A week into the countrywide 21-day lockdown, we folded out a forgotten blue game board that had acquired new significance. With a crisis of historic proportions sweeping the world, Pandemic, Matt Leacock’s iconic cooperative game released in 2008, had got a viral second life. Four deadly diseases contaminate humanity and co-players race against time to find cures, stamp out outbreaks before they set off chain reactions, and together mobilise resources to prevent infections from taking over the board. Players win or lose together, operating as a global crack team of two or more experts drawn at random from a total of seven roles–medic, researcher, contingency planner, operations expert, quarantine specialist, dispatcher and scientist. It wasn’t the first time we were playing the game, but as we got down to it, markers and cards at the ready, our eyes scanning a world upon which untold devastation was about to be unleashed, it was hard not to be struck by the verisimilitude of it.
The hand we are dealt is eerily familiar–clusters of nameless epidemics in Milan, Bogota and Los Angeles, and less severe infections in New York, Istanbul, Kolkata, Hong Kong, Riyadh and Paris. I get to start on account of holding the card corresponding to the most populous city: Mumbai, whose population long crossed the 16,910,000 accounted for in Pandemic. Atlanta is the default start position for all pawns, and from here, I fly out to Los Angeles to treat an imminent outbreak. As of March 30, the US, with 140,904 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 2,405 fatalities, is among the worst impacted. The state of California, where the number of hospitalisations resulting from coronavirus infections has nearly doubled over the past four days, has in fact appealed to medical students, retired doctors and students for help. Luckily for me, a medical degree, while critical, comes easy in the Pandemic world, and as a medic with the power to treat a city in one shot where other agents must expend two or three actions to do the same, I decide LA will be my first port of call. A coplayer insinuates bias towards friends currently hunkered down in their Silicon Valley homes and urges me to charter a flight halfway across the world to Hong Kong; I argue against the tired trope of an Asian society under threat of an epidemic heroically saved by outside forces. While COVID-19 emanated from Wuhan, it is thanks to Chinese geneticists’ sequencing of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease, in early January, that research groups around the world have been able to study the live virus and simulate how it attacks the human body. The coplayer relents. Players only have four action points each per turn, which often forces them to take hard decisions such as sacrificing far-flung places that are not easy to reach, and treating just enough people that the disease doesn’t swallow up whole cities while focusing on finding a cure, which involves building research stations and saving up five cards of a type.
With the infection spreading at the end of every turn, it’s a mad dash and we are always just one step away from sliding into the abyss. Eight outbreaks will mean curtains. In the real world, of course, we don’t give up even if the odds don’t look good, and there is no shortcut to winning. With over 500,000 infections across the world, and China, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Japan, the US and France losing chunks of their population to the disease, public health infrastructure everywhere is buckling under the case load and hundreds of front line workers are dead because they did not have access to protective clothing. Yet, there is hope because even as the virus runs it course, scientists are coming together to try and stop it in its tracks. A dozen treatments are being tested across the world, including drugs that are already in use to treat malaria, HIV and arthritis, antibodies from the plasma of those who have been cured, and experimental compounds. On March 20, the World Health Organisation launched a major study to collect robust scientific data from thousands of patients in dozens of countries by enlisting them for randomised trials of four experimental protocols. On the vaccine front, over 30 organisations are working on creating one, and the first of the lot, developed by Moderna in Boston, is all set for human trials. At the same time, however, we have witnessed the tribalism of the West in seeking to monopolise key technologies and resources. Rumours like that of the US Government attempting to get control of a vaccine under development at the German biotech CureVac run counter to every responsible effort at global cooperation.
The game is therefore all about working together. An operations expert can improve other players’ mobility across the world, especially once they have built research stations, and a quarantine specialist prevents outbreaks and the placement of disease cubes in the city she is in and all the cities connected to it. For the first time in the four years that we have been acquainted with the game, there is a sense that we are playing powerful parts. One of us builds a research station in Istanbul and before we can come up with a strategy to rescue Milan, luckily draws a wild card called Resilient Population that ensures a city never gets reinfected. It is a moment of collective relief that we won’t have to relive the tragedy of the 11,591 deaths in Italy in the past month.
A month. There is no time to dither. Pandemic does not allow for shutting down borders–for simpler gameplay yes, but I suspect, also as a metaphor for a connected world. To survive as a society, we must recognise that the problem is global, and a solution for Sydney does not help without a solution for Mumbai. Mirroring the reciprocity among the EU nations and between Europe and China, we nimbly move resources from Paris to Jakarta and then to Ho Chi Minh city and prevent a disease from blowing up Bangkok. We could win this thing after all. Just then, a stroke of bad luck leads to an outbreak in New York, sealing the fate of the world and stunning us into silence. This is not just unexpected, it is all too real for comfort. With over 66,000 COVID-19 cases, the Big Apple has emerged as one of the newest hotspots and the city is still weeks from its apex. With America changing course, preferring existing containment measures to a premature return to normal life, it is as though the world has been laid flat on a game board. And the future remains uncertain.