2020 Rhymes With 1942: A national scramble.

If “History never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes.”, attributed to Mark Twain, then this year (2020) rhymes a lot with 1942, our first year of WWII. That war’s first year was, in hindsight, a shambles of fear, mobilization chaos, military missteps, and emergent leadership. We began a moral descent into the obscenely violent, making soldier and sailor shredding decisions as combat atrocities enraged our better angels. The war permanently changed us. We made unimaginably hard choices as the slaughter wore us down. When WWII was over we counted 405,399 deaths and 1,076,245 total casualties. To date (Oct 18, 2020) the CDC counts 211,390 confirmed or probable COVID-19 related deaths, recognizing most deaths are actually comorbidities and not the virus itself. 200K is still a big number — about half the number of battlefield wounded in WWII.

Given the size and scale of the COVID-19 response — a war size endeavor, there are similarities with our last true national conflict, WWII. Early on, we did not understand the size and scope of what we faced. A few, politically powerless subject area specialists — pre-war planners in the 1930’s and a few epidemiologists most recently, correctly sketched some scenarios. it would take actual casualty rates and widespread community impacts to get our undivided attention. Once the war gripped our attention, our initial planning and tactical execution was abysmal, stumbling in the fog of battle. For example, our first efforts in mechanized warfare in Operation Torch in North Africa, were appalling. When COVID-19 ambushed New York City, Governor Cuomo stupidly sent contagious patients back to hyper-high risk senior care facilities (essentially COVID-grenading them). .

WWII mobilized almost every productive person, men and women, into economic activity. It changed the employment landscape for generations. COVID-19 social distancing requirements has shattered the economy. It has been so lethal and disruptive the new normal will be telecommuting.

What not to do? Make everything political since this is an election year.

What to do? Colonel John Boyd offers the way forward. His seminal work on the OODA Loop is the best way to navigate our COVID-19 response:

OBSERVE the environments, such as the virus itself, populations, comorbidities, always careful to separate correlations from causations.
ORIENT our response capabilities to minimize the virus’s impacts.
DECIDE what the best course of action it.
ACT with focus.

We must execute this OODA Loop as fast as possible, in all appropriate environments, obviously in hospitals, schools, homes, localities, states, and at the federal level. Each environment will have a different loop experience. Success with come with sharing what we learn without political distortion. The tactics and decisions we make early in this battle will be found wanting as we learn. We must grade ourselves on how well we improve our COVID-19 response.

There will be heartbreaking decisions to make, the magnitude of which will increase as more citizens are impacted. Ultimately, we must be willing to accept some level of casualties to save the lives and futures for the most citizens. We must balance the welfare of all of us against the risks of the relatively few.