Journal of the virus year: Chapter 10

The “war against Covid-19” is a failure of intelligence

As I explained in Chapter 9 I have held back for some time from writing on the wider Covid-19 situation while my thoughts have been gathering. My remarks here have been mostly focused on the local situation, like the welcome recent exit of the British holidaymakers from Benidorm! When I began reading Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year in March (see Chapter 1), I was struck by his opening paragraphs and a comment about the media: he reminds us that – although there was printing – there was still no press in the plague year of 1665. (It was a bit like the stage of printing described by Victor Hugo in Notre Dame de Paris, where he uses the metaphor of “a flock of birds” for the leaflets that have a key role in the novel.)

While television is now the main medium for consumers of news, the printed media still largely set the tone for our news consumption. Witness the nightly TV reviews of the next day’s front pages, where political slants are compared, often by guest print journalists.

In the Covid-19 year 2020 the press debate has largely been about how governments are handling the crisis. In Spain we have a social-democratic PSOE government with a small coalition element of Podemos (Bolivarists), with their Covid-19 strategy broadly supported by the liberal/left press and criticized by the centre right and monarchist right-wing press. In the UK there is a Conservative government (or more accurately, a Brexit committee), with their Covid-19 strategy broadly supported by the right wing press (often foreign owned or with editorial views dictated by tax exiles) and heavily outnumbering the liberal/left press which is critical of the government’s handling of the crisis.

Much of the press comment becomes a competition to pronounce which country’s leader has the worst performance: i.e. who has killed the most citizens through their Covid-19 incompetence?

So our view of the way Covid-19 is being handled is determined on a daily basis by the pundits we approve of; and this can be compared to opposing teams of football supporters wearing their team colours and scarves. According to the liberal/left press in the UK, the prime minister (or increasingly his “Special Adviser” who is alleged to be making all the decisions) was responsible for the avoidable loss of elderly lives in care homes. Likewise, according to the right wing press in Spain, Pedro Sánchez was responsible for the avoidable loss of elderly lives in care homes. And the arguments and blame go on similarly about a whole range of other aspects of the Covid-19 crisis. (In the USA, there is an almost hysterical version of this same dynamic, in an election year with a situation involving the psychology and authoritarianism of the man who is still president for the next three months; but let’s not go there!)

What I have found curious – and I have not seen anyone refer to this – is that both in Spain and the UK there is a constant reference to the “war against Covid-19” but there is no governing coalition with which countries normally fight an actual war. Wartime coalitions pool the most capable minds across the political spectrum. That is a curious omission. The war metaphor is a very empty one. Or is it? In one regard, which nobody is talking about, it is a very apt figure: Covid-19 involves a huge failure of intelligence…

War is very often caused by a failure of intelligence. Not knowing what the other side has been planning. Not having up-to-date intelligence about the risks. The Falklands war in the 1980s was a classic example of this, but there are many more and you might argue that most wars fall into this pattern in the past century or more. So this is my main point. If we are “fighting a war against Covid-19” it is because the intelligence systems of major western states failed.

We should have seen this coming and there are highly paid people and well-funded intelligence agencies that are entirely unfit for purpose because they totally failed to put the pieces of information together and prevent the start of the Covid-19 spread in the west. It is this that should be our starting point in any enquiry: not the performance of politicians we oppose, whether of left or right, in a blame game by rival political supporters.

MI6 headquarters on the London south bank

Everyone – regardless of political allegiance – should be asking, where were the intelligence agencies? Where was MI6 while the situation in Wuhan was being hidden by Chinese intelligence? Think how many lives have been lost in the UK to Islamic terrorism (are we talking scores?) and then compare with the 50 thousand and more of Covid-19 deaths. Which intelligence might have saved more lives? We don’t even need to look at the figures, do we? It is a no-brainer. The most predictable threat to peoples and to states has been identified as a biological one for most of our entire lifetimes. It was always the main threat. This is not new. It is half a century since I was trained for nuclear, chemical & biological warfare in the forces. The threat of a viral hazard – whether inflicted by an enemy or accidentally released – has been up there as a prime threat since 1918.

The lie that “nobody could have predicted a pandemic” has been repeated for much of this year, to the point where we hardly question it. The only question you are supposed to ask is how well or badly individual political personalities have handled it. This is so wrong. I am not letting the failings of the politicians go: they deserve every criticism. My point is there is a wider failure: and that starts with intelligence and then extends into various failed institutions.

A very good example of this was the annual World Economic Forum (21-24 January 2020) where discussion was focused entirely on the threat from climate change. It was an opportunity to either boo Trump or applaud Greta Thunberg. There were even representatives attending Davos from Wuhan, China, which was in lockdown due to the Coronavirus outbreak. But the virus was not given any consideration at Davos, the place where the richest and most influential people in the world fly into a small airport and park a hundred private jets while gathering to debate climate change and predict the effects on the globalised world.

Also in Davos for the meeting was Harvard university historian, professor Niall Ferguson who says, “I asked why are we not discussing the impending pandemic from Wuhan.” (Ferguson is author of The Square and the Tower, 2018, a study of hierarchies and global power.) Ferguson had been travelling in south east Asia before Davos and everyone in that region had been talking about the fear of an imminent global pandemic, but at the World Economic Forum gathering his questions about that were treated as eccentric and instantly dismissed.

The WEF publishes an annual Global Risk Report presenting the major risks the world will be facing in the coming year. If you want to see what their actual predicted risks were when they launched their report (published 15 January 2020) there is a long and boring introductory video on their website where you can see what was in the original report. All the original focus was on climate change, water shortage and inequality: these were main factors that would affect the world in 2020. And this line-up of mostly middle aged white men in grey suits knew these things! When middle aged white men in grey suits speak – in faultless English and northern European gutteral accents – you know they are right!

In that video at the time they introduced these themes, a member of the audience asked (video timing 44.10) about the “SARS-like virus” that was spreading further afield from China and asked, “How ready is the world for a major pandemic?”

The Forum’s president, Børge Brende responded with a long and detailed explanation of the way China was reducing its carbon footprint (!) and playing its part as one of the two largest world economies. He finished by saying – almost as an afterthought – that he felt pandemic preparedness was perhaps a “global blindspot” and was something that governments should improve “in the coming years” (!) In other words signalling that he was not there to discuss such minor matters: climate change had been decided as the main mover of the world economy in 2020…

World Economic Forum’s president, Børge Brende (second from left) demonstrating how unfit is the WEF to make intelligent predictions about the global economy.

The blindspot was totally in the World Economic Forum here, self-evidently. In a one hour introduction to the “economic predictions” for 2020, the Coronavirus situation in Wuhan which had been reported in the world’s press for several weeks was given three minutes of consideration and the word “virus” was mentioned once. Three months later the January 2020 WEF Report (“world economic predictions”!) was updated to take account of the enormous effect of Covid-19 on the world economy!

Having given the matter much thought during these months of lockdown and disconnect, my overall thesis is the following. We are ruled by egotists and steered by wild-eyed political advisors controlling governments packed with compliant third-rate middle managers, and that is all we seem to focus on when we are looking for someone to blame. Don’t get me wrong: I would be delighted if a mob deposed the narcissist in Downing Street and mounted his head on a pikestaff on London Bridge, but there are bigger forces at work and we should begin to turn the searchlight on them. There are institutional puppetmasters in glass towers who only want us to look at the failures of elected politicians and I am not playing that game.

This was my first question concerning intelligence: how could the WEF – the body that claims to be the most significant for economic intelligence – get Covid-19 so wrong? I hope you have found this a very sobering thought. In my next reflections on intelligence, I will examine the failures by the security services and then look at health institutions’ catastrophic failure in pandemic intelligence.

Note: As misinformation on the Internet – particularly about Covid-19 – damages genuine discussion, I am open to any corrections you may offer in references presented here and they will be gratefully received.

Typos corrected 15.54, 06/08/20

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