Many have asked themselves how policies so ineffective and yet damaging to so many people’s lives and liberties could have been put in place so quickly, and seemingly almost on a global basis, in response to the COVID crisis.
Part of the answer has been provided by an investigation by German journalist and author Paul Schreyer.
In an hour-long video, he tracks a series of pandemic simulation exercises conducted at the highest level over many years among the most influential industrial nations of the West.
Top officials were ‘primed’ to respond as they did, once the World Health Organisation declared the pandemic spread of a new coronavirus, SARS-COV-2, almost regardless of the nature of the virus or the degree of harm it was likely to cause.
This weakness can be seen as a huge obstacle to rational decision-making. It helps to explain how the views of thousands of doctors, scientists and others who have challenged the official, fear-based approach to the pandemic came to be ignored.
Schreyer maintains that political decisions during the crisis did not come out of the blue, but stemmed from a ‘war on viruses’ begun back in the 1990s, alongside the ‘war on terror’.
It was as though a fresh enemy had to be brought into being, following the end of the Cold War era in which the superpowers Russia and America confronted each other with immense and potentially suicidal armaments and military budgets.
‘I am running out of villains. I am running out of demons,’ said General Colin Powell in a 1991 newspaper interview. ‘I’m down to Castro and Kim Il-Sung.’ At the time he was the highest-ranking military official in the USA.
That was the context in which the fight against terror, including preparations to fight biological weaponry, began. A 1993 bomb attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City, attributed to Islamist terrorists, boosted demands for continued use of American military abroad, and a similar attack, though with mysterious origins, on a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 reinforced fears of a ‘shadow enemy’ within.
At the same time, dangerous biological research was being conducted at US facilities, said to be aimed at better understanding the threat that could be posed by a state or terrorist with a biological arsenal.
Colonel Dr Robert Kadlec, Biodefence Programmes Director at the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a 1998 Pentagon strategy paper:
‘Using biological weapons under the cover of an endemic or natural disease occurrence provides an attacker the potential for plausible denial. Biological warfare’s potential to create significant economic loss and subsequent political instability, coupled with plausible denial, exceeds the possibilities of any other human weapon.’
That same year saw the founding of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Civilian Biodefence Strategies, later renamed the Centre for Health Security. This institution has played a major role in the COVID pandemic, compiling, displaying and analysing data on a global dashboard used by media – for the most part, unquestioningly – all over the world.
And it was this centre that organised several important simulation exercises in the field of disaster response strategies.
The first, the National Symposium on Medical and Public Health Response to Bioterrorism, was held at Arlington, home to the Pentagon, in February 1999. Hundreds of delegates from ten countries took part.
Smallpox was the supposed bioweapon, and delegates were taken through a series of sessions simulating how an attack might be handled and problems that might arise.
How far could the police go to detain patients? How to proceed with vaccination? Should martial law be implemented? How to control the message going to the public? Public health issues were for the first time being treated as military problems, with the Department of Health becoming part of the US national security apparatus.
A similar exercise took place in November 2000 in Washington DC, this time using plague as the simulated pandemic.
Scenarios enacted in front of the high-level officials attending included: ‘The sight of an armed military presence in US cities has provoked protests about the curtailment of civil liberties … the question is, how do we enforce it, and to what degree? How much force do we use to keep people in their homes?’
A third exercise, called Dark Winter, held at a military base a few miles outside Washington in June 2001, simulated a full-scale smallpox emergency.
It brought in journalists from well-known media, including the BBC, to question the politicians and top-level officials so that they could learn the kind of issues that would arise.
Among the conclusions:
- We are ill-equipped to prevent the dire consequences of a bioweapon attack.
America lacks the resource stockpiles required for appropriate responses, including vaccines, antibiotics, and means of effective distribution.
- Forcible constraints on citizens may likely be the only tools available when vaccine stocks are depleted.
- Americans can no longer take basic civil liberties such as freedom of assembly or travel for granted.
On a fictional news channel created as part of the exercise, Kadlec announced: ‘The problem is, we do not have enough vaccine … it means this could be a very dark winter in America.’
When the real COVID-19 struck, Kadlec became the top emergency preparedness official co-ordinating the response from both the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the federal government.
Days after Joe Biden was declared winner of the presidential election, he warned of a ‘dark winter’ ahead, urging continued mask-wearing. ‘You might call it a coincidence, although you could also suspect that his choice of words was related to the exercise,’ Schreyer says.
The September 11, 2001 attacks brought home the terrorist threat to everybody in the global community. Proposed legal changes to extend state powers of surveillance met resistance in the US, but that disappeared following the so-called anthrax attacks in October the same year. Letters containing anthrax spores were sent to several news media offices, and to two senators who had opposed the changes.
‘To this day it is not clear who was responsible for those attacks,’ says Schreyer, who interprets them as ‘a signal that a certain red line should not be crossed’.
A month later, in November 2001, on the initiative of the US Government, a new international organisation was founded called Global Health Security Initiative (GHSI).
It was emphasised that every government was in danger of receiving a deadly pathogen, and there was a need to unite and jointly take action.
The participating countries were Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Britain, and the USA. The European Union also signed up to the initiative and the WHO was involved as technical adviser.
Health ministers and senior officials came together regularly to discuss bioterrorism and how best to co-ordinate a response.
In 2002 a further crucial step was taken: The group declared that the threat need not only be man-made, but might also come from nature, such as with a flu pandemic.
Emergency preparation was needed for both scenarios, on a global scale.
From then on, exercises were co-ordinated internationally. The first, called Global Mercury, convened in 2003, depicted an attack by fictitious self-inoculated terrorists to spread smallpox internationally to target countries.
A planning group for the exercise was led by Canada and comprised ‘trusted agents’ from all participating nations or organisations. Hundreds of people participated.
Another important exercise, convened in 2005, was called Atlantic Storm.
Many of the country representatives were either current or former individuals with governmental responsibility. The real-life Madeleine Albright, for example, former US Secretary of State, played the US President.
Key questions highlighted in the post-exercise report included:
- How should national leaders determine measures such as border closures or quarantine?
- If actions are taken that restrict the movement of people, for how long should they be maintained? How would they be coordinated internationally, and how would the decision be made to lift them?
The basic premise of all the scenarios, Schreyer says, was to highlight decision-making processes and competencies in a public health emergency.