Scorched Earth

Is an epidemic like a war?


  1. You have an identifiable enemy that is killing you.

  2. You have reasonably clear and achievable objectives. To be accurate, the USA has not fought with clear and achievable objectives for several wars now, but that’s because we’ve been idiots.

  3. You need collective action to achieve those objectives.

  4. Some of your people are going to die, and a lot are going to suffer, and the means you devise for the “fight” will cause some suffering, lots of opportunity costs, and probably some deaths.

  5. Reaching your objectives requires money. The more your economy is crippled, the harder it will be to reach your goal—and you will have additional deaths because people rely on that economy. For the USA that can mean crippled transportation systems that don’t provide cities the food/fuel/medicines they need; for a poorer country that can mean that farmers starve because the army has confiscated their crops.

  6. ”The enemy gets a vote.” You have to be ready to adjust your plans.

  7. You will do unhappy and unjust things: seizing goods, locking people up (“quarantine” comes from a 40-day detention)–and in war killing people.

  8. Your means need to be commensurate with the threat. Scorched-earth may be an appropriate tactic when Germans are invading the USSR, but it wouldn’t be appropriate if Mexico were invading the USA.

  9. Some people will get rich off the new requirements, whether drug or ammo manufacturers. You may have to intervene to keep this from getting out of hand, but you need them to benefit to keep supplies coming. “Useful profiteers.”

  10. Some people will try to use emergency powers to enrich themselves or entrench themselves in control. “Evil profiteers.” The tools and restrictions intended for defeating the enemy can be turned against your own people.

  11. Internecine quarrels about means and promotions and whatnot will be ugly, cause a great deal of damage, perhaps lose you your war—and are unavoidable.

  12. You need accountability for the results. If marching men out of the trenches into no-mans-land just gets them machine-gunned, somebody needs to be told to stop that.

  13. Wars are full of lies trying to nudge the population, cover up screwups, and prevent panic.

  14. You have to make decisions without enough information.

  15. You are afraid. Too much fear is bad–you lynch Germans during WW-I or fail to press on against the Confederates at Yorktown. Too little and the Barbarossa plan catches you by surprise.

  16. You can lose liberties for a time–forever if you aren’t careful.


  1. There is nobody who can surrender. You can kill enough human enemies to make them stop whatever they were doing. You can’t kill all the viruses. Smallpox was an exception—it was easy. Ebola is hard.

  2. As a consequence of the above, either the infectious agent or the treatment will keep on killing some number of your people forever. If you can reduce the rate to something small, your emergency is over. 0 deaths is not possible with dangerous disease.

  3. Everybody dies. You can defeat one foreign enemy, but one of the domestic ones (cancer, heart disease, murder) is going to get you sooner or later. The temptation for mission creep and battling the next disease (“it’s almost as dangerous!”) will probably be overwhelming.

  4. In a war, if you didn’t have a dedicated enemy when you started, you do now—you can’t just say “Oopsies” and stop. If you find a pandemic to be less of a problem than you thought, you can “just stop.” The hard problem will be getting the powers-that-be to admit they were wrong.

  5. Against an epidemic, your tactics will always partake of “scorched earth,” damaging your economy and future. In wars, that’s only sometimes true.

Yes and No

  1. It depends on the intensity. A mild disease is more like the random Muhammadans going on solo jihads in London. You can let the existing systems (police in one case, medical in the other) take care of the problem. A more dangerous disease is comparable to them being organized and funded, as with 9/11. You need to bring new tools to bear on the problem. Ebola would be like an invasion.

Extreme cases sometimes help define the boundaries of a problem.

Imagine an airborne virus with a 14-day incubation period, of which the last 4 days are contagious. It produces a hemorrhagic fever, with a 95% fatality rate. Suppose this breaks out in Brazil.

What should our reaction look like?

All travel to/from South America is frozen; not even citizens are allowed in if they’ve been there. Given the “4-day” asymptomatic contagious period, it may already be too late to stop it reaching Europe and the US, though it may take a few days to figure that out.

Divide the nation into small zones–NY metropolitan area, LA, etc–defined by the ease of internal traffic that you probably can’t stop from outside and the ease of blocking outgoing traffic. Lock down transportation between the zones–not even the military move from zone to zone. Shoot border crossers.

Inside a zone the local governments will have to lock down activity, and actively seal off infected areas. Remember the “weld the doors” claim from Wuhan? Plenty of people will die from lack of medicine or medical care, or even food, but 95% fatality is worse.

I wrote “4 days.” But are you sure if will always be exactly 4 days, and not sometimes 2 and sometimes 6? Your quarantine needs to be expansive, just in case.

Once it is spreading, count yourself lucky if only a third of the people die. The economy goes to hell, of course, but laissez faire would be worse. Remember what happened when European diseases hit the AmerIndians.

Carelessness is deadly.

Try another extreme. A plague, air borne, kills about 0.01% of the very old, though it sickens many.

There’s no emergency. Ordinary voluntary public health measures suffice. No new rules. It would be an overreach to try, since this is well within normal problems, and it turns out there’s no way to keep people from dying. This is more analogous to self-defense or police work than a war. Carelessness is no more than usually harmful.

Like most diseases, COVID’s danger lies between the extremes.

Granted, harmlessness may be in the eye of the beholder. I had a much younger friend die of the flu a few years ago. A disease that afflicts the very old won’t generate the same worry as one that afflicts children or pregnant women. And I would predict grave disagreements about the seriousness of a disease that only struck legislators.

Who gets to decide how serious a problem is, and what kind of information do they need? I have a strong impression that quite a few officials get their sense of danger from CNN and the other panic-mongers.

We have ways of estimating the economic dislocations of a “war on a plague,” though the officials in charge have apparently done some fudging in past years (no inflation??). The social dislocations eat into our social capital, and we have no good ways of measuring that. Loss of liberties tends to ratchet.

If we task a department with watching for dangers, it will have an interest in panicking, both to justify its existence and to avoid the blame it would get if it missed something. On the other hand, having nobody designated as responsible means your nation’s response will be sloppy and, as now, unaccountable.

Unfortunately, I can’t just set a bunch of thresholds and say “At 1% do this, at 4% start doing this too, etc.” What we need to do depends on the vectors–a fly-borne illness would need different methods. It would be useful to agree on some guidelines. Can we?

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I’m a scientist now working in IT. I’ve been blogging at idontknowbut since 2002, when it was the fashion to pick an unusual “nym.” I decided to be different and use part of my name (not all, to cut down on spam), but the day came when I found other “james”s with the same idea and so I tweaked the name. I’ve worked in Berkeley of the Midwest for years, but I’ve never met Dan.

I’ve some expertise in physics, and interests in history, Africa, autism, and various “squirrels” that distract me.

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”

What Twain actually published was: “Often, the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict truth.”

If you prefer a more recent source: “It’s better to be uninformed than misinformed. I even doubt some of the pictures I see in the papers.” (Orville Hubbard)

A commenter here on HVAC and the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect wrote that he tries to interpret news stories using a simple procedure: determine the bias, and then assume the opposite of what the story claims. As a rule of thumb it has the obvious problem that every now and then a liar tells the truth–as with Twain’s liar.


One of the things they tried to drill into us early on was that you had to measure the measurable, but your measurement wasn’t complete without an estimate of the error on that measurement. And if you screwed up, say so. These disciplines aren’t common, but they’re valuable.


How do we figure out what’s real?

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