What Pandemic teaches us about a pandemic
Updated: Mar 13
Pandemic is one of my all-time favorite board games. First released over a decade ago, it pits players against four diseases that are spreading across the globe. As you try to discover cures for each disease, new epidemics pop up randomly, forcing you to readjust your tactics throughout the game. Even if you play Pandemic perfectly, the outcome usually comes down to the very last turn.
The current coronavirus outbreak is no game. It is a deadly serious illness with enormous social, political, and economic ramifications. And there are important ways that Pandemic and its many sequels are not realistic models of an actual pandemic. But now that the World Health Organization (WHO) has just declared the virus a pandemic, I’ve thought of a few parallels between the strategies for winning Pandemic and how political leaders should have—and, too often, have not—dealt with the COVID-19 epidemic.
* Fighting a contagious disease is a race against time. Pandemic is not an easy game to win. If you run out of player cards, which you need in order to discover cures, or if a disease spreads too far (which can happen fast), you lose. As a result, winning requires acting rapidly and decisively to contain illnesses before they spread.
In the real world, time has been squandered. Too many governments (particularly in China and Iran) failed to quickly report coronavirus cases or quarantine those who were ill. Leaders in those countries may have feared that going public early would make them look bad. But viruses don’t care about public relations, and the delays allowed COVID-19 to spread even further.
* The priority is containment, not eradication. Pandemic is structured such that it is nearly impossible to eliminate a disease from the board. Since time is short, the best strategy is to treat a minimum number of illnesses so that they don’t spread to other cities, while hopefully collecting enough player cards to find the cures for all four diseases.
In the real world, some politicians have been “playing” the game backwards, emphasizing cures (if not eradication) over containment. For instance, President Trump has suggested that a coronavirus vaccine might be available in a few months, or within a year. Not only is this wildly unrealistic, but it puts false hopes on a quick cure. Experts instead emphasize the urgent need to “flatten the curve,” which means slowing, if not stopping, the spread of the disease. That buys doctors time to treat patients and scientists time to develop a vaccine; and there is certainly no expectation that COVID-19 will ever be entirely eradicated.
Containment must also follow a fact-based approach, not a political one. In Pandemic, careful attention should be given to how cities are connected to other cities. Yet such has not been the case with the coronavirus. When Trump announced a ban on travel from most of Europe, the hope may have been that it would make the president appear bold and decisive. But it ignored how the virus is already in the United States. And why was the UK excluded from the ban, which has over 400 cases of the coronavirus to date?
Again, viruses don’t care about public relations. Nor do they care about the president’s golf courses. All they want are human carriers.
* Cooperation is the only way to win. Finally, and most importantly, Pandemic is a cooperative game: all the players have to work together in order to win. Sadly, political leaders have been anything but cooperative when it comes to COVID-19. To mention just a handful of examples:
When the virus appeared in Wuhan, China refused help from WHO and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for weeks.
The CDC opted to spend time developing its own coronavirus test, rather than using ones that had already been developed elsewhere.
Trump ’s travel ban was announced unilaterally and without warning, infuriating European leaders.
Many government leaders have been playing the nationalist card, insisting the virus is the fault of other countries.
The lack of cooperation extends to leaders within countries as well as between them. The New York Times reports that researchers in Washington state could not get early permission from federal officials to test for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Trump has blamed Obama, Democrats have blamed Trump, Republican lawmakers have blamed China, and both Trump and congressional Democrats are proposing policy solutions that just so happen to coincide with their own ideological preferences.
I certainly recommend playing Pandemic if you haven’t tried it (though it is hardly an escapist form of entertainment in these troubled times). If you do, however, please don’t play it like too many political leaders would. As Leah Stokes has noted, if we were in an actual game of Pandemic, we’d be on the brink of losing.