The world as we know it changed at the beginning of 2020. Few people could have predicted the devastating effects that COVID would have on the world as well as each of us individually. Difficult as the pandemic and lockdowns have been, as with most hardships, we have learned a lot about being prepared for the future. Bottom Line Personal spoke with John Ramey, founder of the rational-prepping blog “The Prepared,” who has devoted his career to helping people prepare for disasters. Here are his takeaways from the COVID-19 pandemic and his suggestions to be prepared for the future…
I think of my brand of preparedness as modern and rational—not feverishly stockpiling goods while fantasizing about a zombie apocalypse, but soberly assessing life’s risks and anchoring one’s actions to those risks. Part of a rational approach to prepping is taking a step back after (or during) a crisis to see what can be learned from it.
My model of prepping has held up well under the stress test of the COVID pandemic. Still, individuals made all kinds of mistakes. Here are a few of the lessons learned from those mistakes…
Don’t count on “the authorities.” In the early days of the pandemic, I was amazed to receive calls from hospitals and police departments asking me—a private citizen—what their procedures should be. Listen to the authorities when they give clear instructions, but mentally prepare yourself for the possibility that you may need to make your own decisions when guidance is lacking.
Disinformation is real. The pandemic has underscored that a scary crisis is the perfect opportunity for peddlers of disinformation to find a willing audience. Learn to check your biases and gather information from reliable sources. Even though the government is flawed, I’d still listen to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in times like this over random people on YouTube.
Panic-buying is the opposite of prepping. Actual preppers already had plenty of toilet paper and were not crowding Costco when lockdowns started. Early on, we learned about “flattening the curve”—taking measures to curb the influx of sick people into hospitals. Rational prepping flattens the curve in terms of the supply chain. If you’ve got what you need at home, you won’t have to panic-buy and strain the system.
A mask is not a respirator. In the early days of the outbreak, there was much confusion about masks. Eventually, most people came to understand that they didn’t need to wear full-on respirators, just a cloth covering the mouth and nose. Yet, people misunderstand the difference—a respirator protects you from harmful substances in the air…a mask protects others from the germs you’re carrying. Too many people still say they won’t wear a mask because it won’t protect them from getting sick. What you can do: Help them understand by asking them why surgeons wear masks when they operate— the answer, of course, is to avoid infecting their patients.
Physical and financial health are step zero of prepping. I often see well-meaning people start prepping by purchasing generators and freeze-dried food despite being unhealthy and obese or despite their finances being in tatters. Obesity and poor lung function were risk factors for bad COVID outcomes, and disruptions in job markets wrought havoc on a population nearly half of which can’t survive a $400 emergency without resorting to credit. Getting your body and bank account in order really is the first step.
You can’t garden yourself out of a food shortage. Lots of people planted backyard gardens only to find that their yields were paltry. I would love to see more Americans have gardens, but when it comes to preparedness, they just aren’t a practical way to keep your family fed.
There isn’t much slack in the system. Capitalism makes for wonderful efficiencies, but it has so reduced inefficiencies that late-stage resupply has become standard. Result: Many hospitals had only a few days’ worth of personal protective equipment on hand, since the system was designed to provide shipments every few days. When the supply chain was disrupted, hospitals were left underequipped. Similar efficiencies exist all throughout our systems and must be kept in mind for future emergencies. The absolute baseline every household should prep for is at least two weeks of self-reliance. That covers most disruptions. Then you can get more advanced in your prepping by extending that timeline…being able to survive for a month, then three and so on.
Don’t store all your valuables in one place. Plenty of people thought they were doing the right thing by keeping their stuff in bank safe-deposit boxes. They reasoned if their house were ever destroyed or they had to evacuate, the bank still would be there. But: During the pandemic, they were stuck in their homes and unable to get into their banks. Better: Instead of keeping everything at the bank, spread it around. If you keep a home safe for valuables, make sure it is fireproof (look for the UL logo). Then engrave a unique identifier onto it (such as your three initials plus the month and the day of your birthday) so that if your home is destroyed, you can easily prove the safe is yours and claim it.
“Jackpots” happen. We consider a major crisis such as COVID-19 to be a “black swan” event because it’s so rare. Yet, during this pandemic, we’ve seen several other “rare” events piled one on top of the other—civil unrest, power outages in Texas during a deep freeze, wildfires and heat waves in the West, hurricanes in the Gulf, a ship stuck in the Suez Canal, and a contested election and insurrection at the Capitol. The lesson? Crises come in all forms, and being prepared for—and experiencing—one does not make you immune to others.
Reality can be surprising. Lots of hard-core preppers had prepared for the possibility of a virus sweeping the globe…but to them, a pandemic was a far-off, future event. This is similar to “normalcy bias”—the tendency to believe that things will always be as they are…and if they’re disrupted, they’ll soon go back to normal. It’s especially hard to overcome normalcy bias when there is a lag between the first harbingers of trouble and the acute phase of the crisis. It’s easy to say, “What pandemic? I don’t know anyone with COVID.” Unfortunately, that period of denial and doubt usually is crucial for heading off real trouble.
It’s different, of course, when a catastrophe is sudden, such as a hurricane or wildfire. But that built-in lag period is not unique to pandemics. There are serious crises developing all around us—gross economic inequality, political instability—that build slowly enough for us to sit back and ponder as our situation grows more dangerous. We should use that period to work for the personal and collective changes necessary to reverse or mitigate those crises.