Corona, or to be more precise, SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19, have often been referred to as “the enemy” and many of those tasked with “fighting” the virus and the disease have often said “we are at war”. Although there are major differences between the Corona SARS-CoV-2 virus and our usual enemies, like the virus is not a living thing and it’s so small that it is invisible to except to electron microscopes (it is about one thousandth of a cell in size), certain advantages might be derived by attacking this “enemy” as we would our usual enemies.
Sun Tzu was not only a theoretician. He was also a battle-tested general. Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War” in 500 B.C. It is the oldest military treatise in the world and whose principles are still relevant today.
Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” dealt with thirteen areas of expertise:
- Laying plans
- Waging war
- Attack by stratagem
- Tactical dispositions
- Use of energy
- Weak and strong points
- Maneuvering an army
- Variation of tactics
- The army on the march
- Classification of terrain
- The Nine Situations
- Attack by fire
- Use of spies
So, what might Sun Tzu say about waging war against Corona?
Sun Tzu said there are five constant factors that must be considered in determining the conditions obtaining in the battlefield:
- Moral Law
- The Commander
- Method and Discipline
Sun Tzu stated that moral law causes the people to be in accord with their leader, so that they will follow him or her into battle regardless of the personal danger.
Unfortunately, the resource of moral law has been untapped by many leaders in our time, but the effect of moral law would be indisputable. It would mean the difference between chaos and concerted action. The interpretation of what is moral has changed over time and according to place, but I would venture the following interpretation: “moral” is what benefits the most people and harms the fewest.
If a political leader is perceived as serving his own personal interests or the personal interests of a select few, then he will have great difficulty in asking his people to sacrifice their own personal interests.
By “heaven”, Sun Tzu meant the celestial things and events (night and day, cold and heat, times, and seasons) that influence our actions and those of our enemy on earth. Applying this to SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19, we might interpret “heaven” to be the time of day we are most or least likely to be exposed by our behaviors to the virus, the impact of environmental temperature on the virus, the potential significance of body temperature as an indicator of Covid-19, the holidays and cultural or social events which cause us to congregate and spread the disease, and the seasonal impact on the virus and its epidemiology.
By “Earth”, Sun Tzu meant distances, great and small, risk and security, open ground and narrow passes, and chances of life and death. We might well apply these factors to social distancing, open and closed spaces, wearing masks and other protective apparel, and primary and secondary risks of exposure to and spreading the disease as well as primary and secondary impacts of the disease on different groups of people. Risk is not just the probability of something happening; it is also the impact that it will have if it does happen. The probability that you will be infected by SARS-CoV-2 is similar to the probability of infection by any other virus (around 5%) but the impact of being infected by SARS-CoV-2 is death for over 70% of people over the age of 70. Impacts from SARS-CoV-2 range from having no or only light symptoms, to moderate symptoms (like influenza), to severe symptoms causing irreversible damage to internal organs), to death. Even asymptomatic people can spread infection to others with differing impacts.
Sun Tzu expected the commander to possess the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness. What would he say about our current batch of political leaders, ministers, chiefs, and commanders?
I can only say that if the one in command is lacking in one or more of these virtues the battle will be lost before it begins.
Method and Discipline
Sun Tzu emphasized the importance of organizing the army into subdivisions in accordance with the goals, objectives, and tasks required to wage the war; the gradations of ranks among officers; the logistics and infrastructure needed to support the army; and the control of expenditure allocated to the military effort.
We might read this as follows: the leader sets the overall goals which will represent the measures of success; e.g., to defeat the enemy as quickly and completely as possible, while defending us from any and all enemy actions. The military commander accepts the goals set by the leader and breaks them down into objectives to be achieved and means of objectively measuring success. He then assigns those objectives to officers who will further break them down into tasks within time, budget, personnel, and logistic constraints, while facilitating and coordinating the operations among officers such that they do not interfere with each other.
In the war against Corona, who is the leader, what is the army, who are the officers, and who are the soldiers? The leader is the president, the prime minister, perhaps the state governor (in the case of the USA), or whoever or whatever is head of the government. The government might be a democracy, a monarchy, or a dictatorship. Each form of government has its strengths and weaknesses. The army might be one of the military arms of the country, a civilian segment of the economy (hospitals, government ministry, police, etc.), or a combination of both military and civilian segments working in concert. The officers might be military or police officers, but they also might be administrators, project managers, and doctors. The soldiers would be those on the front lines: the nurses, the paramedics, the lab technicians, the researchers, the social workers, the hotline operators, the ambulance drivers, etc.
Sun Tzu warned us that there can be no success without extensive planning and calculations. That is not to say that plans should never be changed or that recalculations will not be required along the way.
Sun Tzu said that wars are expensive and should be adequately financed before embarking on them. He went on to say that once war is declared, the commander should strike immediately without waiting for every last detail to be taken care of. He also said that there is no advantage in waging a long and protracted war. Finally, he said that the soldiers must be highly motivated and adequately rewarded for their efforts on behalf of the mission.
Interpreting for Corona is not much of a stretch. A war waged against Corona will also be very expensive and will require an extraordinary budget that will impact all non-essential line items, requiring sacrifices from every other governmental activity. All branches of government will be on an emergency footing. The soldiers and the people cannot tolerate such a state for long.
Attack by stratagem
Sun Tzu said that if you know your enemy and yourself, you will win a hundred battles; if you know yourself but not your enemy, you will lose as many battles as you win; and if you know neither the enemy nor yourself, then you will lose every battle.
To know yourself is to know your leader, your officers, your soldiers, and your citizens; to know their strengths and their weaknesses. To know your enemy is to know their leader, their officers, their soldiers, and their citizens; to know their strengths and their weaknesses.
To know ourselves, we must know which people have been exposed, which are infected, which are asymptomatic, which are pre-symptomatic, which are super spreaders, and which are more likely to require critical care. To know our enemy, we must know before an infected person infects others, which proteins and which genes differentiate it from our own cells, which antibodies are most effective against SARS-CoV-2, and how long can our bodies retain immunity against SARS-CoV-2.
Sun Tzu said that a good fighter first puts himself in a position where he cannot be defeated. Then he waits for an opportunity to defeat the enemy. Security against defeat implies defensive tactics. Defeating the enemy requires offensive tactics.
A good defense against SARS-CoV-2 might be a medicine that could ameliorate the symptoms and/or the impact of Covid-19. Minimal defenses or stop-gap measures might include wearing masks over mouth and nose, hand washing for 20 seconds, and/or maintaining social distancing of 6 feet or more.
A good offense would be a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2.
Weak and strong points
In seeking the enemy’s weakness, Sun Tzu said to rouse him and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself in order to find out his vulnerable spots.
With respect to Corona, we need to know the virus’ strengths (how long it can survive and under what conditions, whether it can strike multiple times, how it attacks us and how it hides from us) in order to know what we are up against. We need to know its weaknesses (how we can prevent its spread among us, how we can minimize the damage it causes us, how we can train our immune system to recognize it, what antibodies or other means can be brought to bear against it).
We can only accomplish this by research, tests, and more research and tests.
Classification of terrain
Sun Tzu wrote about which kinds of terrains (fields, rivers, mountains, valleys, etc.) favor the enemy and which favor you, and how to maneuver in each one.
When battling Corona, open spaces favor us and closed spaces favor the virus. Narrow passes may not allow for social distancing unless we go through them one at a time. Bodies of water do not appear to favor the virus. The virus is capable of remaining potent (virulent) on certain surfaces which, if touched, may allow a vector into our bodies. The virus may be able to float in the air for hours at a time (this has yet to be definitively proven).
Use of spies
Sun Tzu said, “what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and to achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.” He explained that such foreknowledge may only be obtained by spying.
To spy is to gain knowledge of the enemy. In the case of Corona, the spies are our researchers, lab technicians, epidemiological investigators and, yes, that piece of spyware you knowingly or unknowingly installed on your smartphone, which tracks your movements via GPS and correlates them with the movements of others who have been diagnosed with CoViD-19.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus can hide inside our bodies without causing visible or obvious symptoms for up to 14 days, while replicating and spreading its viral payload to others around us after only 4-5 days. If we only test people who complain of Covid-19 symptoms, they may already have infected quite a few others as many as 10 days before the test results were received.
IMHO we need to take the initiative and test everyone or test randomly, and provide test results (positive or negative) within an hour or less and with at least 90% reliability. Some people (care providers) will have to be tested several times per day.
Otherwise, we are just flailing our arms in the dark, unable to land a solid punch.