Ask This General

Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack {Ret.}

COVID-19 has awakened the most primordial fears and concerns within most of us. It is stealthy, contagious and lethal. It is statistically certain to kill a proportion of our population. It has no borders, no antidote and can spread as fast as we travel. Fueled by 24/7 media coverage, this pandemic has focused us existentially in a way that only a nuclear crisis could.

Despite current sorrows and hardship, has its malignant arrival now actually done mankind a favor?

In 2005, concerned by the recently concluded SARs pandemic, my U.S. Army 66th Military Intelligence Group in Darmstadt, Germany, conducted a “what if” tabletop exercise about how to survive and manage during a Spanish Flu type outbreak in Europe. Beforehand, we handed out dozens of Gina Kolata’s highly readable book, “Flu,” to our officers and senior enlisted.

We then brainstormed how the several thousand soldiers, civilians and dependents in our bases and housing areas would ride-out such a pandemic if it were to hit us internally or infiltrate first into the German community that surrounded our installations.

The fundamental question was how would our personnel and families survive yet subsist and conduct mission within this challenged ecosystem?

We worked on thorny issues that included both guarding and quarantining our facilities from a potentially anxious local population with whom we coexisted and had an excellent relationship, and how to quarantine house-by-house, barracks by barracks if the pathogen spread within our fences. Acquiring foodstuffs and basic supplies, beyond those peremptorily stored, from a wounded military and domestic supply chain was a major concern — we recommended that each dwelling keep an in-house survival stock. We talked triage, grief management and in the worst-case took a macabre look at setting up an on-site field morgue in a gymnasium. It was a sobering exercise, well worth it for stretching some realistic thinking out of the unthinkable.

Has COVID-19’s onslaught created an opportunity to focus science and resources to preempt and ameliorate inevitable future outbreaks that could be even more contagious and virulent, as was the case with so-called Spanish Flu in 1918-1920?

The grim reaper that ravaged the 1919 world — with a minimum 50 million dead among a population just one-quarter the size of ours today — was also a virus. Little-known is the fact that it came in two waves, a first, less lethal strain, in the summer of 1918, and then a horrific mutation less than a year later that was indiscriminate in its killing.

Unlike today, the most vulnerable population then was fit young adults.

In the U.S. its dormant pathogen, spread by returning WWI doughboys, blossomed at Ft. Riley, deep in our Kansas heartland. Somehow, over early transportation, especially ships and railroads, it spread via pulmonary contagion — in other words, people breathed and coughed on each other, while leaving droplets on multiple surfaces — first across the world and then through our country. Sound familiar?

After scourging the planet, it disappeared into the hothouse of spent, metastasizing pathogens. This, as the hopefully permanently eradicated smallpox has shown, is the most transmissible form of contagion. Highly lethal Ebola is more difficult to spread — by direct fluid-to-fluid contact, such as blood.

We must take advantage of the focus this current pandemic provides and do the additional governmental and community brainstorming with essential preparations for a worst-case outbreak.

The panicked run on our stores and supermarkets and political finger-pointing show that we really haven’t thought this through beyond higher-level homeland security, medical and first responder communities. While unlikely, what would happen if this pathogen returns near-term in an even more virulent form?

Despite numerous personal tragedies today, this outbreak presents an opportunity for all Americans — in concert with our global community — to apply far-sighted, preemptive thinking and action against future pandemics whether natural or man-induced.

Like a monster hurricane, earthquake with tsunamis or — God forbid — something hideously nuclear, we must societally prepare for “the big one” within the pathogen world. COVID-19, in its present form, appears not to be that. But it is a clarion-call for future action now.