We have played this plague game before

Carl Martin Faannessen, the CEO of Noatun Maritime, uses a phone game to hammer home that crewing is not good at risk management. We had almost a decade to think this through.

In this industry, our risk-management is hamstrung by a lack of imagination. There is nothing ‘Black Swan’ about Covid-19 at all. Pandemics are a historical fact. What is less well-known is that what we are currently living through was modelled with astonishing accuracy in 2012, yet none of us paid much attention.

In 2012, an unusual game was released. It was called Plague, Inc. In it, you take on the role of a bacteria, virus, prion, parasite or fungi, and you try to infect and kill every living person on the planet before there is a cure (you can safely disregard all the add-ons they’ve come up with later.)

It is shockingly relevant. The strategy with usually the highest chance of ultimate ‘victory’ is to start out in a country with a large population, easy travel and with generally poor health-care. So don’t start in the so-called developed world, and don’t start out in a country where you need flights or ships to spread globally. The best places to start as an emerging pandemic? China, India, South America or the African continent. Large populations, easy travel and low risk of early discovery.

Being an upstart little disease, you’re marginalised and no one pays attention. As you infect more and more people, the probability of being discovered increases. But as you expand, you gain access to mutations. While it’s tempting to go for lethality at once, don’t. Focus on transmissibility. The easier you can spread, the more mutations you can play with. Once you have widespread transmission, you can amp up the lethality.

But the pesky humans are not sitting idle. Once you prove how easily you jump from person to person, they start out by limiting or stopping air-transport. Next to stop: Ships. More and more countries close their borders to vessels. At the time, none of us playing the game thought about what that meant for the crew.

The game even goes through how most national governments will react as and when the pandemic flares up. Most of us have already experienced it: Severe restrictions of movement and gatherings. And while international cooperation sputters on, most countries close their borders. Also to crew.

This is the root of what we have been saying for almost a year: Every government will act to protect its citizens, and that does not include seafarers as they tend to come from elsewhere. And it’s getting worse. Just recently we were advised that we can’t replace Indonesian crew in an Indonesian port, as the vessel had port-calls in India within the last 21 days. Other countries are pulling similar stunts.

Governments have long experience in this. “The population of the state need not be much increased, since there is no necessity that sailors should be citizens.” Aristotle is on record with that one, almost 2,500 years ago. Not much has changed, has it?


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