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Coronavirus: The most expensive disaster of our lifetime

By Troy Torres

As of the writing of this piece, the Joint Information Center for the COVID-19 disaster response had just issued JIC RELEASE No. 579 - Results: Four of 90 Test Positive for COVID-19. Among other things, that title indicates the JIC has written at least and issued 579 news releases to the public. No other JIC in the history of emergency response operations on Guam has ever issued even one-fifth that number of news releases.

Our hats aren't just off to the fewer than five people who comprise that JIC, but to the exponential number more who have also worked this emergency response. Think about it: if there were 579 reasons and occasions to explain significant actions taken, goals achieved, or failures explained, imagine the number of people involved in each of those reasons and occasions throughout the disaster. Surmise how much money it all cost.

Car crashes cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage. A house fire could set you back a few hundred thousand. But an act of God - like a typhoon or an earthquake - causes hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, not to mention the invaluable cost of life.

Supertyphoon Pongsona had a $720 million price tag for repairs. Of course, we couldn't afford it locally, so Uncle Sam had to pick up the pricetag. And it wasn't just the power poles, critical infrastructure replacement, and the damaged buildings that needed repair. There was the cost associated with the crippling of the economy. The fuel farm went up in flames, so no one could drive anywhere after a couple weeks. The power and water utilities weren't working for weeks, months for some. People were out of work. The Feds swooped in with food vouchers for everyone to buy groceries. They gave out money for home repairs. There was an unprecedented level of cooperation that steered all those resources and marshaled a very tired and beaten people's energy into restoring Guam from its most destructive natural disaster in its history at the time.

There are so many differences between Pongsona and COVID-19 emergency responses, the least of which is the type of God-made act it is. First and foremost is the cost of life. The coronavirus is the juggernaut, 131 to 1. The second is our real world experience as a community in responding. Before Pongsona, we were tested by Chataan, Paka, Russ, etc. None of us had ever lived through a pandemic before. We knew what to do after Pongsona to get back on our feet and get back to work. As a community, it seems we're all hoping the best minds prevail and best practices emerge sooner than later.

The third and more obvious is the financial cost. This pandemic cost us more than Pongsona a long time ago. There is, of course, the financial burden upon the three hospitals and the clinics. The vaccines, even if Uncle Sam is picking up the tab, cost money, and so does shipping, storing, dispensing, and disposing of them. We've spent more than $100 million alone quarantining travelers and isolating those infected. The government had to hire more nurses, pay additional wages to emergency workers, and continue payroll costs to the majority of its employees who did not work throughout the pandemic until recently.

Then there's the untold cost of lost wages, because as soon as JIC RELEASE No. 1 was issued, the entire economy was shut down. It is nowhere near where it was on that day. This is normally a $6 billion economy, and it has been operating anywhere from 1 percent to a quarter capacity (this is a guesstimate) for what is now three weeks shy of a year. Thank God for Michael San Nicolas and the federal government. Low wage earners were saved by Congress. It will be some time before we get a true accounting of how many people lost how much in income even with weekly unemployment assistance.

Normally natural disasters do all or most of the damage as they happen, not as they leave. But ironically it's this pandemic's imminent ending that brings the greatest peril for many on Guam. All these months without income, or with an insufficient cash flow for families has meant many months without paying the rent or the mortgage. The day of reckoning is fast approaching, when the landlords and the bankers will be making hundreds, if not thousands, of people homeless.

Think about how many businesses will never reopen. All those jobs. All that capital. All that investment. Gone.

This pandemic has cost us and the American taxpayer, who is our benefactor, far more than the $720 million pricetag in Pongsona's wake.

If this perspective isn't so stunning, think about this: all of this damage was caused by an enemy we can't even see under a microscope.

Being part of an emergency response takes the life out of you. Before this pandemic, an emergency response lasts anywhere from a day (like the time Kim Jong Un threatened to blow up Guam) to a few days. It is crazy, in my mind, how the people in the Joint Information Center have lasted this long under such pressure. That's my point of reference, at least. I've worked in the JIC through several disaster responses, but none that have lasted nearly a year.

And that's just the accumulation, analysis, and communication of information to the public. I could, not for one second, imagine the physical, mental, and emotional toll this pandemic has had on nurses and doctors. I remember at the height of this thing, when hundreds were being infected every day and bodies were just dropping, looking at the grocery workers at Happy Mart and wondering about their dread of catching the disease from a customer and bringing it back to their parents or sickly children.

Maybe this wasn't a scary time for some, who either had no reason to worry for themselves or were just too self-consumed to care about the risks for those close to them. But think about the stress and worrisome time this has been for people with diabetes, cancer, lupus, and other diseases that bring death when married to the coronavirus.

Then there were the suicides and the attempted suicides and the price of deteriorating mental health on ourselves and our families and workplaces that we'll never ever know.

If you're reading this, may I suggest you feel grateful and blessed? We're alive. Maybe we've suffered some, but despite the damage of this pandemic, we're at the home stretch and there's far more hope for blessings in the future than there was almost a year ago. Life's setbacks are so interesting. It really is amazing when you look back and think about what we've been through, individually and together.

God bless us all.

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