inconvenience us for the next decades. Following this, the US went into a root-cause mode. The US found the culprits along with their nationality and methods. As the US better understood the root cause, restrictions were removed. For example, the segment of travelers with TSA Precheck is allowed to keep their shoes on.
How might the US look if it applied a post-9/11 approach to combat COVID-19?
The CDC US intelligence agencies would be monitoring the emergent virus daily. TSA would bar any flights from countries with more than a dozen cases. All flight departure gates and border crossing would have temperature checks and instant COVID-19 tests. Anyone deemed infected would be quarantined at home or military installations, away from their family and friends. Anyone with symptoms that does not disclose them would be jailed and fined.
If COVID-19 somehow made its way into the US, what do we do then? A similar mitigation strategy can be enacted. CDC would trace the source and isolate the patients. CDC would force anyone fitting a certain profile to undergo testing. People tested positive for COVID-19 would be quarantined. Masks would be made mandatory country-wide. Education programs would be in the face of every American on news, social media, and TV. Factories would be forced to use 10% of their capacity to produce masks should there be a shortage. There would be temperature checks and instant COVID-19 tests administered at checkpoints to identify new patients. Gyms and stadiums would be converted into quarantine units or make-shift hospitals. New equipment and sanitation procedures would be introduced to disinfect production lines and supply chains. Does all this sound far-fetched? Well, it shouldn't be. These are precisely the exact measures already used by countries like China, South Korea, Singapore, and Taipei, from day one.
Why didn’t the US apply a serious risk mitigation strategy to COVID-19? In the software world, this happens when you have inexperienced engineers on-call or a lack of investment in site reliability engineering. In the cases of the US, we have the perfect combination - an unqualified president and a decommissioned government body set up to fight this specific pandemic.
But is it too late for the US to mitigate the issue? No, we can still mitigate the issue while waiting for a long-term solution that addresses the root cause.