By Raffique Shah
March 23, 2020
I admit that it took me some time to come to terms with the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus. When the highly contagious bug first struck in China late last year, I followed its development with more curiosity than concern. China is a vast country with a huge population and millions of foreigners visiting it most times, so one could expect anything to happen—such as a superbug making its entry into the world. But I have also learnt that the Chinese government and people can handle whatever nature throws their way, usually dispatching the intruder to a swift demise, and in the process sparing the rest of the world worry about it.
That such resolution did not happen in this instance, at least with some finality, should have alerted me to something strange lurking out there. Sure, the Chinese contained the virus: they halted its seemingly inexorable march to enveloping and possibly infecting the whole country, and threatening its neighbours. But they warned the world that COVID-19 was a different kind of beast, a warning that many countries and individuals like your humble scribe, ignored. Hell, what bug could be so destructive, and spread so wildly as to endanger humanity?
Surely, such microscopic but lethal organisms existed only in the ultra-secretive laboratories of devious superpowers, or in the minds of crazed scientists who might one day use their genius to hold the world to ransom…or simply to destroy it. As the virus showed up in other countries and, within weeks, took on the face of a global pandemic, it got my full attention. I wondered, though, if its origins lay in the natural courses of evolution and mutation, or if man did not intervene at some point, bent on pursuing biological warfare by tampering with the DNA, genes, what have you (I don’t know—I’m dumb when it comes to science)—in furtherance of domination of the world.
Then last Thursday I think it was, as I tried to absorb what was happening in the USA, how COVID-19 appeared to be overwhelming that country’s healthcare system, I overheard what was almost a side-exchange on CNN that piqued my interest. The host was interviewing Susan Rice, National Security Adviser to former president Barack Obama, on the national security implications of the virus. The discussions on almost all the television stations focused on this angle because the government and state agencies charged with mobilising all resources to battle the pandemic, seemed ill-prepared although China had given the rest of the world a two-month window to prepare for the worst.
Anyway, the CNN interviewer asked Rice if she had seen media reports last weekend that quoted a document laid before a National Security Council briefing held in January 2017, days before Donald Trump was sworn in as President. Rice laughed nervously (in my view), admitting that she had seen the media reports and known about the document. It was “just one of three scenarios” painted for the incoming Trump national security advisers to ponder as they took office. Trump’s team was led by General Michael Flynn, who held office for one year before he was indicted on charges of lying to the FBI in issues surrounding Russian interference in the US presidential elections of 2016.
On the scenario her team painted, she implied that it was coincidence, not prescience on the part of her staff.
What did that 2017 document say? I read two stories on the issue, one in an online publication Foreign Affairs, written by Lisa Monaco, who was Obama’s chief adviser on counter-terrorism. The other was in a publication called “Politico”. Since these are not mainstream media houses in the USA, I am treating their reports with reservations. However, Rice admitted to the existence of the document, so it exists. Here’s how Ms Monaco treated with it: “On January 13, 2017, national security officials assembled in the White House to chart a response to a global pandemic. A new virus was spreading with alarming speed, causing global transportation stoppages, supply-chain disruptions, and plunging stock prices. With a vaccine many months away, U.S. health-care infrastructure was severely strained…
“…No, I didn’t get that date wrong. This happened: it was part of a transition exercise that outgoing officials from the administration of President Barack Obama convened for the benefit of the incoming team of President Donald Trump. As Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser to President Obama, I led the exercise, in which my colleagues and I sat side by side with the incoming national security team to discuss the most pressing homeland security concerns they would face. Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden made ensuring a professional transition a top priority, so we followed the excellent example of our predecessors, who held a similar exercise in 2009…”
And Politico treated with it this way: “Seven days before Donald Trump took office, his aides faced a major test: the rapid, global spread of a dangerous virus in cities like London and Seoul, one serious enough that some countries were imposing travel bans. In a sober briefing, Trump’s incoming team learned that the disease was an emerging pandemic— a strain of novel influenza known as H9N2 – and that health systems were crashing in Asia, overwhelmed by the demand…
“Health officials warn that this could become the worst influenza pandemic since 1918,” Trump’s aides were told. Soon, they heard cases were popping up in California and Texas…
“…The briefing was intended to hammer home a new, terrifying reality facing the Trump administration, and the incoming president’s responsibility to protect Americans amid a crisis. But unlike the coronavirus pandemic currently ravaging the globe, this 2017 crisis didn’t really happen – it was among a handful of scenarios presented to Trump’s top aides as part of a legally required transition exercise with members of the outgoing administration of Barack Obama.
“…In the words of several attendees, the atmosphere was ‘weird’ at best, chilly at worst…”
Chilly indeed. Of such stuff conspiracy theories are born. I am not about to accuse the USA of creating COVID-19 and unleashing it on China. I am not saying it was an experiment that went awry, with disastrous consequences. But coincidences like this do set me thinking.