All’s Fair in War and Disease

Lost in the wilderness
Photographer: Stijn Swinnen | Source: Unsplash

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?

  1. Identifiable adversary – there's a known enemy, whether a bug or a bomb.
  2. Existential threat – the enemy routinely demonstrates the capacity to kill you and your loved ones.
  3. 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.

Photographer: Natasha Connell | Source: Unsplash

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.

Coronavirus coverage as of 3/15/2020. Heatmap by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University  - (IG: @clay.banks)
Photographer: Clay Banks | Source: Unsplash

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:

  1. 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." 🎇
  2. 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." 📏
  3. 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.

Dependent Arising

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.

Behind every phenomenon is a condition that makes that phenomenon possible.

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.

By Kounosu – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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.

Photographer: Nagy Arnold | Source: Unsplash

Planetary Failure

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.




Parikshit: grandson of Arjuna, ruler of the Kuru empire. Doesn’t take snakes seriously.

Janamejaya: son of Parikshit. Takes snakes too seriously. Siva: One of the trinity, presides over the end of times.

Surendra Sharma: Comic poet.

George Bush: American President.

George W. Bush: Another American President.


As we enter this itihasa, we see a sign saying “beware of men wearing snakes,” reminding us that Siva, the destroyer of worlds, wears one around his neck. What is the Mahabharata if it isn’t the chronicle of destruction in eighteen days, the bookend to genesis which only took seven? I know that the bible treats the end of days a little differently, for once the world ends there’s no new beginning, but we Hindus are never that absolute in our judgments. Seven warriors and one god survived the great war. Their world limped along until the god was shot through his toe.

The Jaya opens to a bucolic scene of sages sitting in tranquility, waiting for the suta to recount the great story. Peace reigns over the earth, although, as is usual with the Mahabharata, violence isn’t far away. The itihasa is recounted by a famous suta, a bard who heard it during another gristly event, a sacrifice of a world within a world. A sacrifice caused by the folly of a king who didn’t read the sign at the door. What was Parikshit thinking, hanging a snake on a meditating sage? Then as now, a man in deep meditation covered with termites and surrounded by snakes would have been a strangely serene sight. Why disturb that stillness? Why would a king break the peace and awaken the earth’s fury?

Kings have always thought themselves invincible. Even in an alien forest a king expects his due from beast and man. A king, as I see him, is a prototype, an icon of humanity’s victory over the earth. Before kings, there were tribal chieftains and warlords but they didn’t command the material resources and the firepower to subdue the forests. It was kings and their empires who created civilization by clearing forests and building palaces and playgrounds.

The era of kings has ended, being replaced by a diffuse form of power that we call democracy. Presidents and prime ministers rule in the name of the people. Contrast Asoka’s stupas that proclaim his majesty in first person singular, “I, Piyadassi…,” with the Indian constitution, which equally majestically says in first person plural, “We the people of India…” The prototype has done its duty, to be replaced by the assembly line. The sovereignty of the king has been supplanted by the sovereignty of the people. Who are these “people”? We don’t really know, but we are mostly content referring to them as society. “Society” is one of the viral terms of the modern era, with all its charms of elections and newspapers, but in our social state we have forgotten the original assertion of power over the earth, of the king who isn’t afraid of men wearing snakes.

The king may have more individual power but the factory has far greater collective force. Free markets exert control at a scale that Alexander couldn’t even imagine. Having forgotten the prototype from which it was stamped, society takes its dominance for granted, building roads and skyscrapers, lumping tree and snake and toad and deer into the catch all phrase natural resources. In our amnesia, we live blindly between two abstractions: society and nature, one the guarantor of rights and responsibilities and the other the energy source for all our exploits. Jaya talks about this dominion again and again.

Back to Parikshit; we can forgive him, for he was thirsty and hungry. Hungry men are liable to commit hasty acts. The suta tells us that Parikshit paid for his irritation with his life. The sage’s son cursed the king, consigning him to death by snakebite. If that was all, the story would have ended even before it started, as it would be if you or I had been bitten by a snake and died on the way to the hospital. The Jaya is wiser in the ways of power; it knows that one bite leads to another. Janamejaya desired revenge, not just on the snake that bit his father but on all snakes.

The Mahabharata is replete with sons taking revenge for their father’s tribulations. At the very end of the great war, another sage’s son almost ends the world outright by unleashing the greatest weapon of all. It took a wily god to keep the world spinning. That sage’s son was known as a second Siva, having one fourth of Rudra in him. Beware of men wearing snakes!

We will deal with his anger later.

I was in college when the first president Bush started the first gulf war. While my memory of that war garbles scenes of burnt out Iraqi tanks, refugees streaming out of Baghdad and Mosul and Colin Powell talking to reporters, I vividly remember an event a few months later. It was the October of 1991. The cold war was over. India was changing. On campus, the usual anglocentric crowd wasn’t as influential as before. For the first time, the cultural secretary was someone who spoke Hindi rather than English. Under his influence, the annual college festival removed one of the Wodehousian public school rituals from the festival roster and replaced it with a hasya kavi sammelan, a gathering of comic poets.

We attracted some of the best Hindi comic poets to the meeting. I was told that getting them from the train station was quite the ordeal. With a few hours to kill on the train ride to Kanpur, some of them had started drinking and were tipsy by the time they disembarked. An impromptu poetry competition started on the platform as they egged each other into delivering the best railway poem. The students in attendance had to extricate the traveling bards from their fans and spirit them to campus in time to entertain the paying customers. The mood on campus was boorish that cool October evening as we sat down to listen to comic poetry. The first few poets were unmemorable but when Surendra Sharma came to the stage, I took notice. As a child, I used to hear him on TV, poking gentle fun at politicians on the single Doordarshan channel, well before soap operas and news shows and a channel for every fetish.

Sharmaji started slowly in his sing-song voice, but then picked up steam.

Let me tell you something:

It’s come to my notice that

There’s been a war

Between America and Iraq

I heard on the radio

The Americans

Fought fought and fought

All the way from the border

To Baghdad

I heard on the radio

When the fighting ended

And the guns were down

Three hundred Americans

lay Dead

I asked myself:

What war is this?

In my country

Three hundred people die

When there’s a fight

At the cigarette shop

Indeed, a year after he said those words riots broke out at paanwala shops across North India as vandals tore down a medieval mosque with the intent of replacing it with a temple. Many more than three hundred people died in that battle.

Bush won the war but didn’t take out Saddam. He should have learned from Hollywood; Rocky wins only when he delivers a knockout punch. Without the knockout under his belt, Bush lost the presidency in 1992. It was left to his son to take revenge, starting the second war under the flimsiest of pretexts. Dubya rejected his father’s patrician veneer but he captured Saddam and won a second term.

I think Surendra Sharma would have created even more comic relief out of the son’s war. He would have written three poems between the train station and the campus. What Sharmaji left out in his poem, though he must have known quite well, is that at least half a million Iraqis died in the first gulf war and the sanctions that followed. As for the second war, the full accounting is yet to be done but the ratio of American to Iraqi deaths is at least 1:100. Janamejaya would have appreciated the ratio. The Jaya is first recounted at the sacrifice Janamejaya organized to kill all the snakes in the world. He too wanted to avenge his father.

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