Guest Post by Career Scientist Frank H. Sanders
In battles, there is a time-honored tactic that regularly brings victory to the side that employs it: the feigned retreat.
Here’s how it works.
Two armies clash on a battlefield. As the engagement proceeds, one side seems to be losing. Its soldiers gradually fall back in the face of their opponents’ onslaught. The next thing you know, they’re not just gradually withdrawing, but are in full-panic flight. Like the who as it turns out “has a mean streak in him a mile wide”) they start screaming “run away, run away,” as they scramble in what appears to be panic-stricken, full-tilt flight from the battlefield.
Unlike the Pythons, who really were trounced by their lagomorph opponent (“shut up and go and change your armor,” Arthur tells a humiliated knight after they’ve fled), a real army group that makes this move is very possibly engaged in what’s called a feigned retreat. The flight is real enough, all right. But then the apparent victors throw caution to the wind. They break their ranks and any semblance of order. They chase the runners as if they were prey, helter-skelter, on the run.
During this chase, the pursuers lose all sense of what’s called situational awareness.
Losing situational awareness under this circumstance is a prelude to death.
Because the next step in the feigned retreat is that, just as the pursuers think they’re going to massacre their enemy, the soldiers who were fleeing wildly suddenly regroup (or even run right past or through a group of their comrades who have waiting the entire time in ambush). They turn around, re-formed, and change the hunters into the hunted. They massacre the pursuers and win the day.
Feigned retreats were first described by Sun Tzu in The Art of War. (Paraphrasing here, his rather unremarkable advice was simply, “Don’t fall for this one; it’s a sucker play.”) They’ve been used ever since, to great effect.
My one point here being that feigned retreats are incredibly easy to fall for, with deadly consequences.
And my other point being that the thing that really gets people killed when they fall for a feigned retreat is their loss of situational awareness.
SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19 disease, is not a conscious enemy with a battle plan. It’s a protein shell that’s a vessel for snippets of ribonucleic acid (RNA). It cannot reproduce itself on its own (it has to hijack mammalian cells to do that), and thus isn’t even a living organism. It is nothing more or less than an inanimate, unthinking, uncaring, emotionless force of nature that we’ve unleashed on ourselves by screwing around too much at the zoonotic interface between civilization and wilderness.
Nevertheless, it’s not a bad metaphor to think of SARS-CoV-2 as an auto-replicating army that’s ranged against us. It is actively attacking us like trillions of little Von Neuman machines. (Johnny VN was a mathematician who knew what he was talking about.) Or like the dragon-teeth soldiers who came after Jason and the Argonauts (look it up—it’s a terrific little story).
We’re now pretty solidly dug-in to hold off this VN-machine, dragon-teeth army assault.
Our strategy is simple; it is defensive. It has to be defensive because we have no vaccine to actively forestall Covid-19 and no drugs to actively treat it. (Do NOT even try to respond with baloney about drugs that have been anecdotally used in small numbers here and there, have yet to be scientifically tested, and are not presently known to be either safe or effective.)
Entrenched in our self-isolation and social distancing, we are winning by reducing R0 (see my Pandemic 101 essay). The rates of infection in the US are decreasing, or at least not increasing as quickly as they were. We’re winning! Gradually, yes. But we’re winning!
When you’re dug in like we are, you have time on your side. Your opponent is gradually worn down. (In SARS-CoV-2’s case, our opponent is gradually failing as we decrease its R0.)People are now starting to say, Hey, can we “open everything up soon? Like by May?”
I’ll tell you here and now, if we do that in most parts of the country (maybe Seattle can start sooner), we will be falling for a feigned retreat.
If we stupidly break our ranks too soon, here and now, in the face of Covid-19 we will go down in death like the English did at Hastings in 1066. My simile to death isn’t a metaphor; it’s literal.
That October day, the dismounted English army formed a defensive shield wall at the top of a hill. The invading Normans on horseback kept throwing themselves at the shield wall. They failed repeatedly to break it. The English held tough, dug-in. They were winning. Time was on their side because they were the natives on their own soil.
The Normans were in big trouble. Time was not on their side. They were an invading force like SARS-Cov-2, operating on foreign soil with no support infrastructure. Their leader knew that time was on the side of the English. He knew that all the English had to do was hold their shield line and not falter, and they would win by running out the clock.
But then the Normans pulled a trick, twice. They performed not just one, but two feigned retreats. Both times, their cavalry trotted away from the English line like scared little boys. (“Run away! Run away!”)
Both times, the English lost situational awareness, broke their shield wall apart and chased after. (Jeez guys… really?)
Both times the Normans regrouped from their feigned retreat and massacred the pursuing English soldiers.
That day, after the second feigned Norman retreat, the Anglo-Saxon army came to an ignominious end, and Anglo-Saxon England with it, under a combined hail arrows from re-grouped, counter-attacking Norman archers and the lances of the Norman horsemen. The English king stood his ground close to the shattered shield wall that should have been his victorious redoubt; he died with an arrow in his eye.
Let’s not go down that way. It’s easy not to. What we have to do is maintain situational awareness and not fall for small initial roll-offs in Covid-19 cases and deaths.
We have to hold our shield wall as we continue to cut R0. We have to run new cases down to zero (or nearly so) and keep them there for a period of weeks. Otherwise, if we break ranks too soon chasing after some initial decrease in Covid-19 cas
es, the virus will re-group and counterattack by re-seeding itself in the population with fresh new cases and the exponential disease increase will take off again.
Something that is desperately needed to re-open our society as we ramp the number of Covid-19 cases downward is two types of widespread testing: Surveillance testing for active cases including people who don’t show symptoms; and antibody testing of blood samples (called serological testing) to see how many people have already have had it, and likely now have at least some immunity. (Coronavirus immunity in people tends to last a couple of years before it fades.)
We are now so far behind the 8-ball on testing that I don’t even know whether we can get up to speed soon enough. The testing situation has been a disaster, a national disgrace. As of today it continues to be a sad failure, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get fixed any time soon. Unfortunately the less testing we can do, the longer we have to defend our shield wall. And the more that millions of people will suffer, many unnecessarily, in a broken economy.
With or without testing, it’s a bad idea to get fixated on thinking that we can start running around again on some pre-determined, fixed-in-advance calendar date. We are not in control here. The virus is. We have to wait it out. When the number of new cases in a population has gone to zero or nearly so, and has stayed there for some weeks, then we can begin to relax the defenses somewhat. But still not totally. Not for a long while.
That means holding the line into whatever dateline the virus determines for us. For many places it may be June before we start relaxing a little.
Do know this, as analyzed exhaustively in an excellent article released in the journal Science just yesterday:
We will be dealing with both the initial pandemic burst and then with echo-like after-bursts for at least a year to come, maybe two years. That’s right.
I’ll conclude with a partial abstract of that linked article:
“It is urgent to understand the future of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. We used estimates of seasonality, immunity, and cross-immunity for betacoronaviruses … from data from the USA to inform a model of transmission. We project that recurrent wintertime outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 will probably occur after the initial, most severe pandemic wave. Absent other interventions, a key metric for the success of social distancing is whether critical care capacities are exceeded. To avoid this, prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022.”
My own advice: Maintain situational awareness. Don’t fall for a feigned viral retreat. Don’t break the shield wall prematurely and allow the virus to re-seed before it’s been vanquished. Doing so will only prolong our overall agony and increase our deaths. As the referenced article (above) shows, letting our defenses down prematurely and falling for a feigned retreat will actual cause more total damage to people and the economy than if we hold the line longer.