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Y2K: Prepare, Don't Panic

As a facilitator once told me in a management training session, "One who fails to plan plans to fail."

April 1999

Illustation by Christopher Hill Until a little over a month ago, my only ideas about the new century were about how and where I'd spend this momentous New Year's Eve. I'd given no thought to preparing for Y2K. I'd certainly been exposed to the Y2K issues; I work for a large corporation that deals in information systems. But I had never looked at the issues closely enough to realize that they might apply to me personally, outside of work.

Then I began to research this article. Without overstating the case, or implying that drastic measures need be taken, one thing became clear: Y2K can, and possibly will, affect everyone. And, as a facilitator once told me in a management training session, "One who fails to plan plans to fail."

The Bug

What is the issue, this Y2K thing, this Millennium Bug, as it's sometimes called?

At its most basic, it's quite simple. Since the beginning of the computer age, common practice has been to use two digits instead of four to identify the year portion of dates. So, if you had to identify the year "1957," the two digits "57" would do; the "19" was understood.

But when we get to the year 2000, things change. Using only the digits "57" in a system that has no alternative but to assume that the first two digits are "19" doesn't give the system a way to represent the new millennium. In effect, if you were born in 1933 and are receiving age-related benefits from a company whose systems are not Y2K compliant, in the year 2000 your age would be listed as minus 47.

Why were systems developed using only two digits? Two reasons -- cost and space. In the earliest days of computers, memory and hard disk space were extremely expensive and required a vast amount of square footage. Anyone who remembers, or has seen photos of, the old Univac computers of the 1950s knows that huge rooms full of equipment were necessary to perform functions that today can be accomplished by the most modest laptop. All that storage space, and the price of the memory itself, made it important to save every bit possible. The early computer programmers were aware of the upcoming issue of the year 2000, but they just didn't have the ability to deal with it then.

So, one could argue, the fix is simple: Reprogram all systems to utilize four digits in recognizing the year component of a date. Memory is inexpensive these days. It's quite small too. What's the problem? There are two, actually. And they're nearly impossible to track completely.

The first is the issue of embedded systems. An embedded system is "burned" (that is, built) onto a circuit board. The logic for the embedded system is in the circuitry. Embedded systems are designed to automate a particular function, such as regulating the flow of gas in a pipeline, the electricity load balance between power grids, the time between doses of medication, or the amount of chemicals that are dissolved into our drinking water to purify it.

But many embedded systems are date- or duration-sensitive; that is,, they require the presence of a "real-time clock" to function properly, and may not be programmed to respond to a year of "00." This raises a great many vital questions: How many embedded systems exist that are date-sensitive? Are they date-sensitive to the year portion? If so, how will they react when they receive "00" to identify the year? Will they fail to calculate a duration properly, resulting in perfectly good products being sent to the dump because they were deemed to be 100 years old? Will an incorrect interpretation of the date cause minor or major glitches?

The second issue is interconnectivity. Let's assume that a business or personal computer user gets its system Y2K compliant. What about connecting with other systems now that four digits identify the year instead of two? Will this merely cause slowdowns, or out-and-out errors? What level of errors will occur, and how will these affect the end user of the system involved? Again, there are more questions than answers.

One example of an interconnectivity issue: The Social Security Administration has been working on its Y2K solution for quite some time, and in 1998 deemed itself fully compliant. That position was challenged by four Members of Congress in a letter to President Clinton. They pointed out that monthly Social Security checks are paid by the Treasury Department and transferred through the Federal Reserve system to the banks, leading to questions about whether all of these interconnecting systems are 100 percent compliant also. If not, can the Social Security Administration actually declare itself fully prepared? A majority of recipients have their Social Security checks electronically deposited to their personal bank accounts -- what about those systems? Larger banks will probably be covered, but smaller ones may not. The links seem endless, and indeed may be.

The Problem(s)

The range of opinions regarding Y2K failures, and therefore the degree of preparedness we should have, spans a large spectrum. The Internet is chock full of websites dedicated to Y2K. Some go as far as to advise citizens in urban areas to arm themselves, in case there's rioting or violence over shortages. Others believe that nothing noticeable will happen ... but stay tuned, just in case.

Where does that leave a person living with HIV? There doesn't seem to be a clear answer, but some crucial aspects of living should be addressed, in case there are large systems failures.

Food: The prevailing opinion is that, even if food deliveries are slowed because of Y2K problems, the shelves won't automatically be empty on January 1, 2000. The issue, really, is panic potential. Who hasn't run out and stocked up on milk and groceries when a snowstorm threatened? The same applies here. If people believe that there will be delays in food deliveries, supermarkets will sell out their entire inventories in short order. There could be arguments, looting, even violence. Furthermore, there is the possibility of price gouging by food sellers and the development of a black market that will charge astronomical prices for everday necessities.

Water: Water supplies could run down or completely out. If this were to happen, it's anyone's guess how long it would take to get things flowing again.

Medications: If the pharmaceutical companies' systems experience a widespread Y2K failure, it may delay delivery of drugs. Also, the production of some medications may be slowed or stopped; there may, simply, be none available for delivery.

Medical Records: If your physician keeps medical histories on a computer, and it fails, what happens if you have an emergency on or around January 1? It might take some time for the doctor to rebuild the files, if it is even possible, so even routine healthcare in the early part of the year could be adversely affected.

Money: If the bank systems fail, it may be days or even weeks before you are able to gain access to your funds. What if you need cash immediately? Also, some systems may not recognize credit cards, making the need for cash even more crucial.

Benefits: If a person is living on benefits and budgets are tight, the problem may not be access to funds in the bank; there may be no funds to tap into. The benefit check might not come on time, or at all. Food stamp recipients could also be affected. The New York Times reported in November of 1998 that most states are behind in Y2K computer renovations. The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, found at that time that only one-third of the computer systems used for major health, nutrition, and welfare programs were ready for the year 2000. And there are 421 such systems in total.

Service Agencies: If a person with HIV depends upon agencies such as Gay Men's Health Crisis or God's Love We Deliver for vital needs, what happens if Y2K problems limit or shut down the agencies' ability to provide vital services?

Communicatons: There's no guarantee that phone service will be up and running on January 1, 2000. All telephone company switches are run by computer systems that are definitely time- and date-sensitive. Even if your phone works, if you try to call an area that has had a Y2K failure you may not be able to connect to the party you are trying to reach.

Power and Gas: Simply stated, power can be affected. Even under normal circumstances, there's no guarantee of an uninterrupted supply of power or gas from the utility companies. Systems can go down at any time. Since so many are controlled by computer, the Y2K factor introduces an added risk of failure.

All, some, or none of these areas may be affected. Depending on which are, and to what extent, anything from very minor to quite major disruptions could result. It therefore behooves persons living with HIV (and frankly, anyone with an ongoing health condition) to give thought and attention to dealing with the possibilities.

The Human Factor

There's another key consideration, and it's not technology related -- the human factor. As David Neiger, a Y2K Compliance Coordinator for a major employee benefits consulting firm, says, "People are the wild card here. No one knows what the reaction will be if there's a run on banks, or on supermarkets, or if a significant number of people do not get paid or receive their benefits. On the positive side, in many cases people can compensate for system failures. While it would not be a good thing to require emergency hospital care on New Year's Day, since some of the monitoring equipment is date-sensitive, ultimately it's doctors and nurses who care for patients. The same applies to flying. Radar and maintenance tracking systems could be affected, but it's still the pilot who, in the final analysis, flies the plane."

Of course, in both cases, the professionals involved would be invoking skills that they don't ordinarily need to use. Would they be rusty? Could the pilot remember how to do everything manually in order to land the plane? Could the physician accurately diagnose and treat a patient in an emergency without the aid of technology? One assumes so, but human failures are as possible as technological ones.

Another behavior-related consideration is looting and violence. Although it isn't likely, if there's a prolonged shortage of food, cash, electricity, or the like, the possibility exists. Also, if people are keeping unusually large amounts of cash in their homes, and this is known, the rate of robberies may rise even before the new year's ball drops.

The Outlook

As a lifelong New Yorker, I've been through two major blackouts and one long transit strike, and it's my opinion that emergencies bring out the best in people. During the blackout of 1965, my father couldn't get home from work and began chatting with people he met in the streets. One man took my father to his apartment on the Lower East Side, where his wife served dinner, and he drove my dad home to Brooklyn late in the evening. During the 1980 transit strike, I constantly thumbed rides. Sometimes all I had to do was stand on a sidewalk and drivers would stop and ask where I was going. In all probability, if there is a crisis resulting from Y2K, we'll see some combination of both good and bad reactions. What are people living with HIV doing to prepare for the year 2000? And what are their feelings regarding this passage? I polled three people for their reactions.

Chuck Kletecka, a long-time survivor who lives in rural Vermont with his longtime partner, shares his thoughts: "What to say? Generally, I think there's way too much hype for my tastes. Great for the conspiracy theorists and financial opportunists, but it really hasn't grabbed my attention one way or the other.

"Perhaps having lived with HIV for so long, doomsday prophecies sort of blend into the background for me. You know, get a number and stand in line.

"The projected date, 2000, was sort of an unattainable target date to live to, at least in my early days of HIV. But as more and more of those target dates go by -- my 40th, my 45th birthdays -- one more doesn't seem all that impressive. I think the first time I even thought about the whole thing was in the early '90s (living into the '90s back then was an unexpected treat!). Folks were starting to talk about this great event out there, this new millennium. It just seemed like a high bar I'd never cross, so with a mild amount of melancholy, it fell off my personal radar screen.

"I do wonder more and more, as the milestones pass by, what the passage of time in general means for me. The onset of Y2K makes me a bit more aware of this.

"Looking back on my own personal epidemic, I do question some of the choices I've made and what I might have done differently. The usual midlife-crisis type of stuff, but still very different when there's the gorilla of a 'terminal' illness in the room keeping you company.

"The choices you make, for better or worse, seem like they should be more important when you think that time is limited. There is even a little guilt about not taking the whole thing as seriously as I could have. But part of that mix is 'How might I have done this [AIDS] better?' -- especially when I think about a marker event like Y2K.

"The only other thought I have about the matter is that I think what we project on an event like this -- that micro-millisecond when we pass from 1999 to 2000 -- is a mirror of ourselves, more than anything else. If you're a neurotic worrier, you'll buy tons of bottled water and freeze-dried chicken. If you're a go-with-the-flow kind of person, you might just take a nap. And there are all the possible permutations in between. I think events like this become sort of a lightning rod for those Big Life Questions: What does it all mean? Who am I really? Et cetera. As such, we probably answer the occasion with the same style we approach every other new day. Just maybe we'll do this more in public and maybe more mindfully.

"So, for me, Y2K is more about time passage and reflection than preparation for disaster. We keep a good amount of food in the house under ordinary circumstances, and I'll stock up on some water for drinking and flushing the toilet. Other than that, not much."

Another man, Bobby Darnell, is in his 20s, single, and living in New York City. His reaction is surprisingly similar. "A lot of people living with HIV and AIDS weren't expecting to live to the year 2000. With the advent of medications keeping us alive and healthy, there are very new, exciting challenges for us as the new century starts. I've had to refocus, think differently about what I'd like to achieve, and what I need to do to keep healthy. It's a time of excitement and pragmatism." Darnell has no comments about physical preparations in the event of an emergency associated with Y2K. "I'm not even considering doing anything special," he says.

Rick (who chose not to be identified with his surname) is a single man with AIDS who lives in Manhattan. He's had a recent bout with PCP and MAI, resulting in a fairly long hospitalization. His feelings toward Y2K are a bit different from those of Kletecka and Darnell. "I'm a spiritual person," he says. "As such, I don't believe the whole world will crash in the year 2000. I think there'll be problems, but I don't think systems will stop completely. It took lots of savvy to get to where we are currently with PCs, and I have to believe that the same savvy will limit the problems with Y2K and handle them as they crop up.

"Frankly, I think people are crazy to go to extremes over this. For me, I would never have enough room in my apartment to store a lot of food and provisions. I think any Y2K problems will affect people with HIV the same way they will anyone else, particularly people with health issues. If computers go down, all sick people will be affected.

"Between now and the new year, the media will be playing 'what if' with us over Y2K. These tactics sell stories. The bottom line for me is to have some peace of mind for today. Every time I worry about the future, I lose a piece of today.

"I know that stress impacts health. If you pack a lot of it on yourself over Y2K, you could make yourself sick. In the final analysis, I'm not unconcerned about the issues that might come about, but I won't make myself sick about it."


Ultimately, there's no definitive guide for preparing for the year 2000. How you choose to prepare will be, as Kletecka suggests, a reflection of your beliefs about life and the universe in general. After reading a good deal of the literature, the only plan I can make for myself is to keep a short-term supply of life essentials on hand, just in case.

How long is the short term? David Neiger believes that a three-to-six week-supply of essentials will more than cover any crisis. Beyond that, he thinks that the bugs will be resolved and things will return to normal.

Most important: Whatever preparations you choose to make, start making them now. If everyone starts buying large amounts of food in November, a shortage will be created even before Y2K. The same with other essentials, like candles or batteries. In the computer age, a just-in-time philosophy has reduced the amount of stock that most businesses keep on hand. This is because technology speeds up the production and delivery of products to the consumer. Businesses profit from this because shelf space is expensive. But this means that it's easier for there to be a run on a product in the late '90s than it would have been even a decade ago.

Let's take another look at the specific areas of concern discussed above with some suggestions to inform your planning efforts:

Food: Some stockpiling of prepared food is probably a must. Ready-to-heat items such as soups and canned vegetables are the easiest to store and prepare. Rice is long-lasting, easy to cook, inexpensive, and nutritious. Frozen foods are not suggested, because if the power is down they'll defrost and spoil in a short time.

A supply of fuel for heating the food is also a good idea. Sterno packages an emergency cooking kit, on which a pot can be placed, for under $10.00. Otherwise, any fuel can be used with a portable stove, also available inexpensively at hardware stores.

Start buying extra food now, on your next shopping trip. Not only will it avoid a shortage of food later in the year, it's also good practice if you're living on a tight budget. An extra can or two of food purchased at every visit to the grocery will help alleviate financial stress at the end of the year.

Water: Buy gallon jugs of water, starting now. David Neiger, in prepping for three to six weeks of shortage, plans to keep about sixty gallons on hand. Also, fill the bathtub on New Year's Eve so you will have water on hand for washing. Remember, if the power is down, the only way to flush the toilet will be by pouring a large amount of water into it. This may not be important if the situation only lasts a day or two, but over time it could create a health hazard.

Medications: It is crucial to have an uninterrupted supply of medications if you're living with HIV. To that end, ask your physician now about doubling up on prescriptions, and start stockpiling. If your insurance carrier covers medications, ask whether the cost of additional prescriptions can be covered; if not, you may have to lay out money from your own pocket for the extra.

Medical Records: Ask how your physician keeps medical records. If they're on a computer, ask for a printout in case the system goes down. If they're handwritten you're fine, but you might want ask for a photocopy, just to play it safe. Also, if you get a copy of your records now, don't forget to get an update each time you visit the doctor between now and the new year.

Money: Keep paper records of your financial accounts -- bank statements, stocks, mutual funds, and insurance policies. It would probably be wise to keep $1,000 in cash at home. Of course, this may pose a great difficulty for people living on fixed incomes; all the more reason to start saving now to that end.

If it is impossible to accumulate a large amount of cash under any circumstances, try to borrow it as a short-term loan from family or friends. If one person can't supply it all, try to borrow smaller amounts from two or three people.

If you have no way that you can lay your hands on some cash, consider making arrangements to stay with members of your family or with friends for the first few days of the new year. If you have to travel to where you'll be staying, get there by December 30, in case public transportation goes out of service. Remember also that if you'll be staying out of your own home, even for a short time, you should take provisions with you; those with whom you'll be staying may only have provided for themselves as far as food and water are concerned.

Benefits: Start calling your benefits providers now and ask if they are fully Y2K compliant. Ask for a written statement of their preparedness. Ask whether there is a contingency plan in case of a system error or shutdown. If you are fully reliant on benefits for your food or income, it would be prudent to save or borrow cash, as outlined in "Money," above.

Service Agencies: If you rely upon a service agency for care and/or food, call now to ask about Y2K contingency plans. Again, it would be wise to have a friend call or visit you on January 1 to make sure that you are well.

If you are not using a service agency, this would be a good time to volunteer. Organizations will need all the help they can get, even without their own Y2K problems, to deal with the questions, issues, and fears that will arise in the upcoming months.

Communications: If your condition requires monitoring, you'll want to make contingency plans in case the phones go out. A good idea is to arrange with a friend or family member to phone you on New Year's Day, and actually to come to your home if the call doesn't go through. Bear in mind that the person with whom you make these arrangements should live close to you, in case public transport systems are out of service. Outside of urban areas, make these arrangements with a person who has a car. Again, if no such plan can be made, consider staying with someone for a couple of days.

Power and Gas: Start to buy long-burning candles. Keep a flashlight in every room, and stockpile batteries for them. Keep extra batteries close to each flashlight in case they run out of power while in use. Have a battery-powered radio on hand to get news updates in case of emergencies. Purchase and keep the proper batteries for the radio, with spares. Test the flashlights and the radio, along with the first set of batteries to be used, the week before the new year. If the heat turns off where you live, the odds are that the furnace can be restarted manually; just in case though, keep warm clothing and extra blankets within easy reach. Fuel for cooking is discussed in "Food," above.

Don't Panic!

The above are suggestions, intended to provoke thought. If only some or none apply to you, all the better. Everyone has a different risk profile and security requirement, depending on general outlook and specific health needs.

A few other scenarios seem obvious but are still worth mentioning. First, it would be better not to travel on or right after Y2K. If there are any glitches in the systems that run the trains and planes, let them get worked out before you become a passenger. Also, if you need a medical procedure that isn't critical, don't schedule it for century's end. Get it done beforehand, or put it off a month or so.

Most important, keep yourself informed. Just reading the newspapers will give you ongoing news about developments. Read PC Magazine or other techie publications for the latest word on Y2K compliance. There are a lot of doomsday predictors; form your own opinions, and try for a measured approach in what you choose to believe. Remember, don't become stressed over things you can't control. None of us can do anything to make sure that the lights are on and the telephones work on January 1, 2000. We can only be prepared in case there are failures.

Finally, there's a wealth of information on the Internet. If you have Internet access at home or work or your library, or if you can afford to rent PC time, browse the sites. You will find more information than you can possibly read by doing a search on the three characters "Y2K". Of particular interest are:

The odds are that survival-threatening situations will not occur with the dawn of the next millennium. Some glitches may occur before calendar 2000, however, especially when the "forward-looking" systems have to deal with fiscal year "00." More will occur right in the early part of the new year, and most organizations will be ready to handle problems as they occur. Everyone in the world is keeping a close watch on Y2K, particularly large corporations and government agencies, where entire departments have been formed to deal with the bug. But we can't know what will happen until it does, and we can't know how people will react. So prepare now, and you'll be able to enjoy the turn of the century with peace of mind, and to handle any problems that do arise.

Illustration by Christopher Hill

Ronald Russo is a Training Director for a large coporation and a freelance writer. This is his first contribution to Body Positive.

Back to the April 1999 Issue of Body Positive Magazine

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