Mini-Episode: Our First 50-State Emergency (with Juliette Kayyem)

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We often talk about COVID-19 as if it’s an attack, something our country’s top national security experts prepare for their entire careers. So, this week Andy calls national security expert and Harvard professor, Juliette Kayyem, to talk about how to prepare. They discuss the evolution of national security from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to right now, and how the American response to COVID-19 measures up.

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[00:43] Andy Slavitt: Hi, it’s Andy Slavitt here with my son Zach. And welcome to In the Bubble mini podcast episode with Juliette Kayyem. Juliette is a national security expert at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was part of the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security. I really loved talking to Juliette, and we hope you enjoy listening to it.


[01:10] Andy Slavitt: Juliette, you are someone who fascinates me for a couple of reasons. One is you’re a great writer, and I just have a place in my heart for people who know how to write and communicate as well as you do. It’s all thoughtful. It’s all subtle. I find myself nodding my head. And my wife’s also a huge fan and she’s a very tough critic. So maybe just before we get into it, just tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, kind of your credentials on this issue so that we can have a dialog about what’s going to be different in our country.


[01:42] Juliette Kayyem: So. Well, thank you for that introduction. I like to say I’ve had one career and many jobs. So I have been, since after law school, I’ve been in the risk reduction space. It’s just taken different forms. So whether it’s as a lawyer at the Department of Justice or in government as a state Homeland Security advisor and then in federal government as assistant secretary, I do a lot of corporate advising. My home bases at the Kennedy School where I teach in homeland security and crisis management and global health issues. And then media or communication has also been a part of that. I’ve been with CNN on and off for, you know, six or seven years, more on these days. And have been writing for first The Boston Globe and now The Atlantic and radio and other forms. I think that’s a part of my responsibility now that I’m out of government because so much of what I do is scary.


[02:34] Juliette Kayyem: So I describe these roles as being about — or how I describe homeland security is how do you think about the secure flow of people, goods, ideas and networks? So why do I focus on secure flow? Because the security part is easy. I know how to have a perfectly safe Boston marathon. You don’t have it. I know how to have perfectly secure air travel. I don’t have it. It’s about managing risk with flow. 


[03:03] Juliette Kayyem: And that I found operationally challenging, intellectually challenging. So I’ve been in a world in which generally bad things are about to happen or have happened, and I think about how do you get an enterprise — whether it’s a government, private sector, people like we’re seeing now in our involvement in the response — how do you get them engaged in that? So that’s sort of a lot going on with my career. I have three kids. That’s probably the most important thing you probably — like your son would rather be anywhere else, but they’re here. 


[03:38] Andy Slavitt: So now we’ve all gone through this common experience — we’re in the middle of going through it — a global pandemic where we see what happens when things cross borders, which we can’t really control very well. They’re invisible. Secondly, when we don’t have sufficient manufacturing capability to dig our way out. What changes about the world and our place in it relative to these big questions? Nationalism versus globalism, trade, all these kinds of questions? 

[04:10] Juliette Kayyem: How do things change after this? And there’s going to be lots of lessons learned. We already know some of them about transparency and the sharing of information. I think from the homeland security perspective, irrespective of what we think of the response, and I’ve been quite vocal of it. You’re seeing globalization manifest itself here in the sense of this is America’s first 50-state disaster. We both literally and also figuratively, symbolically, so literally in the space I’m an operations person, 50 states emergency operations center. That’s the entity that is activated when a city or state is under some homeland security threat are activated. That has never happened before. At most I mean, I think BP oil spill, you had five. That’s you know, that’s sort of your biggie. And so what that means operationally is all of these systems that we had in place in which states, if they hit capacity, would work with the state next door are down. 


[05:07] Juliette Kayyem: And I think that’s because the nature of the threat that we see today is global, but also the nature of how we live is also global, or at least domestically, we move as a nation. And this is why we went from barely paying attention to realizing that there was, you know, vast community spread and everyone’s inside. How that changes the way we think about the threats we face, I mean, I think, if anything, it’s going to more clearly align the global health agenda with the national security agenda. While they had been very distinct blips in which you could argue that they merged, like with Ebola and stuff, but it moved so different, I mean a couple patients. And it was really a sort of a foreign policy affair. You know, I know certainly being the chair of something called the Security and Global Health Initiative at the Kennedy School, that these two worlds were very distinct, and that the military world thought about wars, and the diplomatic world thought about, you know, how to make nice through institutions and stuff. And that we never took global health as seriously as we should have.


[06:19] Juliette Kayyem: So that is consistent with how we treated homeland security as well. It was about the wall for the last three years. It was viewed as a border enforcement agency rather than a preparedness agency, and I think we’re seeing some of the consequences of that. 


[06:36] Andy Slavitt: Until 2001, I don’t remember us even thinking or having public dialog about the notion of homeland security. Something happened — 9/11 — and it changed our consciousness. We created a whole cabinet department. We have now a new event and we’ve got to respond to it. Are there going to be two competing views on how to respond? In other words, is there a nationalism is what we need. We need to be self-sufficient. We need to close our borders. Immigrants are going to carry diseases. Versus another response which might be described as a you have a problem anywhere, you have a problem everywhere. We have got to take care of the globe and the planet. Our global institutions are even more important than they were before, and we can’t undo our dependance on China and so forth. 


[07:23] Juliette Kayyem: You can’t get this country to zero risk and make it this country, right. Because you’re gonna disrupt flow. You know, the idea that we’re going to close borders, you know, on a normal day, there is something like 840,000 domestic passengers up in the air alone. I mean, that that is a system that’s working in terms of flow. So there’ll be the politics of this that will say we can close our borders. But the reality is, is that it won’t. And I think one of the things about homeland security is that while 9/11 created it, in my field, 2005 was a course correction or pivot. It was, of course, Hurricane Katrina, when people in my field — experts, not the political people — began to talk in terms of all hazards. That a nation focused too much on stopping 19 guys from getting on four airplanes was not gonna be able to stop an American city from drowning. So we had trained and exercised with state and locals really around an idea of all hazards. In other words, the explosion at the Boston Marathon. It didn’t matter that it was two brothers, who knew at that moment. You just needed a response. And I think what I hope comes out of this, just given the lessons learned, is every crisis has — and I don’t mean to denigrate what I do — but every crisis has brains and muscle. 


[08:44] Juliette Kayyem: And just depending if it’s a climate issue, if it’s a cyber issue, whatever, there are subject matter experts, people like you, people who know about health, or know about how a virus works or not, you know that stuff, right? That’s not my expertise. I’m really careful about what I talk about. And they’re giving the policy decisions. They’re making the tough policy decisions. Do you weight this over this? But the muscle needs to make it happen. And you need to work with state and locals to support what state and locals are doing. This unity of effort that comes out of thinking about homeland security. That’s what we try to do. What you’ve seen in this response is the health guidance not being as amplified as we wish. In other words, you’d want national guidance around certain things. And also on my end, the operations clearly being politicized, whether it’s, you know, the White House being in charge of logistics, which like that’s like a nightmare. You’ve got a gazillion things that are moving all around the country, the last thing you want is someone in the White House managing it because they’re not going to have the transparency that an operational component like FEMA would have.


[09:59] Andy Slavitt: Do you think that the nationalist movement is going to have more resonance, that they’re going to move the country more in that direction?


[10:08] Juliette Kayyem: I worry about that being a focus. I mean, you still hear a current of it now. Even today, in mid-April, this idea that we can view this as a foreign threat or the W.H.O. needs to be blamed or whatever, as if it’s not here. This going back to sort of blame some other country or some institution, you’re taking your eyes off the prize. We can do an accounting later. I do think there’s a strong sentiment in the political apparatus about exactly what you say, and whether it takes hold is I think, you know, it’s so hard to talk right now because depending on who the president is through the recovery — because as you know, from what I’ve read, I mean, the recovery from what you write. Yeah, let’s get through this period and then welcome to the next couple of years. And I think part of that is going to be what are the politics during the recovery on the local, state and federal side? Some glimmers of hope, or a counter-narrative to that is, you know, Gallup today has a poll of close to 70 percent of Americans are more fearful of opening up early than they are of the economy being slowed. It means that they get this idea of people’s sense of personal risk needs to be calibrated into all of this.


[12:45] Andy Slavitt: We all have our biases, and when we elect somebody with a bias, for example, W. had a bias particularly against Iraq. Our current president has an isolationist bias and a nationalist bias. Obama you could argue had a globalist bias. And so our leaders are going to interpret the events of the day, the events on the ground, the way that fits their narrative as opposed to what does the data say. Now, I briefed President Obama and I found that he wanted to understand and ask tough questions and get all opinions on the table, but certainly fit into his worldview and what he believed. If we stop, for example, caring about eradicating polio, if we stop caring about maternal and infant mortality, those are political choices that aren’t subject to polls. They’re subject to someone saying, hey, it’s time for us to hunker down. And that’s a mentality that was already selling in this country. 


[13:43] Juliette Kayyem: You don’t want to say this out loud, but the number of deaths is going to be, I think, in the end, shocking. It should be shocking, no matter how much the goalpost is moved. And it will be embarrassing comparatively. You know, maybe dismissing whatever we don’t know from China. But just as a as a homeland security response number, it’s going to be a horrifying. And maybe one of the lessons out of that number is going to be that a response that is run to cater to the base — because that is what is happening now, at least in terms of the communications coming from the president and his team — is unsuccessful.


[14:26] Juliette Kayyem: And maybe failure is going to be what teaches us that there is a benefit to having professional minds and professional bodies in a response, because I don’t know, I haven’t heard you say what your number is, I’m not an expert in numbers. I just think if you’re at 40,000 in mid-April, I get to 200,000 very quickly here. I hate to say it, but, you know, that’s not my expertise.


[14:52] Andy Slavitt: I mean, I think part of the challenge is with something that’s growing exponential, you could be wrong by 2 percent and miss the number by 50 percent. And so I think everybody who wants to throw criticism at anybody for any number, we should all have enough humility to understand that there’s a confidence interval here that you can’t even define, given how little we know at the early stage of this virus. That scares a lot of people, but I think people would rather know that we know what we don’t know that we don’t know what we don’t know. And there’s a lot of false prophets and sages that I think can mislead us. And we all have our own bias. And in the day of the Internet, if you have a bias, you can confirm it. 


[15:28] Juliette Kayyem: That’s right. I think what we’re experiencing now with these, you know, “oh, I’m looking at the numbers and and you all overreacted.” And people like you, you know, who said to stay inside, you know, this is a common attribute of people who have been in disaster management, crisis management. This is the preparedness paradox. Think about it not even in terms of pandemic, but a hurricane. So, a hurricane is coming ashore. You tell everyone to evacuate. The hurricane comes ashore. Only two people die. And everyone says, why the hell you have us evacuate? And you’re like, wait a second here. It was because you prepared that you’re not dead. And you’re accused of just being insane and overreacting. But I think some of the, you know, momentum to open up, the rallies that you’re seeing are sort of just, you know, sort of an extreme version of that.

[16:24] Andy Slavitt: I can’t tell about these rallies, by the way. And in case you’re listening to this podcast, who knows when you’re listening to it? We’re talking about there have been in the three or four cities, a couple hundred people congregating pretty closely together, but agitating with some encouragement from the president that we should be opening up. And I may have an unpopular opinion here, but we live in a liberal democracy. We value the rights of people to do that. Why should we be surprised that people don’t like being told what to do in this country? We founded this country on a distrust of government, and we are a consumer culture. We want what we want when we want it. So I’m quite proud of this country. People have really pulled together and done very difficult things.


[17:05] Juliette Kayyem: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I completely agree with you. I think there’s no way a government could enforce these orders but for voluntary compliance. And I think people, they turned to the experts, they turned to their local officials, you know, to their doctors, to their community leaders. And most of those people were acting responsibly and saying, stay inside. And it’s had a horrible toll on our economy and on people’s mental well-being and our kids’ educational experience. It has been remarkable, and I think it has to continue to be remarkable, and I think that those protests — one of the things I don’t even know if it’s a disagreement with you, but it’s just one of things that’s troublesome about it, though, is I would not be surprised, in the same way that the anti-vaxxers are, you know, that movement is propagated by Russian trolls, and is sort of, you know, effort by Russia to disrupt American society through the cheapest means possible. I would not be surprised if eventually we found out that this is part of a larger disinformation campaign to make Americans feel even less confident in their institutions. But as you said, this is, you know, 200 people in a city of 800,000. I’m not staying up late about this, although I do they do make me mad because they are dangerous. 


[18:34] Andy Slavitt: Yeah, it is. But, you know, we don’t live in a country that’s going to mandate that every child have a vaccine. You know, to some degree, I’m probably fighting to maintain a sense of perspective and shared sacrifice because we needed to go through this. And so I am maybe guilty of under-focusing on this. I will tell you here in Minnesota, the organizers were a gun rights group, not even the NRA, but a more right-wing gun rights group. You know, the other thing that happens is like this event has crowded out people’s relevance. If you’re a gun safety group — my wife is a huge part of Moms Demand Action — your agenda has gotten clipped. You can’t go to the capital or call a congressperson and say, hey, this is an issue I care about. So in this sort of clickbait world we live in, I just also wonder how much of like, God, how do I be relevant in this crisis, right?


[19:27] Juliette Kayyem: Yeah. This is going to be TMI, but like I have been thinking a little bit about like the role I have on the crisis side, or sort of what does a crisis look like, what should we be doing like, you know. But then I see these people who are delivering food and saving lives, and you’re like, how can I be useful? And, you know, in a meaningful way. But I do think I have started to engage people in what it is we’re doing. I’ve stopped using the term “social distancing” and I actually use the word, you know, mobilize at home. I like the word “mobilize” because it gets everyone engaged. Everyone is part of it. 

[20:04] Juliette Kayyem: And you get a sense that you’re part of a larger mission than feeling like you’re isolated, because it is — I mean, you are clearly with family. I have family. But for a lot of people, this is really hard. Although I’ll tell you, my teenage son, the best line of ours was — you have a teenage son co-producing. But we had to cancel our summer trip, which, you know, I work, my husband works, so our summer trips with the family, that’s when we’re all together because I feel like we don’t see each other. So we had to obviously cancel. Then my teenage son, who’s really ready not to be with us, says, “you know, mom, I think our family vacation is five separate houses this summer.” I was like, that actually sounds kind of nice after this.


[20:51] Andy Slavitt: Well, look, I think it’s worth saying to the people who have been staying at home, as we kind of wrap towards the end, that it’s hard for people to appreciate or realize, but by staying home, you’ve saved a number of people’s lives. You’ve saved the ability of our healthcare workforce to just do their jobs. You’ve bought scientists time to take this very difficult-to-understand bug that has a lot of properties that make it one of the more complicated bugs, and you’ve given them time. And so it feels like inactivity. And it’s hard to reinforce the fact that it’s been an incredibly active success. And for all of those things that people have suffered as a result of this, and there are people who have really suffered by staying at home, you have achieved something — my son, who’s great at math, points out that if you were out in the world for about a month and you’re asymptomatic, which is maybe close to half of the people who have this condition, you’d infect an average of about 4,100 people.


[21:53] Juliette Kayyem: Oh, my gosh. I had no idea. Yeah. 


[21:56] Andy Slavitt: And if the case fatality rate is let’s say it’s a 1 percent, that’s 41 people’s moms or dads that you never met, that you’ll never meet, you’ll never know, because most likely you would have infected someone who would have gone and seen their mother or their grandmother. And they would’ve never known how they got it. And you would have never known. And so having people on faith say, you know what, I’m going to do something for 41 people I never met, or four people I’ve never met. I don’t know a person in this country that doesn’t feel like that’s a good deal. My heart breaks for what people are going through, but I am so proud of what the country can be made of at the right times.


[22:33] Juliette Kayyem: I feel the same way too. I mean, I have a lot of girlfriends who text me and you know, the challenges. And these are the challenges of disruption, not the challenges of deprivation, as I like to remind them, but just that sense of not questioning it. You know, you can complain about it, but not questioning its good. And I think for people like me who know how things like this unfold, at least, you know, on the operations side, and people like you who know what the science and what the research is telling you, our next job is to prepare the public for what the next couple of years look like, because this is not your typical recovery. Most recoveries, the hurricane’s gone, the tornado’s gone, the tidal wave has rolled through. This will be a lot of managing around the virus and trying to box it in or dance with it. It will be living with it. And we’ll have better tools, there’s no question about it. And I, you know, follow you and others who remind me that those tools will be better, everywhere from treatment to testing. But it will be what I’ve been calling now, through a friend of mine who’s a reverend, he calls the “now normal,” which is very helpful to place yourself in. Which is, it’s not a new normal, because I can be different every day. It’s not a next normal. The “next normal” seems too exciting. Like it’s not going to be that exciting. It’s going to be different every day. If you could just sort of ground yourself in that, that’s gonna be the challenge because it’s not unlikely that our kids will start a semester that maybe has to end, or they have to move rooms, or I start teaching and all of a sudden I’m going to be remote for two weeks. I mean, it is going to be just a lot of, you know, a lot of pivoting. 


[24:22] Andy Slavitt: So will we be ready for the next one? 


[24:25] Juliette Kayyem: I think in some ways, yes. I mean, I think that only because we’re almost always better with the same exact crises the next time, just because our operational agencies are pretty good at adapting lessons learned. I think what we didn’t factor in, obviously to most of our training, was a president who would not assert authority where you wanted him to — Defense Production Act, national guidelines — and assert authority where he had none — telling governors when they have to open up — it’s the reverse. And I think that’s just the uniqueness of this White House. Someone asked me, you know, where are the plans deficient? I was like, I wouldn’t say the plans are perfect, no plans are perfect. But they did provide a pretty good baseline. I think where we would have, regardless of any president, and I knew the plans just because of H1N1 and my involvement with that, I think where they were deficient is really what does mean to have a 50-state disaster in terms of mutual aid, in terms of resource development, in terms of of supply chain. We’ve been pretty lucky on the supply chain for everything but healthcare stuff. I worry about it for the future. 


[25:32] Juliette Kayyem: And then, of course, thinking about something that we are probably just getting our heads around, which is if there is a vaccine, and varying degrees of optimism or pessimism around it, if there is a vaccine, how will it be distributed in this country? I mean, in other words, is there a POD system, points of distribution, that we used in H1N1, but that makes sense because it was a border disease. And so the border states made sense. They get to go first. Everyone else is next in line. This is gonna be an entire globe trying to get something. And so that’s gonna be a challenge. But I think we will be better. I think, you know, this is a White House like no other, and I’m not unique in saying that. And the plans were pretty good baseline, but no one can anticipate anything like this. I mean, you know, you, me, others were saying this thing in China is for real. It’s not being contained. That week, in March, when everyone went inside, was — even though I knew it was gonna happen for months — was still jarring. Imagine the average American! It’s like, wait a second. I didn’t even hear about this Wuhan thing. 


[26:38] Andy Slavitt: Exactly. So I’d love to finish up on a personal question. You are so incredibly smart and analytical, and your work allows you to predict things, but you learn new things all the time like everybody else. What have you learned about yourself that you didn’t know during this stay at home period?

[26:58] Juliette Kayyem: I laugh only because I’m a social beast and I really do miss people. When everyone started talking about those Zoom drinks things, I was like, oh, that is ridiculous. I kind of live for that now. I mean, I love my husband. I love my kids. But, you know, to touch base with girlfriends, or my husband and I will call friends with, you know, a bunch of couples and stuff. I think what surprised me is how social of a beast I am. I don’t think I had quite gotten that. And so that’s basically it, which I think is not a bad thing. We actually like being parts of communities and stuff. 


[27:34] Andy Slavitt: I could just tell from talking to you how much your friends miss you as well. I really enjoyed this. I know that people listening learned a ton. I always learned a lot listening to you and really, really do appreciate you coming on In the Bubble. 


[27:46] Juliette Kayyem: Oh, my gosh, I’m so thrilled. Thank you for everything you and Zach are doing, because I think it’s an important role for those of us who do know stuff to try to share it with people who just may not have the time to know things in detail like we do. Like I’m I’m now turning to my gas and oil experts cause I have no idea what this drop in the price of oil means. So I’m going to go learn that. 


[28:10] Andy Slavitt: You know stuff and you make it very accessible to people. And that’s a gift. Obviously, you know that. You’re a teacher. Thanks, Juliette. 


[28:21] Andy Slavitt: Thanks so much to Juliette Kayyem for that great conversation and for agreeing to talk to us on In the Bubble. We will drop another podcast for you on Wednesday. I think you’re really going to like it. Thanks so much. 


[28:34] Andy Slavitt: In the Bubble is a production of Lemonada Media. Niccole Galteland is our producer and Ivan Kuraev is our editor. Music is by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill. Zach Slavitt is our co-producer and my co-host. You can find out more about our show on social media @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me on social media at @ASlavitt on Twitter, @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you liked what you heard today, tell your family and friends, but tell them at a distance. For now, stay safe. Share some joy. We’ll get through this together. And #StayHome.


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