'Crimson Contagion' was a government game that sought to prepare us for this

  • The author's aunt Anna Ebbesson,  shown here at about age 18, was preparing to immigrate from Borås, Sweden, to America when the Spanish flu took her life in 1918.

    The author's aunt Anna Ebbesson, shown here at about age 18, was preparing to immigrate from Borås, Sweden, to America when the Spanish flu took her life in 1918. Photo Courtesy Keith Peterson

  • Keith Peterson

    Keith Peterson

By Keith Peterson
Guest columnist
Updated 3/25/2020 9:55 AM

Often, it is the job of people in the federal government to play games.

The Pentagon's tabletop war games are legendary, particularly in the early days of the Cold War when generals simulated hundreds of nuclear weapons raining down on the Soviet Union and then tried to anticipate the Soviet response in order decide if our losses would be "acceptable." In his new book, "The Bomb," Fred Kaplan includes a telling war-games anecdote from the early 1960s in which Alain Enthoven, a 31-year-old "whiz kid" from an Air Force think tank. was arguing with a three-star over nuclear strategy and bellowed: "I have fought as many nuclear wars as you have, General!"


We ask all departments of government to ask the question, "What if?"

In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services ran a simulation called Crimson Contagion that simulated a pandemic of a viral respiratory disease with no known cure that began in China but took root in Chicago and quickly spread across the nation and overwhelmed the American healthcare system. The exercise included Illinois and 11 other states and ran for eight months identifying many of the issues faced by the country today -- travel bans, social distancing, supplies of critical materials, and the sources of bureaucratic infighting.

Such exercises, including Crimson Contagion, are most often run at middle levels in the bureaucracy by technocrats, and their reports may or may not reach the upper levels where decisions are made and resources allocated. And as a Marine logistician once observed to me, "A strategy without resources is a hallucination."

Crimson Contagion asked all the right questions, and they are not difficult to anticipate. How many hospital beds do we have? If we had to create more, how would we do that on an urgent basis? What kind of medical supplies will be most needed? What are the sources of those supplies (for America, many of the things most needed at the moment come from overseas)? Could we produce more here? How long would that take? Unfortunately, one American characteristic is too often overconfidence, and we would do well to extend any such estimates because, well, stuff happens.

Crimson Contagion was not the first such exercise. The federal government has run others through the years, but the fundamental question to be asked is how do conclusions get turned into policy? In the churn of Congress, that is classically compared to sausage making -- and sometimes you don't want to know what is inside the skin.

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When this current crisis has passed, we must insist that our political leaders take the lessons learned and create better policies. And that debate needs to be transparent and fact-based. We are a democracy and, theoretically, we get to decide.

The young lady in the picture accompanying this column was my Aunt Anna. She died in 1918 in the Spanish flu epidemic that infected a quarter of the world's population and killed anywhere from 17 million to 100 million people. The little girl peeking out from the bottom of the photo is my mother.

You can't say we have not been warned this time. We can do better.

Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.

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