Thomas Chandler (Ph.D., ’09, M.A., ’00) is a Research Scientist at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (part of Columbia University’s Earth Institute), as well as an Adjunct Associate Professor at Teachers College, and an Associate Member of the Earth Institute faculty.

He was part of the team at Teachers College that in 2007 produced Teaching the Levees, a curriculum developed to accompany the Spike Lee Hurricane Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke.”

Currently Chandler focuses on post-disaster housing and economic recovery, geographic and social networks, and community preparedness. He is the Director of five U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) training projects: “Community Economic Recovery from Disasters”; “Addressing Gaps in Housing Disaster Recovery”; “Improving Individuals’ and Business’ Financial Literacy and Management to Support Post-Disaster Economic Recovery”; “Transitioning Disaster Survivors from Temporary to Permanent Housing”; and "Innovative Disaster Recovery Strategies for Interim and Permanent Housing Construction."

In the following interview, Chandler shares his thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis. 


What makes COVID-19 different from past emergencies, including other epidemics?

COVID-19 is an emerging respiratory virus that the world population hasn’t seen before.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE, INSTRUCTIVE PAST While Chandler believes the next month will be critical in determining how the crisis will play out, he finds important lessons in the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the London cholera outbreak of 1854.

There are six other known coronaviruses that infect people. Four of them circulate regularly, and generally produce mild symptoms. Two of them are novel, in that they crossed over from animals to people and are more severe. These are SARS and MERS, both of which appear to have a higher fatality rate than COVID-19, but do not spread as easily.  That’s part of what has made patients’ response to COVID-19 confusing. Some are responding with mild symptoms, some with severe symptoms. Yet this is more dangerous than SARS and MERS because it’s more contagious.  And also because there’s been a lot of confusion in communicating about risk. Initially health experts were saying that this was primarily a disease that severely affected the elderly, and as we saw recently in Florida people were on beaches during spring break saying, ‘I’m not concerned, this won’t affect me.’ But now there are cases showing that it is severely affecting the younger population, too.

So this is an emerging situation that people are still trying to figure out, and, of course, we have no vaccine and no treatments. We really just have to follow what the data is showing. 


What lessons do past epidemics offer us, if any?

We should look back to the 1918 Flu Pandemic, which is the only comparable disaster in the 20th century in terms of spreading so rapidly and being so severe. The lesson is that this is a global pandemic, and that social distancing and sheltering in place when possible are vitally important.   In 1918, as World War I was ending, there were massive global troop movements, as well as many new transportation technologies that enabled people to bring the disease from one continent to another much more easily.

“This is an emerging situation that people are still trying to figure out, and, of course, we have no vaccine and no treatments. We really just have to follow what the data is showing.”

— Thomas Chandler

Also, the 1918 Flu Pandemic came in waves, with some period in between each wave, and there’s the potential for this to follow a similar pattern. If there is some sort of seasonality, that could buy the U.S. a bit of time, but it could also impact other areas of the world that are experiencing winter when we’re having summer, and then the virus could come back to the U.S. in the fall. Although, it is not yet clear if there will even be any kind of seasonality to the spread.

There are a lot of variables, and I think the next month will really tell us a lot more about how this crisis is going to play out.


Why will it take 18 months to create a vaccine?

The issue, from a layperson’s perspective, is the need to ensure that a vaccine has been adequately tested and is safe.  This needs to be done in a very methodical way before production is brought up to scale. All of these steps take time.


Beyond stopping the virus, what do you see as some of the most critical issues related to the crisis and possible means for addressing them?

The fatality rate for COVID is thought to be between 1 and 3 percent, and is highly dependent on an individual’s preexisting medical conditions and other individual factors. It’s hard to know the true level of need, because while South Korea did 200,000 tests during February, the United States did just 1,000. But there’s now an enormous surge of cases in New York City and an emerging surge in New Orleans, Detroit and throughout California. As a result, we’re hearing a lot about medical personnel not having enough test kits, personal protection equipment, and ventilators. And that just highlights the need for people to maintain social distancing, flatten the curve and allow the health care system more time to accommodate more patients over the long term.

“This situation really highlights the importance of keeping schools open virtually. Distance learning is a great tool, and the ability of schools to adopt it so quickly is making an important psychological impact.”

— Thomas Chandler

There’s also a lot of need to help “elder orphans” — people in their 70s and 80s who live alone and don’t have much of a social network or ability to communicate with clinicians or their community.

And of course, this situation really highlights the importance of keeping schools open virtually. Distance learning is a great tool, and the ability of schools to adopt it so quickly is making an important psychological impact. As shown by many previous disasters, it is very important for young people to retain a sense of structure as soon as possible.


How do you understand what is happening to the economy, and how do you view the government’s response so far?

On a good day, as noted by studies last year from the Federal Reserve, 40 percent of the American public can’t afford a $400 disaster-related experience without going into debt. That statistic alone highlights that so many Americans are living from paycheck to paycheck and are a step away from being unemployed. In fact, it was recently announced that 3.2 million people have filed for unemployment claims. To put that in perspective, the largest number of claims previously reported in the latter 20th century was 695,000 — in 1982.

So clearly if that level of unemployment continues, it could be catastrophic for the economy.

Now the President has signed a $2 trillion stimulus package into law. It will include a check for $1,200 for an individual earning up $75,000 a year, and $2,400 for a couple making up to $150,000, and up to four months of unemployment benefits. That’s hugely important, as far as it goes. But in recent years we’ve seen the rise of the “gig economy,” people working off the books, and now people who quit their jobs due to COVID-19 who may not be eligible for unemployment and government bailout funds. It looks like some unprecedented accommodations have been made in the stimulus bill to allow gig economy workers access to unemployment. So that is good. But the reality is that even with our best efforts, a lot of people will fall through the cracks.

And there will be a lot of other people who will be unable or unaware of how to file claims with the government as time moves on.


What about the emotional impact of this crisis?

Everyone is feeling this. Just speaking for my own family, the situation has been a challenge because we have become very accustomed to being a part of our community. My son is on a basketball team, so we’ve spent a lot of time this past year in crowded places. We’ve become accustomed to that level of community engagement being a good thing in our lives. Having it cut off is a form of whiplash.

My family is able to adapt, but we have to be cognizant as a society of the mental-health challenges of social isolation. There can be long-term, indirect impacts on people’s health and the economy’s health.

We’re working on studies of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from 2010. And there are data suggesting that people impacted by that disaster are still experiencing health and economic impacts 10 years after it occurred.

“We have to be cognizant as a society of the mental-health challenges of social isolation. There can be long-term, indirect impacts on people’s health and the economy’s health.”

— Thomas Chandler

So how can we enhance long-term resiliency? What are factors that enable people to bounce back psychologically and economically after such events?

Education can be an important tool. After Deepwater we saw massive changes in careers — people on oil rigs and in fishing starting new careers in entirely different professions. Those were long-term resiliency moves.


What are some of the lasting changes we’ll see because of this crisis?

I think the use and enhancement of the internet to provide video and lifelike engagement processes is likely to increase. Right now, there’s a call for unemployed workers to take on temporary jobs involving food delivery. Supermarket chains are hiring large numbers of unemployed people who have been casualties of layoffs from jobs in the gig economy. But, to reiterate my earlier point, after this disaster ends, I think a lot people will be looking for educational advancement around new web-based technologies.

I also think we’re already seeing a new impetus to consider issues of financial literacy and ways that people can better understand planning for this type of disaster.

What are the long-term resources that can be made available? How can we rely on our community and better prepare ourselves? How can we all develop what’s called a COOP, or continuity of operations plan? Traditionally, that’s been a focus of Fortune 500 companies with mission-critical services, or utilities and internet providers, and it’s focused on issues such as how to ensure that their work force will be in place to continue operations regardless of the type of disaster.

It’s been less of a focus for small businesses, nonprofits, community groups and families. But after Hurricane Sandy, groups such as Occupy Sandy and nonprofits in New York City began working with emergency operations centers and first responders. They began developing long-term planning tools to continue their operations. These tools have included checklists and guidelines — are enough staff available, what if staff are unavailable or unwilling to come to work? — and orders of succession in leadership. There’s been planning for the provision of food, water and shelter. And there’s been a new focus on creating incentives for people to come to work. Some studies suggest, for example, that the provision of personal protection equipment for people’s families — or shelter to ensure that they are safe — encourages people to report to work. We’re seeing it with schools being open for first responders’ children and transportation employees’ children. And also efforts at elder care, because clinicians and public health staff during Sandy expressed the need to care for their elders at home.  


What can people do right now, either to help themselves or to help others?

People can link to our resources and courses here at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides very good guidelines to protect yourself, your family and your community from COVID-19.


Most states have sites now regarding the response on quarantining and sheltering in place.

On the federal level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the Economic Development Agency are good resources.


At the local level, if you need help, there are food pantries and credit counseling services that are doing important work.

“There’s more driving us together than pulling us apart during this type of disaster.” 

— Thomas Chandler

And if you’re looking to help out, those latter organizations would really appreciate monetary donations and nonperishable food. It’s also important to support small businesses in your community and community groups looking out for the elderly and those without internet access to receive guidelines and information


What makes you most hopeful?

The fact that there’s more driving us together than pulling us apart during this type of disaster. Also, the extent to which communication can be conducted online. The way these technologies have been developed since the 20th century — including the increase in internet bandwidth — have generated positive ways to communicate, and to engage in sustainable personal interactions, that were not available during the 1918 pandemic. Distance learning can also enable learners to practice at their own pace, receive immediate feedback, and visualize information in ways that are not possible with a pen and paper.

There also have been a number of uplifting examples of clinicians going to work in hospitals. They are the real heroes.

The level of support for transition to online modalities in a very short amount of time is to be highly commended, especially at the community level. Still, we have to recognize that the digital divide persists — and also the lack of health insurance, medical resources and supplies.

But I’m encouraged that families and community groups are stepping up to support those in need. It’s a time when, at the community level, we need to band together to support those not receiving information or the help that’s needed.


What changes do you think this will create in your field? In understanding disasters and how they unfold?

There’s still so much information about vulnerable populations that’s not been made available via geographic information systems or fully included in disaster planning.

As an example, consider housing and economic recovery issues. In the past there’d be a county emergency operations center open for 30 days after a disaster and then it would close. Planning and communications would be done there and then everyone would go home and have less access to that information.

Now with digital communications, we can look at flood zones, foreclosed properties, vulnerable communities and where vulnerability might expand — very soon or six months down the road.

We also have a lot of important data on where the elderly are — and also about where people might congregate in the near future, which gives us an opportunity to prevent further transmission. For example, spring break last week wasn’t on the radar as a potential way to spread the virus. We have to think of geographic locations and where people will be at different points in time, and how that could spread the virus.

For example, cases are spiking in Louisiana, and in part that’s because a big Mardi Gras celebration was held in late February, at a time when social distancing wasn’t yet being urged and there were cultural expectations around having the celebration. And the Summer Olympics were just postponed until 2021 due to the fears of thousands of international travelers meeting in Tokyo.

But another important lesson is that it’s important for epidemiologists to use the tools they have available to analyze the geographic context. There are a lot of historic parallels here with another epidemic, which was the outbreak of cholera in London in 1854. People thought the disease was airborne, but a physician named John Snow showed, by turning off the water pumps and marking the locations of where people had died on a map, that it was being transmitted through the water, and that turning off the pumps was the way to stop the spread.

That strategy was ultimately successful and it created the first public health map. And we’re essentially building off that same process today.

 — Joe Levine