Don’t all panic at once

There is a scene in Band of Brothers where, after a long period of arduous training under a sadistic strongly disciplinarian instructor, the guys are finally plunged into an intense action in Europe. To their horror the former instructor, now commanding officer, completely falls apart and starts issuing contradictory orders. Fortunately our hero takes over and saves both the situation and the back of the instructor.

I seem to remember from the film someone saying that until soldiers are actually in action, there is no way of telling who is going to succumb to that enemy within called panic. The ironic thing is that a primary aim of the kind of training that soldiers get is to turn them into fighting machines inured to panic by their familiarity with what they are about to face, and the deep-seated habits instilled into them about what to do. In Band of Brothers it turned out to be the very person most familiar with all the training material who cracked, whilst those he had trained stood firm – though that would doubtless have changed had a better commander not turned the tactical situation around.

I guess for comedic reasons a similar irony exists in the case of the Second World War comedy series Dad’s Army, in which it is the only man who has actually seen military service (though admittedly back in the Boer War), Corporal Dunn, who runs around like a headless chicken yelling “Don’t Panic!”.

Usually, though, as we all know from the business in Ukraine, it is well-trained and experienced troops who are able to stick to proven survival strategies. No doubt the individual unexpectedly reduced to panic exists in every theatre of war, but most routs occur when panic spreads amongst inadequately trained troops, the abandonment of key positions triggering even more acute danger and escalating military collapse.

The recent COVID Inquiry in Britain reveals a woeful catalogue of what can easily be described as panic. Politicians have admitted, or been cornered into admitting, that the unfamiliar and multifaceted situation they found themselves in led to a rabbit-in-the-headlights state, in which they were glad to be told (by whom is never quite clear) the best way forward. Their advising experts claim, or have been encouraged to claim, that they knew just what to do but weren’t listened to by the feckless politicians. One or two politicians, such as Michael Gove, have taken an intermediate position that they had (unspecified) friends who knew just what to do, but that neither the feckless politicians nor the appointed experts would listen.

As has been observed, critically, by many outsiders, all these characters seem to agree that it was an entirely novel situation and that they should obviously have locked down harder and sooner. But the truth is entirely otherwise. They are all acting like a fully-credentialed military instructor who claims he panicked because he was sent into battle unprepared.

We must not, ever, forget that the world, and all the relevant governments within it, were fully equipped with pandemic planning. At the global level, the WHO produced its most recent plan in 2019, which was tailor made for upper-respiratory virus pandemics from China, and specifically excluded, as of proven dis-benefit, “quarantining the healthy” (aka lockdowns), closing schools and businesses, and masking, with a clear positive policy of maintaining society’s normality as much as was humanly possible. Not only were these pandemic plans the fruit of a century of research and reflection, but they had been tried and tested successfully in many previous pandemics.

For a new Prime Minister like Boris Johnson to panic could well be a mark either of weakness of character or ignorance of the Pandemic Plans, or both. But it would have been the job of his medical and scientific advisors to act like a sergeant to a faltering trooper: “Remember your training, Lad – it’ll save your life.” In other words, they should have said to Boris, confidently, “Here is a cunning plan, Sire, proven by long experience and endorsed across the world. Take it home and read it, and we’ll decide a strategy in the morning.”

Given the bandying about of the “insufficient lockdown” trope it looks for all the world as if the problem was not that the training (ie the pandemic plan) was insufficient, leading to panic, but that contradictory plans were being shouted out, leading to paralysis. It beggars belief that what we were all hearing in the press at the time, ie that this was an entirely new virus (when it was just a Coronavirus almost identical to SARS-1), that it would infect everyone in an exponential fashion causing societal collapse, and so on, were actually believed by those experts with the government’s ear. They had read the Pandemic plans, but were busy constructing another one that contradicted known principles of virology and epidemiology that some of us were pretty familiar with. I’ll not go into where they got their novel strategies here, though all roads seem, increasingly, to run ultimately to clandestine US bioweapons agencies.

Amongst many other interesting aspects, an open-minded discussion of government decision-making is in this excellent video with Dr Clare Craig.

What doesn’t seem to fit the bill is the “general panic” explanation. If everyone was equally confronted with complete uncertainty, the Pandemic Plans having slipped down behind a filing cabinet somewhere in every country, then one would expect panic to have spread gradually within, and between, governments. Leaders would have been running about in all directions, with ministers briefing in contradiction of other ministers, nations taking diametrically opposed policy decisions, and most crucially (as Mike Yeadon and Bret Weinstein, to name but two, have pointed out repeatedly), they would have accidentally got a lot right by accident. Some panicking troops will find themselves they’ve jumped into an enemy gun emplacement, and chuck a useful grenade without stopping to think. As it was, everything was done wrong, and all at once.

Remember how it was – One day in March the WHO, Chris Whitty, the Prime Minister, and Dr Fauci, were all making reassuring statements utterly compatible with existing pandemic planning. And the next day, it seems, the whole world had turned through 180 degrees, imposed lockdowns, banned dissent, imposed masks, passed hundreds of pages of emergency legislation and, in short, ruined millions of lives that could have been saved by following the training.

Detailed explanation of that lockstep response, noticed by so many of us at the time, remains difficult even now, and has certainly been hindered, rather than helped, by the COVID Inquiry here. But this was not the isolated melt-down of a fully-trained soldier as in Band of Brothers, or the progressive collapse of a badly led force like that of Custer at Little Bighorn. This was the equivalent of a well-equipped army laying down their arms all at once at the first fusillade of the enemy, as if it were at a signal. That’s not panic, but something much less venial.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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