Although most of us have been caught by surprise, some in business and government circles have been preparing for just such a pandemic for a long time. On October 18, 2019, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the World Economic Forum, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation together convened a group of fifteen participants from leading industries and global institutions to participate in a fictional pandemic exercise entitled “Event 201.” This invitation-only “tabletop exercise,” a term typically used for wargames, occurred at the Hotel Pierre in New York City.
After the day-long exercise, the consortium produced several high quality videos of their deliberations. “Event 201” has six segments: an 11-minute “highlights” video and five additional segments of about an hour each on 1: Countermeasures, 2: Trade and Travel, 3: Finance, 4: Communications, and 5: Hotwash and Conclusion.
Key participants at the table were representatives of the Johns Hopkins Center, the Gates Foundation and the World Economic Forum, which were the institutions sponsoring the exercise. The corporate and government participants’ names and affiliations are below. (Governments also conduct their own simulation exercises; the press recently reported on a Trump Administration drill called “Crimson Contagion.”)
Missing from Event 201 were legislators; representatives of small and medium-sized businesses; labor; social media; religious leaders; and civil society unaffiliated with intergovernmental and corporate organizations. In short, the participants were a heavyweight group of corporate executives, policymakers, and health officials. Left out were representatives from many sectors likely to be hardest hit by such a scenario.
The participants included:
- Latoya Abbott, Risk Management & Global Senior Director Occupational Health Services, Marriott International
- Sofia Borges, Senior Vice President, UN Foundation
- Brad Connett, President, U.S. Medical Group, Henry Schein, Inc.
- Christopher Elias, President, Global Development division, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- Tim Evans, Former Senior Director of Health, World Bank Group
- George Gao, Director-General, Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention
- Avril Haines, Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency; Former Deputy National Security Advisor
- Jane Halton, Board member, ANZ Bank; Former Secretary of Finance & Former Secretary of Health, Australia
- Matthew Harrington, Global Chief Operations Officer, Edelman
- Martin Knuchel, Head of Crisis, Emergency and Business Continuity Management, Lufthansa Group Airlines
- Eduardo Martinez, President, The UPS Foundation
- Stephen Redd, Deputy Director for Public Health Service and Implementation Science, US CDC
- Hasti Taghi, Vice President & Executive Advisor, NBCUniversal Media
- Adrian Thomas, Vice President, Global Public Health, Johnson & Johnson
- Lavan Thiru, Chief Representative, Monetary Authority of Singapore
Yesterday’s Simulation Mirrors Today’s Reality
Coincidentally, the participants addressed a simulated global pandemic from a coronavirus that initially showed up in bats, then pigs, and finally jumped to humans before spreading rapidly around the world despite the players’ best efforts. The simulation imagined no available vaccine. In the background, rhythmic music pulsated in a minor key.
The pandemic scenario had the following parameters:
The scenario ends at the 18-month point, with 65 million deaths. The pandemic is beginning to slow due to the decreasing number of susceptible people. The pandemic will continue at some rate until there is an effective vaccine or until 80-90 % of the global population has been exposed. From that point on, it is likely to be an endemic childhood disease.
The organizers pulled vignettes from the five plus hours for the “Highlights” below.
The participants first address travel advisories and bans as they learn that travel industry revenues have dropped 45%. The World Bank Group representative explains that to rely on the United Nations in such a situation would be “delusional.” The world must turn to the private sector for “efficient leadership.” The Gates Foundation representative notes that only the private sector has the knowledge to negotiate the complex supply chain issues, underscoring the need for a “new kind of public-private collaboration.”
The participants learn from a news report that the stock market has fallen 20-40%. The discussants wonder if there are institutions that they “cannot allow to fail.” They see governments as the best source of financing and discuss tax breaks and subsidies to “escalate entrepreneurship.” The U.S. CDC representative adds that “it’s really a war footing we need to be on.”
Disinformation and Misinformation
Next, the participants tackle the question of intentional “disinformation” and accidental “misinformation.” They note that “limited internet shutdowns are being implemented to quell panic.” They worry that “misinformation is undercutting efforts to control the panic.” The representative from Edelman, a global PR behemoth, notes that social media companies must now step up as “broadcasters” and no longer just see themselves as technology platforms. They must “counteract, if not flood the zone” with accurate information based on partnering with “the scientific and health communities.” The representative of the Monetary Authority of Singapore wonders whether governments might not step up their enforcement actions against “fake news.”
By contrast, the private sector banker at the table remarks that it is “neither practical nor desirable” to shut down information, but agrees that the “flood strategy” is promising, capitalizing on “trusted sources of information.” The banker also questions whether there might be a technological answer to the problem, perhaps implying online censorship.
Effects of the Pandemic
In the video epilogue, the narrator states that 65 million people died in the first 18 months. While the numbers at first seemed controllable, the disease spread to densely populated, impoverished megacities where the death toll exploded. Within six months, cases occurred in nearly every country, and the “global economy was in a freefall.” She explained that the economic effects “lasted for years, perhaps a decade.” But even more significantly, she outlined that the societal impact – “loss of faith in government, distrust of news, breakdown of social cohesion – could last even longer.” Finally, she asked if we could have done anything differently, and answered, “yes.” She concluded, “Are we as a global community now finally ready to do the hard work to prepare for the next pandemic?” …