A Germ of a Theory
There's nothing quite like a pandemic other than a war. I should say civil war, since diseases spread from neighbor to neighbor before the cross national borders. In what ways are war and pandemics similar?
- Identifiable adversary – there's a known enemy, whether a bug or a bomb.
- Existential threat – the enemy routinely demonstrates the capacity to kill you and your loved ones.
- Dramatic response from the state – governments adopt emergency powers in pandemics as well as in wars, telling people how to live their lives, what to eat and how and make decisions about whom to save and whom to abandon.
The similarity between these two situations is reflected in two-way metaphors: we fight wars on cancer and we want to wipe out the enemy, suggesting that the two form part of a larger system of understanding of existential threats. We don't use war metaphors with earthquakes – there's no war on tsunamis for the forces unleashed by seismic activity are well beyond human control for now.
As it turns out, I am not the only person making this comparison – earlier today, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950 to intervene directly in the US economy, calling himself a wartime president to boot (and I swear I wrote most of this essay before learning about Trump's decision). Wartime presidency looks much better for his re-election chances than millions of people getting sick and tens of thousands dying because of a creaky healthcare system. Electioneering aside, what both war and pandemics share in the 21st century is the perception of an existential threat that:
- offers the possibility of control and agency on our part and
- often due to mistaken or malicious agency on our part
In both cases humans mobilize technologies and institutions to address a problem that threatens to veer out of control. While the mechanics of fighting a disease is nothing like the mechanics of fighting a war – we don't shoot bullets at germs – we can reason about the two situations in similar ways. That's because the analogy between war and disease is at the level of structure; there are common patterns that can be identified and become tools for thought.
I like to classify patterns in terms of frames and models. A (mental) frame is an overarching perspective that helps us grasp an entire domain of interest – such as 'people are inherently good.' It frames the big picture. In contrast, a (mental) model is a specific pattern that helps us reason about a more fine-grained context: 'friends help each other in times of need.' Of course, if my friends are more likely to take advantage of me when I am suffering, they aren't good, so the model supports the frame.
In the case of war and pandemics a frame that helps us grasp the essence of war and disease without denying the substantial differences between the two – is the contagion frame.
The Contagion Frame
Mental models and frame are easy to grasp; all of us have the cognitive capacity to understand and use a mental model. Of course, that basic capacity can be greatly expanded by tools that refine the basic insight, just as there's a difference between number terms that are there in most languages and advanced calculus. But before we build those tools, we need to catalog the models and frames available to us.
The common sense behind contagion is that a small spark that could have been stamped out in retrospect – note the emphasis on 'could' – starts occupying territory and requires massive mobilization of institutional resources led by the state. In the process of doing so, the state and its citizens have to make tough moral choices about whom to protect.
The contagion frame has three major pieces, each one of which comes with a mental model that helps us reason about it:
- Spark – where did the conflagration start and why? Who was responsible for it? That spark could be an anarchist who shoots the archduke of the Hapsburg empire (which led to the first world war) or a virus that jumps from wild animals to humans. Mental Model: "Tinderbox." 🎇
- Spread – how does the conflagration occupy new territory? What does it take to get rid of the occupier? It could be airborne germs from an infected person's sneeze or a poisonous slogan that spreads from one rioter to the next. Mental Model: "Arms Length." 📏
- Suffer – who is more likely to be a victim of the spreading disease or armed violence? Do we have equal obligations towards everyone or do some people have more moral weight than others? For example: if you had to deliver life-saving drugs to one person in a pandemic, would you give them to a doctor or to a mother of young children? Mental Model: "Scale of Justice" ⚖️
These are questions and intuitions that arise in all situations that fall within the contagion frame. Why did Hitler invade the Soviet Union? Why did he sign a treaty with Stalin just before doing so? Where and how did the COVID19 virus jump from animals to humans? Switzerland tried to protect itself from the second world war by calling itself a neutral state. Worked for them, but only because they made deals with the Nazis. We can try preventing a pandemic by stopping all flights. Chances are it's too late and then we have to decide as the health system collapses around us: who is worth treating and who isn't?
We can make these life and death decisions on instinct or leave them to experts whose instincts are (presumably) backed by data. A third way is through the judicious use of frames and models – which is my preference since it's the only solution that can scale to a population as a whole.
Mental models aren't theories – they help us grasp a complex phenomenon, but are equally in danger of being misused. To use a Buddhist mode of explanation, mental models
- are contingent upon the world they seek to simplify and
- we have to be watchful of the causes and conditions in which they arise.
Consider the tinderbox model for how pandemics and forest fires start: yes, it's true that the virus jumped from a wild animal to a human and that bush fires in Australia start because lightning struck a dry patch. Understanding those factual circumstances is always useful, but can hide a deeper truth: why are human beings in constant contact with wild animals and why is the climate changing so that forests are dry and waiting to burn?
In both cases, the ultimate underlying cause is anthropogenic: deforestation, constant human encroachment and the capitalization of wildlife leads to wild animal markets in which viruses find an opportunity to jump hosts. It's because of carbon emissions, climate change and indiscriminate water use that droughts become longer and forests become dryer. In other words, it's because we have forgotten the dependent arising of human societies with respect to the rest of the nonhuman world that we are faced with the dependent arising of particular pandemics or forest fires.
For the same reason, we have to dig deeper into the call for social distancing. The further we stand from others, the less likely they will infect us; while taking a brisk walk today, I found myself stepping off the sidewalk several times in order to pass other pedestrians instead of brushing past them as I would normally do. But that's because I have the flexibility and the autonomy to distance myself from others and work remotely if I so desire. There are plenty of people who don't have that liberty or autonomy.
Consider the inhabitants of Dharavi, 700,000 of whom occupy 2.1 square kilometers of space, i.e., 3 square meters/person. Or put another way, if every inhabitant of Dharavi had a rigid circle of radius 1 meter (~ 3.2 feet) around them, they would collectively run out of space in the slum to park themselves. Which means the average distance between people in Dharavi is half the recommended social distancing protocol (CDC says ~ 6 feet).
This is the figure for the entire slum! Where can a Dharavi resident go to increase social distance? What's true of Dharavi is true of many (most?) poor Indians in one way or the other: if you're a driver, a maid or a construction worker, your livelihood depends on being close to other people, usually people who have power over your life. And not just poor people – the gendered hierarchy of India means that women have less autonomy and spatial freedom than men and they are more likely to be in enclosed spaces with other people.
Moral of the story: social distancing won't work for poor and vulnerable people in India and elsewhere. Chances are that if a few people in Dharavi get infected, it will spread very quickly to everyone else. I don't see any way to avoid that situation. We have to create health systems catering to a very different demographic than the recommendations coming from the CDC in the United States.
I started this essay by comparing war with disease, an analogy that's been stolen by the occupant of the White House. While I will never make money patenting that idea, the similarity between the two shows they are both types of system failure that follow the contagion frame of spark-spread-suffer.
The ongoing pandemic is an example of a planetary failure, i.e., the simultaneous failure of social and technical systems across the world. It's the new normal. Just this past year alone we have had worries about climate change induced fires and floods in both hemispheres, now we have a pandemic and of course, we have the ongoing tacit/explicit collaboration between authoritarian regimes across the world.
What's interesting is how the normalization of planetary failure also makes it less apocalyptic. It's no longer something that can be ignored either out of fear or out of neglect. The new reality needs new imaginations of life on earth and new models for how we will respond to situations halfway across the globe.
Much social imagination is circumscribed by the nation state – which itself is an accomplishment of another era; otherwise why should I, sitting in Bangalore, care about events in Bhopal? Information flows within national boundaries are taken seriously, included within everyday political discussion in tea-shops and Whatsapp groups. In contrast, international information flow is primarily left to technocrats and market analysts.
That situation is changing as a result of the Corona Virus outbreak and will continue with any number of other events whose impact crosses national (or even species) boundaries. I believe that good frames and models can help us grasp planetary complexity but at the same time, they have to be used with caution.