I’ve become an avid reader of history. It occurred to me that, from historical accountings, the tragedy of the RMS Titanic is a near-perfect metaphor for the catastrophic pandemic we are experiencing 108 years later.
When the doomed ocean liner struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912, the crew faced a difficult reality: The vessel they arrogantly deemed so safe that “even God can’t sink her” was going to fill up with water and plummet to the bottom of the ocean.
There weren’t enough lifeboats because they presumed they’d never need them. Ships that size could carry up to 48 lifeboats, but Titanic only left port carrying a total of 20. This was only enough capacity for 1,178 – about half the number of 2,224 passengers and crew on board.
Employees of the White Star Line faced the inescapable inevitability that thousands of people who had entrusted them for safe passage from Ireland to New York City were going to die horrible deaths suffocating in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
As you might recall from watching the classic Academy Award-winning film about it, the crew feared a rush on those lifeboats if word got out about it, so they LIED to the passengers in second- and third-class while the first-class passengers leisurely made their way onto the lifeboats. Many of the lifeboats were only partially loaded, with a disproportionate number of men left aboard because of a “women and children first” protocol.
The Titanic disaster was met with worldwide shock and outrage at the huge loss of life, as well as the regulatory and operational failures that led to it. Public inquiries in Britain and the United States led to major improvements in maritime safety.
Similarly, there are sure to be Congressional hearings into the failures that have led to the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and the overwhelming of our health care system’s supply of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE.
Just consider all of the parallels…
Ignoring Early Warnings of Danger
Testimony in 1912 revealed that the SS Californian, which stopped for the night due to the danger posed by the ice pack, sent radio transmissions to the Titanic to warn her, but they were rebuked by Titanic’s senior wireless operator, Jack Phillips, whose failure to respond to incoming signals is cited as a principal cause of the disaster. When the steamship Mesaba sent an ice alert, he acknowledged it, but failed to pass it on to the bridge.
In January 2020, memos warned the Administration of President Donald Trump of the impending risks ahead. Before anyone looks at this as a “hit piece” on the president, it’s worth noting that Democrats like U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi encouraged anxious constituents to get out and visit places like Chinatown as the fresh car smell was wearing off the new year.
The most notable difference between 1912 and 2020 is that no one expects President Trump to figuratively, valiantly “go down with the ship” the way White Star Line Captain Edward Smith literally did. Famously, Smith declared in a 1911 interview that he could not “imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
“It’s going to have a very good ending for us,” Trump said of the coronavirus in a January speech. About a month later, he tweeted that the pandemic was “very much under control” and that the stock market was “starting to look very good to me.”
Smith (aging and on the verge of retirement) did not reduce the ship’s speed despite Titanic receiving six messages from other ships warning of drifting ice, which passengers on the Titanic had begun to notice before the collision. The ship kept on at just two knots shy of her maximum speed of 28 mph.
The North Atlantic liners prioritized time-keeping above all other considerations, sticking rigidly to a schedule that would guarantee arrival at an advertised time. They were frequently driven at close to their full speed, treating hazard warnings as advisories rather than calls to action. It was widely believed that ice posed little risk; close calls were not uncommon, and even head-on collisions had not been disastrous.
Sounds sort of like America’s mindset after handling previous outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola, Zika, etc. Many assumed that the USA would be on top of this one too. During January and February of 2020, Trump continued holding rallies and playing golf, reportedly unaffected by dire warnings from the intelligence community and his own advisors.
A Slow Response to a Fast-Moving Crisis
Titanic relied on lookouts stationed in the crow’s nest and the watch on the bridge to pick up the ice in time to avoid hitting it, just as America relied on early warning systems at the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro, on Jan. 29, warned his White House colleagues in a memo to National Security Council that the novel coronavirus could take more than half a million American lives and cost close to $6 trillion. On the high end, he estimated a scenario in which the coronavirus could kill 543,000 Americans.
On February 23, Navarro wrote a memo warning “There is an increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.” He called for an “immediate supplemental appropriation of at least $3 billion” to support efforts at prevention, treatment, inoculation and diagnostics. He described expected needs for “Personal Protective Equipment” for health care workers and secondary workers in facilities such as elder care and skilled nursing. He estimated that over a four-to-six-month period, “We can expect to need at least a billion face masks, 200,000 Tyvek suits, and 11,000 ventilator circuits, and 25,000 PAPRs (powered air-purifying respirators).”
Disasters can spread rapidly. The Titanic made its fatal collision with the iceberg about 37 seconds after it was sighted. The ship broke apart and sank in two hours and 40 minutes.
The U.S. number of confirmed COVID-19 cases jumped from 16 to 24 on February 29. On March 2, it jumped from 30 to 53 cases, then increase dot 78 the next day, then 98 the following day. By March 5, there were 164 cases. By March 13, the U.S. had 1,896 confirmed cases. By March 16, it had risen to 4,226.
Greed and Ego Seed Disaster
The first manned air flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright had been made just nine years earlier, so transcontinental plane rides were not the primary mode of traveling between continents back in 1912. Luxury ocean liners were the name of the game. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, and American financier J. P. Morgan, who controlled the White Star Line’s parent corporation, the International Mercantile Marine Co. (IMM), faced an increasing challenge from rivals who had recently launched the fastest passenger ships then in service.
Ismay talked with either (or possibly both) chief engineer Joseph Bell or Capt. Smith about increasing the speed of the Titanic in order to arrive in New York ahead of schedule and generate some free press about the new liner (does that sound like anyone you know?).
While other men gave up their seats on the lifeboats, Ismay reportedly stepped about one 20 minutes before the ship went down. Some accounts have portrayed Ismay as a racist who ordered a group of non-British crew members locked below to drown or dressing as a woman in order to sneak into a lifeboat.
Titanic architect Thomas Andrews, upon inspecting the damage from the iceberg, relayed to Capt. Smith that it was a “mathematical certainty” that the ship would inevitably sink within about an hour.
This is reminiscent of the sense of surprise and non-urgency by Trump Administration officials who dismissed the coronavirus as a “hoax” or no more severe than the seasonal flu. Once confronted with the reality and magnitude of the tragedy ahead by seeing the reaction by investors on Wall Street, Trump then scrambled to acquire more respirator facemasks and ventilators, hyping the anti-malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine once the number of coronavirus cases stood at 15,219 on March 19.
As the evacuation of the Titanic began, Andrews tirelessly searched staterooms telling the passengers to put on lifebelts and go up on deck. Fifteen minutes before a first-class smoking room was submerged, Andrews was spotted alone, arms folded, his own lifeboat lying on a nearby table.
He knew full well that there was little hope for the 709 passengers in the third-class accommodations, which consisted of little more than open dormitories in the forward end of the vessels, in which hundreds of people were confined, often without adequate food or toilet facilities. There were 107 children aboard, the largest number of whom were in Third Class.
Simply put, there were not more lifeboats because this would have cut down on the number of swimming pools, libraries, high-class restaurants, and opulent cabins they could offer to the first-class passengers.
The Exploitation and Heroism of Frontline Workers
There were 885 crew members aboard the Titanic, including “stokers”, responsible for shoveling coal into boilers to fuel the steam-powered turbines down in the ship’s bunkers. The furnaces required over 600 tons of coal a day to be shoveled into them by hand, requiring the services of 176 firemen working around the clock. Many of them had signed up a few hours before she sailed. The work was relentless, dirty, and dangerous.
Chief Engineer Joseph G. Bell and his men worked until the last minute to keep the lights and the power on in order for distress signals to get out. Bell and all of the engineers died in the bowels of the Titanic.
Today, meat and poultry processing facilities are considered critical infrastructure workers. They’re also predominantly staffed by African Americans and Hispanic people who suffer from a lack of other job opportunities and also disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Other low-paid “essential” workers have included grocery clerks and truck drivers delivering supplies to them. Many of these people have complained that “essential” actually means “expendable”.
When business people have talked about the urgent need to reopen everything despite the risks, they say it is inevitable that a lot of people are going to die, so of course, they are cavalier about others’ suffering – just like the White Star crew sentenced third-class passengers aboard the Titanic to a death sentence.
These people don’t mean their own death or the death of their family members whose privilege will give them extra layers of protection. They’re talking about the average working stiff. Elites are happy to force working Americans to die to keep making the rich richer.
We really haven’t changed all that much in 108 years.
The Death of Prominent People
It’s not too much of a stretch to state that the Titanic was such a monumental scandal because so many wealthy, prominent people perished, including real estate developer John Jacob Astor IV, whose net worth was equivalent to $2.3 billion in today’s dollars.
He was the great-grandson of German–American fur-trader John Jacob Astor, who didn’t think the ship was in much trouble and ridiculed the idea of loading into lifeboats. “We are safer here than in that little lifeboat,” he reportedly said. But at around 1:45 a.m., he changed his mind about the situation. Astor wasn’t allowed into a lifeboat because of the women-and-children-first rule.
Those doomed also included a Guggenheim, the owner of Macy’s, brewery heir Harry Molson, and a number of socialites and family members of prominent businesspeople during that Robber Baron era.
COVID-19 has tragically taken the lives of musicians Joe Diffie, John Prine, Adam Schlesinger and Ellis Marsalis Jr., TV chef Floyd Cardoz, and many others while famous actor Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson contracted it and survived.
When the Titanic sailed, White Star and the designers of the Titanic knew there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone. Perhaps they felt that in the unlikely scenario of a shipwreck, any remaining passengers could get by with life preservers and tread water until they were rescued. Sure, sharks could bite them in half, but they were second- and third-class passengers essentially hitching a cheaper ride, so who cared?
Systemic Failures Lead to Unnecessary Loss of Life
The CDC has more than 1,700 scientists on staff but had never before been tasked with mass production of a virus test and were strictly a research and medical intervention agency until President Trump simultaneously slashed their budget and demanded they engage in the production of tests. On Feb. 6, the CDC began shipping test kits, soon recalling them once the tests were found to be tainted with the virus they were meant to detect. It would take a month for the agency to fix the problem. By then, the virus had invaded our communities unimpeded and any chance we had at containing the spread vanished. Thousands of Americans DIED because researchers were coming and going from labs working on the test kits without changing their coats!
There aren’t enough tests to adequately detect the community spread of the coronavirus — just like there weren’t enough lifeboats on the Titanic.
In the icy North Atlantic, temperatures that night in 1912 were reported to be 28 °F (−2 °C). Typical water temperatures were normally around 45 °F (7 °C) during mid-April. Fewer than a third of those aboard Titanic (719 out of 2,224) survived the disaster. Some survivors died shortly afterward; injuries and the effects of exposure caused the deaths of several.
As soon as it became apparent that the ship was going to sink, bandleader and violinist Wallace Henry Hartley gathered his eight-man team to play ragtime and waltzes as the ship went down.
As depicted in the film, the band wanted to calm passengers who were piling into lifeboats and coming to terms with reality. Before boarding Titanic, Hartley said if he were ever on a sinking ship, he would play either “Nearer My God to Thee” or “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” Several survivors and newspapers reported that the last song to be played was the former.
The modern-day equivalent? Perhaps the distraction offered by Netflix and other streaming services?
The White Star Line didn’t want to pay benefits to those musicians because they were contract employees and listed second-class passengers.
Calls for Accountability
Politicizing of the coronavirus crisis has led to imbecilic protests against measures specifically designed to prevent those protesting from suffering a brutal, suffocating death. We see people walking around without face masks, acting as if the coronavirus is no longer a thing.
Scenes of people shoulder-to-shoulder should be nominated for a Darwin Award, recognizing individuals who contribute to human evolution by making the choice to remove themselves from the gene pool.
It’s chilling to think of how many of those 719 Titanic survivors perished six years later in the so-called Spanish flu pandemic, which is estimated to have killed between 17-50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.
Numbers evoke a sense of how urgent a crisis is.
Given the impotence of the federal response, states are still working on ramping up coronavirus testing and contact tracing, two tried and true tools to prevent new infections. Trump has very publicly resisted investing the necessary resources to contain the virus before reopening the economy because testing would reveal more infections and potentially threaten his political fortunes in November.
“I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double.”
– President Donald Trump, March 6, 2020, while touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta
“By doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad. We’re going to have more cases because we do more testing. Otherwise, you don’t know if you have a case.”
– Trump, May 6, 2020, at a meeting with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds
Thus far, 4.5 million people have gotten the disease and 307,395 have died as of this writing, and health experts warn of a massive resurgence as restrictions for social distancing to limit the community spread of the disease fall away.
The second wave of the 1918 pandemic was much more deadly than the first. Those who got very ill stayed home, and those mildly ill continued with their lives, spreading the disease. Third and fourth waves lingered through the spring of 1920. The same could happen with the coronavirus.
Several have been caught, thanks to investigative reporting, deliberating hiding or manipulating Covid-19 data and death counts to expedite the Re-open America Campaign. And who knows how many others are participating. The Federal government awarded a $10.2 million contract to a Pittsburgh infotech company to collect data on Covid-19 deaths. This data flows freely from our CDC already. They are trying to bury detailed CDC advice on reopening because the CDC advice is more restrictive than the Administration wants to reveal.
In the aftermath of the Titanic, officials were held accountable for their mistakes and new safety rules imposed. The proceedings in the U.S. Senate were not immune to political criticism. The British press condemned U.S. Sen. Aiden Smith, R-Michigan, as an opportunist, insensitively forcing an inquiry as a means of gaining political prestige and seizing “his moment to stand on the world stage”. Smith, however, already had a reputation as a campaigner for safety on US railroads and wanted to investigate any possible malpractices by railroad tycoon J. P. Morgan, Titanic’s ultimate owner.
History does tend to repeat itself. Our survival depends on learning lessons from tragedies so the impact is diminished the next time around.
The 2009 swine flu pandemic (H1N1-09) did not have nearly the impact of its predecessor because we’d made great scientific strides and systems were in place to address it early. But that pre-supposed that capable people and protocols were in place.
Cruise Ships and Death
It’s also not lost on this writer that cruise ships played a huge role in the COVID-19 pandemic. British-registered Diamond Princess was the first cruise ship to have a major outbreak on board, with the ship quarantined at Yokohama for approximately one month. Over 700 people became infected, and 14 people died. At the time, the ship accounted for over half the reported cases of SARS-CoV-2 outside of mainland China.
Governments and ports responded by preventing many cruise ships from docking and advising people to avoid traveling on cruise ships. Similarly, many cruise lines suspended their operations to mitigate the spread of the pandemic.
In early March, the Grand Princess ocean liner was ordered by California to remain offshore while the California National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing airlifted test kits by helicopter to the ship. Some passengers were quarantined in their own onboard staterooms by order of the CDC. In addition, out of the 3,533 people on board the ship (2422 passengers and 1111 crew members), 11 passengers and 10 crew members were exhibiting potential symptoms.
President Trump, ignoring expert advice, wanted those on board Grand Princess to stay on the ship so that they would not be counted as American cases, which would otherwise “double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault”.
Look, I could go on and on, but I do believe I make my point.
© Blog 2020 – Steven Stiefel