By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Wherever I was posted during my quirky tenure with U.S.I.A., my colleagues and I had to take an annual inventory of all our equipment. It was time-consuming and boring and we grumbled a lot, but the result was worthwhile: we knew what we had and where it was. We (and Washington) also knew what still functioned, what needed replacement and how the latter would be disposed of. Tedious, but tidy.
We would also have discovered, fairly quickly, whether anything had been snitched. Theft was never the case on my watch, which was only partly due to my own vigilance as boss lady. A system was in place. I adhered to it, as had (most of) my predecessors. Their conscientiousness made it a lot easier for me, in turn, to keep the count accurate, up to date and under control.
Are you with me, CDC? Are you with me, NIH?
Probably not, so let’s look at this mess you guys have made from another angle.
As a householder I’m regularly confronted with cleaning out the refrigerator, another job I don’t particularly like, but (1) space is limited and (2) spoiled edibles (like some of those microbes you lost control of) aren’t good for people. A major source of trouble for me is my tendency to throw certain leftovers into the fridge under the rubric “I don’t know whether to keep this or not, so I’ll keep it.” These items get pushed behind the fast-moving yummier stuff. They also get forgotten, but not for long. Periodic fridge cleaning reveals them. At this point the decision is quick and easy: toss. Result: the fridge easily passes the sniff test.
Looking at the CDC’s lost-and-found debacle as generously as possible, I can’t help wondering if any highly disciplined approach to storage and disposal might not go against the human grain. All the more reason for rigor, then, among serious scientists.
But not, evidently, among scientists, high and low, at the CDC.
Even virologists should know of a mental disorder that leads to hoarding. String-saving is an amusing, but harmless variant. Real hoarders can’t get rid of anything, burnt out blenders, tons of junk mail, piles of newspapers and last year’s leftovers included. Hoarding at this level severely restricts living—and vacuuming—space. Cleaning (especially the much dreaded spring cleaning) requires moving things from one location to another. According to certain laws of physics, however, two things can’t occupy the same spot at the same time. Hoarders get away with their neuroses for years, because no one can bear to visit them
Folk wisdom cuts two ways when it comes to saving things. You never know when something will be needed and a penny saved is a penny earned. All well and good, but such admonitions need to be tempered by another ancient insight. Take nothing to extremes. (This one might be useful in politics, too.)
Is it possible that some hoarding-prone scientist, ordered to part with his precious vials of smallpox or bird flu and knowing that his organization suffers from lax inventory habits, purposely hid his noxious babies in the far corner of a bottom shelf in an ill lit place? Is this some sort of Stockholm syndrome? After a certain number of years do you learn to love the bacterium?
Meanwhile, the mere slobs shouldn’t be forgotten. They abandon empty beer cans in the living room. They leave smelly pizza boxes in the kitchen. Their dirty clothes never make it to the hamper let alone the washing machine. The teen-aged slob is notorious for being totally deaf to the parental command: clean your room or else! Parents tend to lose this war in the short run, but in the long run they usually win. At some point on the route to maturity many a young slob turns into a neatnik who repeats the process with his own kids. The sadder cases turn into chronic couch potato slobs. Why their spouses hoard them instead of tossing them boggles the imagination.
Finally, there’s the slacker who won’t pull his or her weight without constant supervision or peer pressure aka nagging, which is not confined to females. Work piles up. The slacker says, “I’m on it!” Enablers take him at his word. Chores go undone. The slacker says, “In a sec!” The enabler believes him. In the end the errand gets run, by someone else. “It’s easier,” say the enablers.
At the CDC, however, the inventory work may not get done at all.
So vile stuff accumulates willynilly in forgotten or mislabeled vials. Unless there’s been a conspiracy—there’s always a conspiracy theory available—to hoard viruses until they can be loosed on some unsuspecting, non-immune enemy. In either case, any half competent housewife has the solution. Systematic cleaning. Lots of sunlight.
And yet, even the brightest sunlight is no defense against the ultimate enemy of order, the scapegoat to end all scapegoats: entropy. What is the chaos of disorder but a failure of cosmic housekeeping? Note to the great CEO in the sky: time to stop basking in adulation and gilt-edged bonuses not linked to performance. Time to get the run-away universe under control.
Note to CDC/NIH Directors: this also means you.
On the other hand, maybe a good clean sweep of the under-performing upper echelons at the CDC and the NIH is in order. And who better qualified to keep everyone healthy while bringing order out of chaos than the underappreciated housewife who does it every day without an MBA or PhD or MD or even a right to Social Security in her own name?