During a week that appeared straight out of a Hollywood aliens-attack movie, world’s leaders appeared on display screens in succession to say ‘we are at war’.
When leaders of some of the world’s most powerful nations make war analogies to describe a situation, then one had better believe that this, indeed, is war. During a mid-March week that appeared straight out of a Hollywood aliens-attack movie, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the UK PM Boris Johnson, and our very own PM Modi appeared on display screens in different parts of the world to invoke one or both of the world wars to ask their people to stay at home, unless absolutely essential. PM Modi even referred to the epic battle of Mahabharatha for good measure.
Leaders using war as a metaphor for the fight against Covid-19 makes good sense. For a people who do not have any living memory of the true catastrophic potential of a pandemic, a ‘war on a pandemic’ does not anymore evoke so much of a sense of peril that a conventional war does, thanks to the huge strides in medicine made since the last pandemic that matched Covid-19 in speed and scale: the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. As a leader, you have no choice but to tell people ‘we are at war’ to be able to mobilize resources and, in a democracy, get a mandate to take harsh measures that in peacetime will be considered morally inappropriate.
Except that a war on a pandemic is very little like a war between nations. There are a number of basic differences between the two. One, in a war on a pandemic, the enemy is invisible. Two, and this is the most tragic and confounding aspect: your own people are your ally as well as your unwitting adversary, much like in those horror movies in which someone’s child is possessed by a demon (e.g. The Exorcist). But a government can’t (and absolutely mustn’t) treat its people as aggressors, yet take all the necessary and hopefully benign measures to keep everyone from harming themselves and others. Three, as opposed to a conventional war, in which institutions and agencies entrusted on to defend a nation — the army, the wartime leadership, the industries — engage with the enemy; in the fight with a virus, everybody is enlisted.
There, however, is a silver lining. A pandemic gives the world the chance to unite against a common enemy — the damned microbe. This is helpful because the fog of war of this type is usually indomitable, for reasons listed above. And it grows thicker with every passing minute, what with the constant pouring in of newer numbers and facts — some factual, some revealing, most anecdotal — from every part of the world, even more blindingly so in today’s day and age of hyper-connectivity. Any advancement through this fast-growing fog of war requires establishing international channels of communication and collaboration with experts at all the important levels — scientific, technological, economic, and political.
Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz, who introduced the term ‘fog of war’ in his book, Vom Kriege (1832), a seminal work on the philosophy of war, had this to say about the term:
“War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.”
A politician’s war
In the war on a pandemic, the road to taking a ‘sensitive and discriminating’ decision is fraught with moral dilemmas at every step. How do you correctly ration ventilators, lifesaving drugs, and hospital beds? Who should be given the top priority — should it be the critically ill from Covid-19 or other serious diseases? For how long for each person? Where must you draw the line to save medical professionals, public officials, and essential service providers from harm and exposure? What must you put first, human lives or the economy? Selective testing or universal testing? A sudden shutdown or a gradual shutdown? Every official decision is sure to spark a furious public debate in a democratic society, because every individual has his or her skin in the game — that irked lady’s old parents she is worried about, or that annoyed 40-something man’s underlying condition that was manageable before, but it now puts him at a greater risk; or that sullen bloke who is young and healthy, but is running low on savings with no earning in sight, that eternal optimist, and the perennial pessimist. The political has never been so personal, as it has become today.
As for a public official or a political leader, each and every decision taken not only has serious negative consequences — to paraphrase an old quote, ‘Damned if I do, damned if I do the opposite’ — but it is also akin to hitting a fast-moving, wildly unpredictable target. Therefore officials and leaders need every help they can get in their decision making from experts, particularly from those who are not afraid to give contrarian views. It is no surprise that the Coronavirus crisis has seen even the most populist leaders turn unabashedly to experts who are known to speak their mind. In January, the Trump administration made Dr. Anthony Fauci, a physician and immunologist who has advised six US Presidents on major epidemics and who is known to correct Trump publicly, its de-facto public health spokesperson. British PM Boris Johnson, known to scoff at experts during the Brexit campaign, has placed his faith in Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Adviser for England and a reputed epidemiologist, and Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance for advice on the government’s response to Coronavirus. On their part, experts in both these countries have made it clear that any decision in response to the crisis must take into account both the medical implications as well as the socio-economic costs of that decision.
So it appears that the final call and the responsibility of taking an epidemic-time decision rest with the politician, due to a key requisite that only a politician can provide — a universal, not-merely-passive buy-in from people.
Politico-moral imperatives have always played an important role in the framing of policy during such times. The word quarantine, derived from quarantino, the Italian word for a 40-day period, has its roots in the biblical idea of a 40-day period of purification. First written into law 700 years ago during the time of the Great Plague in the Adriatic port city of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia), quarantine in practice has varied from 30 days in the medieval times (when microbes hadn’t been discovered) to about 14 days today. But the name quarantine has lived through the centuries because more people are likely to willingly adhere to it given its religious roots.
In an excellent History channel article on anti-contagion practices during the medieval times, writer David Roos quotes Jane Stevens Crawshaw, an Oxford Brookes University lecturer on why people’s emotional response to a crisis has been an integral factor in shaping public health policy throughout history. “There are risks with any sort of epidemic of social breakdown, widespread panic, or complacency, which can be just as dangerous. There are a lot of emotions that need to be acknowledged and preempted and that was part of public health policy 600 years ago as much as it is now,” says Ms. Crawshaw.
In fact, all the major factors that shape the important decisions during the crisis have moral and political constituents, in addition to the medical, that need to be considered. Let’s see some of the key factors that play a role in epidemic-time decision making:
The arc of the virus: A sitrep, short for Situational Report, is an important military strategy tool that saw an extensive use in WWII. The sitrep dashboard — seen in any Hollywood ‘disaster movie’ — forms the basis of all the decisions taken inside a war room. During an epidemic, a useful sitrep dashboard must show the true spread of the virus, which is dependent on prompt and widespread diagnostic testing coupled with contact tracing. That is even more important for a disease like Covid-19 due its more prolonged and virulent asymptomatic period. But for different reasons, that cannot happen in all countries, depending on the capacity of healthcare infrastructure and the availability of lifesaving supplies. While countries with smaller populations and superior healthcare infrastructure like Iceland, Singapore, and South Korea are able to do expansive testing, countries with larger populations like India, China, and even the US prefer to do it in phases.
The cure can’t be worse than the disease: Much like in a modern war, leaders must choose one of the two options — launch a blitzkrieg and overwhelm the enemy, or do a surgical strike to keep collateral damage to a minimum. In epidemiological terms, that means either a total shutdown that hopefully stops the virus in its tracks but also freezes the economy, or do targeted shutdowns, but keep the economy ambling about. The right decision, again, depends on the type of the government or the society one has, for better or worse.
A capitalist democracy — where the economy holds more weight than it does in a socialist democracy like India — will like to keep the economy moving, until it absolutely can’t. Therefore while the US President has resisted calls to issue a nationwide shutdown and left it to the respective states, India, on other hand, which has far lesser number of reported cases, went for a preemptive nationwide shutdown far ahead of any democratic nation.
Communicating to people: How much should people know about the real extent of the problem? Should they be updated proactively, or will that betray leadership weakness? The communication protocol during such times, depends on the leadership style and the type of society. In western democracies, every person expects and demands to be on top of the information flow, the worse, the sooner. So these countries have frequent briefings attended by senior political leaders and officials. Other countries leave it to the wisdom of respective departments and states, given they follow a common communication protocol. Whatever be the style of communication, it must lie somewhere within two constraints — not so clinically transparent so as to cause panic and upheaval, nor so assuring so as to lull people into a dangerous state of complacency. And as an earlier boss used to say, if no communication strategy works, call for Mr. Amitabh Bacchhan.