How the Coronavirus Outbreak is Like a Nuclear Attack

March 20, 2020

This article is part of World War “V”: The COVID-19 Pandemic, a collection of all CNS COVID-19-related articles.

2020 Commission Report cover

The following is an excerpt of an interview conducted by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

In 2018, arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis published a book titled The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel. As the title suggests, it’s a fictitious account, written in the style of a retrospective government report, of a nuclear attack on the continental United States.

It’s not about a global pandemic, nor is it meant to be predictive. But because the main events of the novel play out over several days in late March 2020, the Bulletin contacted Lewis to ask him about his thoughts on the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, and whether he sees any similarities to the nuclear crisis that unfolds in the book.

In this interview, Lewis describes the pandemic as a “nuclear war in slow motion” and says that effectively managing both types of crises requires a cooperative, internationalist approach. In both the real world and the fictional world of his book, he sees a disaster exacerbated by dysfunction within the White House—a product not only of staffing inadequacies but also of senior advisers who are more focused on managing the president than on managing the crisis itself.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

John Krzyzaniak: Your book gives a fictitious, speculative account of a nuclear attack against the United States, and how the US government responds. Obviously, what’s happening right now is not a nuclear attack. But you must see parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and what happens in your book.

Jeffrey Lewis HeadshotJeffrey Lewis: The biggest parallel is that what is about to happen will have been largely preventable, particularly in the United States, where the bungled federal response is exactly the kind of dysfunction that I tried to depict in the book.

In The 2020 Commission, no one wants nuclear war. Trump doesn’t want a nuclear war; his staff doesn’t want a nuclear war. And yet they stumble into one. And the way in which they stumble into one is by being completely focused on managing the president’s emotions and the political situation, leaving no time to actually manage the crisis.

And every news story I’ve read, every inside account of what’s happening with the coronavirus is exactly that. The federal response is entirely about managing Trump’s ego and whims, and there’s actually precious little attention devoted to managing the outbreak.

Continue reading at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

See Also

World War “V”: The COVID-19 PandemicWorld War “V”: The COVID-19 Pandemic
A collection of all CNS COVID-19-related articles

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