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Yossi Alpher is an Israeli former intelligence official and strategic think tank director. His latest book is Winners and Losers in the ‘Arab Spring’: Profiles in Chaos (Routledge, 2020).

As dangerous viruses go, COVID-19 appears to be a special case. The experts are trying commendably to understand it, but the novel coronavirus keeps surprising them. Could it conceivably never allow us to comprehend and tame it?

I have absolutely no expertise in viruses. Before retiring to write books, I was an intelligence and strategic analyst. That is the prism through which I look at COVID-19, and I have concluded that, fully half a year into the pandemic, our ignorance about it should be of great concern.

This virus repeatedly defies rational predictions and empirical deductions based on cumulative experience with earlier viruses like Ebola, HIV and SARS. In intelligence terms, it is the equivalent of a revolutionary situation. It’s a situation in which analysts can explain to us where we stand right now, but they should not be trying to predict where we will be tomorrow.

In an intelligence context, the term “revolutionary situation” means we can’t make reliable predictions. Think about past examples of political revolution, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, or the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, or even the chaotic, ongoing civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya. Most revolutionary actors, generally, do not know themselves what they will do the following day; they are overwhelmed by events. The only thing an external analyst can really do with certainty is to map out potential alternative scenarios based on multiple variables.

When applied to today’s pandemic, the term “revolutionary situation” means that none of us knows for sure what the virus will do tomorrow. Experts predicted the virus would disappear over the summer and return over the fall and winter months. Instead, in some parts of the world, including the United States, the number of active cases has erupted. COVID-19 was also not supposed to spread so easily among youth; turns out it does, yet its severity among youth is so negligible that they don’t take it seriously. This renders it all the more difficult to prevent the virus from spreading.

We still do not know with absolute certainty where COVID-19 comes from. An animal? (Which animal?) Was it an accidental leak from a laboratory? Experts are still arguing over the manner in which the virus becomes airborne: Big aerosol droplets, little aerosol droplets, or both? How far do they really “fly”? To which surfaces does COVID-19 stick, and for how long?

In other words, half a year into this pandemic, we still do not know exactly where and why COVID-19 is likely to thrive or die, and how it is transmitted.

Do those who recover from the virus have long-term immunity? Short-term immunity? Can they still transmit the virus? Ask again in five years when they are retested. Right now we do not know, and this is deeply disturbing.

When a certain individual in Washington periodically reassures us that COVID-19 will one of these days simply pack up and disappear, we snicker. Yet, objectively speaking, compared to alternative predictions, his loopy magical thinking may turn out to be no less accurate. Indeed, in intelligence terms, right now there are many things about COVID-19 we apparently don’t even know that we don’t know.

Meanwhile, we are deluged with predictions regarding the nature of our lives in the post-virus era. Distance learning? Virtual work? Masses demanding to leave heavily-populated areas? De-globalization? Ten years of recession? More expensive air travel? Radical shifts toward more authoritarian governance? All these questions are speculative, and no one really knows the answers. Two years from now we might be back to business as usual – or not.

This, too, is extremely unsettling. Here is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the COVID-19 conundrum: We tell ourselves that until there is an effective vaccine made available for universal use, this virus has to be understood as a very clever and dangerous enemy. Once this vaccine has been mass-produced and distributed globally, however, we can certainly go back to normal.

But what if it proves impossible to create a viable vaccine with long-lasting effects? What if there is no post-virus era? What if science is beaten by COVID-19 and our only recourse is a radical and permanent revision of our way of life? Is our absolute confidence in the emergence of an effective inoculation any more justified than some of our earlier mistaken assumptions regarding this virus?

In intelligence terms, we simply don’t know.

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