Covid 19 pandemic as imagined by armchair generals and amateur docs

Wars and pandemics are serious business, best left to professionals who are trained for deliberation and slow thinking

A still from the 2011 Hollywood movie 'Contagion'
A still from the 2011 Hollywood movie 'Contagion'

Dr. Amitav Banerjee

Wars are often glorified, glossing over the blunders committed by those who control the narrative. These sanitised versions of war tend to be picked up by mass media and movie moguls, creating and perpetuating myths.

However, ancient as well as recent history confirms there are no victors in war. Ashoka was seized with remorse and anguish on witnessing the death and devastation his victory in the Kalinga war had cost. In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas experienced similar despair after winning the war against the Kauravas when they saw the field of glory turn into a field of the dead and dying. Recent military history also confirms the futility of war, be it the Vietnam war, the Iran-Iraq war, the Afghanistan imbroglio or most recently the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Peace is the dream of the wise, while war is the history of humankind. James F. Dunnigan, a military-political analyst and author of How to Make War, stated the obvious when he said that real warfare is ugly, destructive and remembered fondly only by those who survive without getting too close. Indeed, no battle plan survives the first few seconds of actual combat.

The glory of war, hyped by media and movie moguls, spilled over in the fight against pandemics. Doctors are glorified as ‘warriors’ who have a pill for every ill, like soldiers ready with ammunition. In both war and in health emergencies, several stakeholders have their skin in the game. This is evident in the pharma race seemingly overtaking the arms race. No wonder war movies are giving way to thrillers around pandemics.

But while war movies follow the event or actual war, creative liberties have enabled filmmakers to allow fiction to precede fact. The best example is the medical thriller Contagion. The movie was released on 9 September 2011, the date on which the twin towers in New York collapsed in a heap. Both the events, one real and one virtual, were designed to stoke public panic.

The film dealt with the spread of a virus transmitted when sick individuals touched surfaces, leaving the virus behind for others to pick up, an eerie similarity with the early myths of the present coronavirus pandemic. In the movie, the virus originated from bats in the forests of China. The virus infected a pig, which was slaughtered and the chef who prepared it shook hands with a guest who became the first victim.

While the origins of Covid-19 are still not certain knowledge, bats around Wuhan’s wet markets were the initial suspects. In the film, transmission was amplified by people touching their face several times after touching door handles, elevator buttons and other surfaces. Post-pandemic guidelines in 2020, in an unmissable resemblance, instructed people not to touch their faces and sanitise door knobs, lift buttons and entire premises.

It is sometimes difficult to tell fact from fiction. Fiction seemed to have hijacked science and sensibility. The Contagion actors were drafted to persuade people during the Covid-19 pandemic to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour like frequent hand washing, social distancing and isolation. The mortality rate of the virus in the movie was 25 per cent to 30 per cent. An early paper in the Lancet also estimated mortality of the Covid-19 virus to be as high as 20 per cent.

The impact of social media and “misinformation” had also been scripted in the film first. A character in the movie narrates on social media about his recovery with an alternative remedy. This attracted 12 million followers and a heavy fine for the false claim. Another compelling similarity is the race for the vaccine, to avert the existential threat. Both in the film and real life, vaccine development broke all records and was ready within 12 months.

Fiction confined to films and books is indeed harmless. But when it starts influencing actual decision making, it raises eyebrows. Simulating imaginary situations but real-life responses to health emergencies can also be unsettling with some experts finding the exercise outrageously stupid while others smell a hidden agenda.

One such exercise was ‘Event 201’ conducted in October 2019, just a few months before the real pandemic hit us. This was hosted and supervised by philanthropist and amateur doctor Bill Gates specifically for bio-security functionaries associated with governments and government and non-government agencies.

The “war-game” consisted of four “tabletop” simulations of a worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Participants included high ranking members from the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, Bloomberg/John Hopkins University Population Centre, the CDC, various media houses, the Chinese government, a former CIA director, vaccine makers, finance and bio-security industry, and the president of Edelman, the world’s leading PR firm.

Event 201 was touted as a drill for “governments in waiting”. The participants would orchestrate the pandemic response discussed at the drill barely a few months later. The participants at the drill role-played members of a Pandemic Control Council, war-gaming a contagion. Drills included an array of psychological warfare techniques for pushing the official narrative, censoring dissent besides mask and vaccine mandates. It planned extending government’s authoritarian powers, extending draconian lockdowns, suspension of individual rights of assembly, free speech and fear mongering to ensure mass compliance.

Strangely, Gates later denied that Event 201 took place. In a statement to the BBC, he said, “Now here we are. We didn’t simulate this; we didn’t practise this, so in both health policies and economic policies, we find ourselves in uncharted territory.” This denial is hard to swallow as videos of the event are available!

The denial actually fuelled suspicion around Event 201 and led to conspiracy theories. Some of these conspiracy theories suggested that the organisers of the event had prior knowledge of the Covid-19 virus, and that the ensuing pandemic a few months later was not a coincidence. The pandemic, according to some of these conspiracy theorists, was engineered to enable vaccine manufacturers to reap windfall profit.

These extreme views were indeed rebutted by the organisers and Gates himself. They maintained that such drills were routine and part of training of decision-makers for emergencies and disaster contingency plans.

The Reuters fact-check team also questioned Johns Hopkins on Event 201 and asked if the event had ended up predicting the pandemic. In response, the Johns Hopkins Center gave an assurance that the mock scenario was only a drill to test ‘preparedness and response challenges’ following a real pandemic. They claimed that for the exercise they had modelled a fictional coronavirus pandemic and claimed they were not aware that a real pandemic was just round the corner.

Even as the dust was yet to settle on controversies around Event 201 and the pandemic that followed, another tabletop exercise named ‘Catastrophic Contagion’ was conducted on 23 October 2022 in Brussels, Belgium. This time the participants included 10 current and former health ministers and public health officials from Senegal, Rwanda, Nigeria, Angola, Liberia, Singapore, India, Germany, and— guess who—Bill Gates, co-chair of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation!

This tabletop exercise simulated an even more severe pandemic with far higher fatality than the Covid-19, this time also affecting young people and children. The exercise required participants to take quick decisions on the basis of incomplete information and uncertainty about the future. Shall we compare them with Valmiki, the sage who wrote the Ramayana before the events unfolded? Event 201 had the script ready before the start of the pandemic. Is the script, then, of the next pandemic titled ‘Catastrophic Contagion’, ready too? But real-life situations, more often than not, turn out to be a lot different than imagined by armchair generals and doctors.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman coined the term ‘thinking fast and slow’. Thinking fast is intuitive and effortless, while thinking slow is deliberate and calls for effort. The Covid-19 pandemic sharply illustrated the immense harm of intuitive thinking, ie. thinking fast, due to impact on the psychology of populations and key decision makers as a result of simulation exercises like Event 201, Catastrophic Contagion or popular movies like Contagion.

Each battle and each pandemic is different from previous ones just as one game of chess is different from the other even when the pieces are the same. Both wars and pandemics are serious business for real professionals and call for deliberate and slow thinking that processes the unique features. That is why armchair generals and tabletop health experts should perhaps limit themselves to script writing for popular movies.

Dr AMITAV BANERJEE, a retired army officer, is professor and head, community medicine at D.Y. Patil Medical College, Pune

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