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The Economics Of Citizen Preparedness: Should Government Officials More Openly Acknowledge Its Readiness Messaging Is Financially, Socially Tiered?

September 14th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Mike Coston at the always thoughtful Avian Flu Diary blog recently addressed a topic I was meaning to discuss but had not yet gotten around to. In a post, “NPM10: The Ethics of Prepping,” Coston raises the question whether “it is unfair, or somehow unethical, to ask those with greater financial means to prepare for disasters while some with fewer resources may be unable to do so”?

Coston says not only isn’t it unfair or unethical to prepare but it’s important to do — both personally and for the community:

…the reality is that the more people who are prepared before a crisis, the fewer people that will need emergency assistance later. And by being prepared, you are in a better position to offer help to a friend, a neighbor, a relative, or your community.

Prepping is ethical. In October, 2008 I wrote a blog which highlighted the Johns Hopkins Study entitled “Ethics and Severe Pandemic Influenza: Maintaining Essential Functions through a Fair and Considered Response”. It included the following snippet from the summary provided on the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics website.

. . . individuals and families who can afford it should do their best to prepare for any disaster. The paper notes, the more initiative the general public exercises in stockpiling several weeks’ worth of food, water, paper goods, batteries medicines, and other needed supplies, the less vulnerable they will be to a break in the supply chain.

It is important for leaders to communicate to the middle class and the wealthy that it is their responsibility to prepare for self-sufficiency in order to free up scarce supplies and allow first responders to direct their attention towards those too poor or vulnerable to prepare themselves.

I agree with Coston. It does make sense for those who can prepare do so not only for themselves and their families, but also because the more prepared citizens, the less burden likely on first responders in a crisis. It is a message that emergency management officials have sent out to the public, but they have largely done so in an indirect way.

Officials have somewhat softpedalled the idea that, as the Johns Hopkins report suggests, “it is important for leaders to communicate to the middle class and the wealthy that it is their responsibility to prepare for self-sufficiency in order to free up scarce supplies and allow first responders to direct their attention towards those too poor or vulnerable to prepare themselves.”

Governmental emergency preparedness messaging generally does not explicitly tell those citizens who can afford to prepare should, because officials do not expect others who are economically disadvantaged or socially/language disconnected to do so. However, the fact is that while officials hope everyone will prepare, the reality is that they pragmatically don’t expect it — and plan the triage accordingly.

Yet, they believe it is too sensitive to state that point publicly. Disaster preparedness and response is generally viewed by the public and the media as program like Social Security — everyone is treated equally — but in the minds of responders they expect to be overserving underserved communities.

I think it is time that the authorities — as the Johns Hopkins report recommends — be more candid with the public and the press about how they look at the levels of readiness in different communities. Not doing so, in my opinion, just camouflages the situation and may be getting in the way of dealing with it.

By acknowledging the difficulty of reaching some areas and populations would also show the depth of the public preparedness challenge and underscores that taking on the issue fully will take focus, attention and a comprehensive approach. For example, at a South Los Angeles preparedness fair this week, Urban League spokesperson Adrianne Sears, said the event was meant to be a wake-up call to the African-American community, who she said “were not prepared for any kind of catastrophic event, whether it be a terrorist attack, major earthquake, wild fire or even civil unrest.”

Laying out the problem would make it more likely that policymakers would offer significant solutions — including preparedness partnerships with businesses and community groups (ie. the Red Cross of Greater New York is applying for a Pepsi Refresh Good Idea grant to provide preparedness training/supplies to 2500 members of “vulnerable communities.”) It would also might lead planners, the public and the media to look at creative grass-roots solutions such as “disaster buddies” and broad-based drilling involving all stakeholders together as a way to get all parts of the community prepared.

Finding a balance between the “have’s” and “have nots” is not new to U.S. preparedness policy. During the Cold War, one of things that hurt the civil defense effort was that while installing a bomb shelter was viewed as being responsible it could also seen as selfish (is there room for your neighbors?)

Granted, it is a tricky message to communicate to the public and the press. There is a risk that those who are expected to be prepared will object to the fact that the government doesn’t expect the same others (and consider it a ‘welfare’-type tiered program). We want to push personal responsibility, but is it only for those who can afford to do it? Yet, if you can’t discuss the full scope of the problem, it’s tough to prepare for it.

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Tags: Diverse Communities Preparedness · Preparedness Ideas

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 [Avian Flu Diary] Referral: The Economics Of Citizen Preparedness | Influenza Virus Mashup // Sep 14, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    [...]   The Economics Of Citizen Preparedness: Should Government Officials More Openly Acknowledge Its Readi… [...]

  • 2 Joel // Sep 16, 2010 at 9:07 am

    This is something we’ve discussed at work (federal preparedness – leave it at that) as being one of the potential reasons (as in staff personal opinions) that we have such sloppy definitions of “preparedness” to work with. If the federal government especially came out with strong definitions then the legal/ethical arguments become much more of an issue for state and local governments. What I mean is if the federal definition of a prepared citizen was one that could self-sustain for 72 hours following a catastrophic event, then would it be up to state and local governments to provide resources to help the citizens below a certain income level to meet that standard? As long as that potential exists we will never have a good, hard standard for “preparedness”.

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