Pandemic Drill: Unanswered Questions

Drill.

What comes to your mind when you hear this word? A fire drill? An earthquake drill? A bomb drill?

How about a pandemic drill for a change?

Crimson Contagion was one such drill. Conducted by the United States of America, this exercise ran for about 8 months from January to August in 2019, based on a scenario that can very closely be related to the new coronavirus SARS-COV-2.

To name others, 2005 Hanoi Flu Drill, 2004 Yolo County Drill, 2016 Exercise Cygnus in Britain.

Not only simulations, but we have also had hours and hours of long discussions on how to respond during a pandemic. Many papers have been written, ideas submitted, solutions suggested. Again to name a few, Event 201, Clade X, Dark Winter, Atlantic Storm, etcetera.

Yet, if we look at the global response to COVID-19, it is a mere catastrophe. We failed, we screwed up.

According to WHO stats, as of 9th May, over 2,60,000 people have died, more than 38,00,000 have been confirmed infected.

So, the question to ask is ‘Do drills really help? Can they make us better prepared?’

Let’s begin from the scratch, looking at what is a pandemic drill, how to simulate a pandemic, why such drills are not conducted frequently, their impacts on the economy as well as preparedness, and lessons learned from them.

Or rather lessons not learned, not implemented. Period.

Dr. Baruch Fischhoff from Carnegie Mellon University says, “The problem is not that governments don’t conduct pandemic drills, but that they don’t act on their lessons.”

Just like any other drill, the definition of a pandemic drill is pretty much the same — it is a simulation exercise where you respond to a hypothetical outbreak. But what is different in a pandemic drill is to think of what factors to keep in mind, whether is there a robust checklist?

It can be tiresome to think about the key factors for a hypothetical outbreak. Because unlike a fire drill, a pandemic drill can have a much greater number of variables. Therefore, an ideal simulation of an outbreak is near to impossible.

Eric Holdeman, Director of Center for Regional Disaster Resilience (CRDR) says, “There are going to be surprises as every disaster is different.”

Crimson Contagion exercise in 2019 simulated a virus outbreak in China which was brought to America by air travelers and gradually infected and killed millions of Americans. Sounds familiar now, right?

The current tussle in the United States between Governors and the President outlines how difficult the situation can be in a drill as most people might be confused about what their job is since it is not a real-time scenario or something actually happening.

The New York Times reports (on Crimson Contagion), “The draft report, marked “not to be disclosed,” laid out in stark detail repeated cases of “confusion” in the exercise. Federal agencies jockeyed over who was in charge. State officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and states went their own ways on school closings.”

Another one, code-named Exercise Cygnus took place in October 2016 and involved all major government departments, the NHS and local authorities across Britain, but its findings have yet to be published.

The Telegraph reports, “A senior former government source with direct involvement in the exercise said they were deemed “too terrifying” to be revealed. Others involved cited “national security” concerns.”

A more challenging scenario will be to conduct a drill in a slum area or an area with high population density, high poverty, and very low literacy.

Dr. Fischhoff, who was a part of the 2005 drill on H5N1 flu (bird flu) in the United States says, “Science shows that if you know your audience and you know your material, you can explain most things to people.”

Separately, not only governments but how can the corporate sector help in carrying out efficient drills where plans are usually designed for localized threats — like fires, bombs, earthquakes — that affect the infrastructure. Once the event is over, the recovery can begin. But in a pandemic, things are different. The beginning of the recovery process is uncertain.

So, how much can it cost to a company during the drill period since a pandemic drill can last much longer than a fire drill?

According to Holdeman, who is an emergency manager, it depends on where those companies are physically located, and it’s not only the survival of the employees but it’s the survival of the economic model that they have.

At last, we come back to our question. “Do drills help?” The answer is not known.

“A plan is nothing. Planning is everything.”

“Just because there’s a 100 years difference between these two pandemics, doesn’t mean it’ll be a hundred years before we have the next. It could happen tomorrow”, CRDR Director Holdeman adds.

He further says, “It might not be next year, maybe 10 years from now. And if it’s 20–30 years from now, we’ll be caught flat-footed again because the leadership will have changed and the priorities shifted. Making money out of the disaster will once again be the priority, unfortunately.”

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