NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump has defined himself as a wartime president, and many others around the world are using those same words. It is a description that raises an obvious question: What does the history and nature of war tell us about fighting a virus?
Although war should usually be a last resort in terms of politics, not facing an enemy determined to attack that constitutes an imminent threat can be deadly. The enemy started as a local outbreak in Wuhan, China, and turned into a global pandemic precisely because the Chinese authorities wasted precious weeks before confronting it. Chinese leaders initially concealed the outbreak and allowed millions of people to leave Wuhan, even when many carried the virus with them.
In the United States, there was also initially a general reluctance to go to war. This is not too surprising. War as a last resort is one of the principles of the “just war” theory, a set of ideas that emerged in the Middle Ages and made wars less frequent and violent.
The problem, however, is that to avoid the conflict it takes two and the virus was determined to create it. Postponing the decision of an offensive against the COVID-19 – considering a necessary war as optional – ended up being extraordinarily costly in terms of the lives lost and economic destruction.
When the leaders accepted that war was necessary, they soon realized that they lacked weapons. It is estimated that 12 to 18 months are still missing to produce a vaccine; antiviral drugs may be available sooner, but it won’t be soon either. As Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense, stated: “You go to war with the army you have, not with the army you want or would like to have later on.” The consequence is that in this war combat in the immediate future should try to frustrate the enemy instead of defeating him.
The best tactic available now is dispersal, offering the enemy less target. Relatively weak armies often employ this method, avoiding classic battles against more powerful forces. Dispersion, in current jargon, is social distancing.
The problem is that social distancing has been postponed in many countries, or is being applied unevenly. It is often said that speed kills, but when it comes to preventing or limiting a pandemic, delay is what kills. The best-performing countries against the coronavirus, such as South Korea and Singapore, acted quickly and decisively.
This war is also fought with a lack of defensive equipment. One of the most important tasks is to identify those who have been infected and trace their contacts. Both groups must be quickly isolated. This is the only way to understand the threat, to go through “the fog of war”, an expression attributed to the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.
But the studies needed to identify those who have been infected lack the necessary quality or are insufficient in most countries. Border closure can be useful (especially in the beginning, before the virus spreads in society), but it is not a panacea. Similarly, massive tests to detect those who have developed immunity to the virus, which is essential for people to get together safely, both for work and play, are not yet available.
The strategy should be to buy time until we are equipped to attack COVID-19 with antiviral drugs or, better yet, with a vaccine. To achieve this, dispersion and laboratory analysis are necessary.
The last question is when to end the war. Trump and many of his counterparts around the world are understandably in a rush to restart the economy. We and they must have enough discipline not to rush. We have to fight the blockade on the economic front by providing relief to workers and businesses until the war on the virus is largely won and we can begin to recover seriously. Ending the war prematurely will only extend its duration and increase its cost.
Much of the world entered this war in a situation close to that of unilateral disarmament. That can never happen again. Countries should have stocks of protective equipment and medical equipment, increase resources devoted to research “in peacetime” and the development of relevant therapies, and practice responses to pandemics at all levels of government. Too many doctors, nurses, emergency services, police, and firefighters – who work on the front line – sent into battle without armor. And too many victims lack access to health care that we all need them to have.
Countries must also embrace joint action. Just as coalitions are created to fight conventional wars, allies are needed to fight pandemics. We will have to recruit others to abide by the rules and comply with the rules related to reporting, fighting and containing infectious disease outbreaks. And rich countries will have to unite to strengthen the public health capacity of the poorest countries, not only for humanitarian reasons but also for their benefit. We are as strong as the weakest of us.
This war should not have surprised us, it was predictable and planned. Pandemics are not black swans, they are an inevitable part of globalization. They can start anywhere. This time, it was Wuhan. The next one may be Wichita.
And there will be a next one, if it’s not COVID-20, maybe it’s COVID-21 or some other pathogen. Gaps in borders and sovereignty can be opened, few things remain local for a long time. The challenge is to be prepared so that an outbreak does not become a pandemic, and a pandemic does not become a catastrophe.
Richard N. Haass is President of the Council on Foreign Relations. His next book, The World: A Brief Introduction, will be published on May 12. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eastern Herald.