The war against COVID19 is a rare instance when all countries of the world have a common enemy. Realpolitik is still motivating nations to seek advantage of this “war” to weaken other nations. As a result, almost all nations have been fighting lone battles, in their own ways. Even the World Health Organization (WHO), which should have been the sole uniting and harmonising factor for fighting this epidemic, has abdicated its role. It has been either in the green room rehearsing its lines or fighting a solitary battle on the backfoot not against the virus but against allegations of partisanship.
For fighting a war, planning is required at four levels – grand strategy, strategy, operations and tactics. The first two have been conspicuous by their absence in fighting the virus. The WHO should have facilitated a forum at which a grand strategy could have been decided and then individual nations could have formulated their strategies based on local strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities. None of this, however, took place and the WHO was seen only as playing the China game.
The famous Chinese general Sun Tzu said in the 6th century B.C. that tactic without strategy is the noise before defeat. The events of the last six months do look like aimless noise and the present scenario more like a situation of defeat.The WHO did issue a 28-page document with the grand title “2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV: Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan). It did not have a grand strategy, or even much of a strategic plan; it contained mainly operations and tactical details. There was much wishful thinking and jargon, as is usual when information is lacking and there is the pressing need to appear to be active.
Much has been written about the lack of transparency from China and the consequent delay in initiating steps to prevent the international spread of the epidemic. This WHO document speaks of the objective of “preventing further international spread from China”. Yet, it contains no directive to prevent international flights from China and no such directive was issued by the WHO even subsequently. Even as China stopped internal flights and locked down its cities, it directed foreign airlines that in order to meet the needs of passengers moving in and out of the country and the international transport of supplies they should “continue transport to nations that have not imposed travel restrictions.” The head of the WHO lent support to this contention by saying that there was no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with travel and trade. “In fact, we oppose it,” he said.
The WHO was critical of the USA when Trump ordered a ban on flights from China. Tedros, the head of the WHO, said that such bans would increase fear and stigma, with little public health benefit, in line with China’s People’s Daily calling the flight ban “racist”.The cavalier approach of the WHO can be seen from the fact that this position was taken even as the objective of preventing further international spread from China was aired and the document clearly stated: “It is expected that cases will continue to be exported to other countries while the outbreak continues in China.”
The Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan did contain a homily to “minimize social and economic impact through multisectoral partnerships” without elaborating any further. There was no follow up by the WHO or any nation on this critical aspect which, as subsequent events show, severely dented the economy of many nations and the social consequences of the lockdowns – loss of employment opportunities and school closures, shall be felt for a long time. The document talked of “coordination of procurement and supply mechanisms to ensure that countries and populations most in need are assured of access to crucial supplies and commodities.” Nothing was to done to ensure this coordination and there was a mad scramble for masks and other personal protection equipment. China instructed its embassies around the world to mop up these supplies and send them home. As the pandemic spread internationally, countries were begging Chinese suppliers who jacked up prices by 200 to 300 per cent and supplied inferior products.
It is always easy to be wise after the event, though in the present case it was a natural obligation for the WHO to make a grand strategy as also a strategy plan in anticipation of an epidemic given that so many of these had broken out in the last few years. Let us begin with the ingredients of the grand strategy. It does not take specialised knowledge to forecast that any epidemic more seriously affects the older population, particularly those with an existing morbidity. Simultaneously, the economic effects of an epidemic lead to a downturn in the economy, loss of employment, purchasing power and state revenues. This in turn leads to fall in nutritional levels and rise in psychological aberrations. The impact is more severe and lasts for decades in the younger population, particularly in children.
The 19th century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz had said that war should be compared not to art but rather to commerce. There is expectation of gain and risk of loss in war and wars are fought to maximise gains and minimise losses. Planners have to make cold-blooded decisions about sacrificing something to gain something else. This applies equally when formulating strategy to fight against a virus. There was clearly a conflict between sacrificing the economy and the interest of the younger population and saving the old and the sick at the cost of the former. In the absence of any comparative analysis of the two scenarios by the WHO, nations took their own knee-jerk approaches. While countries like Sweden kept the economy open, others like the US and India locked down their countries in somewhat different ways. Autocracies like China could afford to tyrannically lock down people literally, welding steel doors shut in some cases and letting nature take care of who lives and who dies.
Leaving aside the inhuman approach of China, the two different approaches adopted by democracies produced different results. A lot of deaths initially took place in Sweden even as the markets, workplaces, restaurants and street cafes remained open. In the USA, many factories and goods transport remained operational and that limited the impact on the economy while limiting the spread of infection. It is a different matter that social disturbances due to the killing of a black person during his arrest brought an end to all precautions and caused a huge surge even as some communities insisted on opening up without even basic precautions. In India, the total lockdown even of supply chains, kept the initial spread very low but devastated the economy and resulted in mass movement of migrant workers, again causing a major surge in infections.
With this hindsight knowledge, one can safely say that the objectives of an effective grand strategy would be:
1. Prevention of person-to-person spread
2. Minimising the impact on the economy
3. Higher priority to protecting the younger population.
It is absolutely essential to stop international movement of persons from affected areas right at the onset by cancelling all visas and flights even though it causes considerable inconvenience. International flights should be mainly used for maintaining supply chains of critical medicines and the equipment required for fighting the pandemic. Only people like medical personnel and researchers should be allowed to travel internationally with the WHO being the final arbiter for the need to travel. Domestically, standard operating procedures shall be needed for identifying containment zones and free zones and for rigid restriction of movement between the two. Grey areas defeat the purpose. The regulation of movement between these two zones has to be ruthlessly devoid of any emotional appeals.
In order to save the economy, critical supply chains have to be identified, even augmented. This may require even compelling industries to run and divert production from luxury items to those needed for prevention, palliation and cure, with a purchase guarantee. Workers should be provided isolated sleeping areas in or near the industry. No worker should be allowed to leave even if he or she is a resident of a nearby locality in order to prevent bringing infection to the workplace. Goods transport should be run, under compulsion if necessary. Goods vehicles should be protected against crime on the relatively deserted highways. There should be decontamination stations at regular intervals where drivers can have safe rest and food also.
The WHO should coordinate balancing of supply and demand of medicines and equipment across nations with authorization for necessary diversion of production and supply. This organisation should be the coordinator, financer and information storehouse for development of diagnosis, cure and vaccines. Patent regime should be suspended for such new products and processes for the period of the pandemic to facilitate replication and affordable prices. In addition, the WHO should take responsibility for designing uniform data reporting procedures and formats. Diverse practices followed by nations seriously affect the reliability of data and the efficacy of the response.
This is a wish-list and shall remain wishful thinking until the world realises that nations exist for people and not the other way around. It is certainly wishful thinking that this realisation will dawn on totalitarian states like China. Till that happens, however, we shall continue fighting pandemics in a haphazard way much like the noise before defeat.