Having spent some time reflecting on the management of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Jamaica, my thoughts zeroed in on The Art of War, written over 2,000 years ago and a classic which historians attribute to Chinese general, military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu. Though published long ago, this literary masterpiece is described by many as having eternal freshness and realism.

Considered controversial and ambiguous by some scholars, this classical military treatise fundamentally puts to the forefront the need to be strategic and tactical when fighting a war. It therefore comes as no surprise that scholars have adapted Sun Tzu’s writings to business studies, applying them to disciplines such as management, marketing and leadership. 

Applying The Art of War Tactics in Confronting COVID-19

The Art of War presents some fundamental principles which appear to be in sync with the Government of Jamaica’s preparedness and response actions in response to COVID-19.  Sun Tzu posited that …“War is a grave concern of the state, it must be thoroughly studied.” COVID-19 is a novel viral respiratory illness and is indeed an invisible enemy, accounting for 9.2 million contact cases and over 470,000 deaths worldwide at the time of writing this article. Fighting this war, therefore, requires rational analysis.

As a military strategist, Sun Tzu held strongly to the view that a skilled force headed by a superior general was needed to fight a war. Based on our localized situation, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who executes the enforcement measures covered by the Disaster Risk Management Act, is therefore, carrying out this role of the general with  Dr the Honourable Christopher Tufton, Minister of Health and Wellness, as the commander, and  the health care professionals representing  the army troops. Sun Tzu pointed out that to be a superior general one has to have five virtues — wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, strictness and courage. What are your thoughts?

Sun Tzu purported that the general is the protector of the state; if this position is all-embracing, the state will surely be strong; if defective, the state will certainly be weak. During the quarantine and work-from-home period, Jamaicans have all heard Prime Minister Holness’ message: “TAN A YUH YAAD”. The Jamaican people understood this message, which was related in the mother tongue and therefore needed no interpretation or translation. Curfew and quarantine orders coupled with the wearing of facial masks in public spaces to cover nose and mouth are enforcement measures under the Disaster Risk Management Act.  As described in the classic, the wise general is circumspect and prefers to succeed by strategy.

The military strategist noted that the army should not be confused and suspicious. He claimed that the general could fail if ignorant of the following: (i) when the army should / should not advance; (ii) military affairs; and (iii) command problems during the execution of responsibilities. Sun Tzu emphasized that … “If regulations are not clear and orders not thoroughly explained, it is the commander’s fault”. This means that clear guidelines are to be given to health care professionals and in addition, protocols established and communicated from the Ministry of Health and Wellness in managing this pandemic. Accountability is also imperative. What are your views?

Being knowledgeable was another key criterion; Sun Tzu believed that the general should study the lessons learnt from the various experiences. What came to mind in this case are the quarantine measures that were implemented in sections of St. Mary unknowing to the residents. The Prime Minister (PM) was not prepared for a replay of the Portmore scene with the exodus of residents to other sections of Jamaica when the quarantine was announced. Interestingly, Sun Tzu recommended that the general should …“Attack cities only when there is no alternative”. Some people queried why the Kingston Metropolitan Area was not locked down despite the growing number of COVID-19 cases in that urban region. Well, here is the answer. The city is the life blood of a country’s economy. This decision is called… “The Balancing Act”, curtailing the spread of COVID-19 in the city, while keeping the country’s main economic corridor open.

 Sun Tzu stated that … “Weapons are ominous tools to be used only when there is no alternative”. Having the troops called out to carry out COVID-19 test is an expensive alternative amidst the need to have them carrying out their usual tasks in the already resource-strained health system. Additionally, testing everyone, including tourists, comes with a high cost.

When is the right time to reopen the economy?

Various conversations centered on the reopening of Jamaica’s economy have been occurring with several organizations and businesses weighing in on these deliberations. The tourism industry, which is among the major foreign exchange earners for the country, declared its state of readiness for business with standards and protocols for the industry in place for the mid-June re-opening.

Sun Tzu in his wisdom, believed that the superior general should be strategic in his approach by having his “agents active everywhere, gathering information” and this strategic leader should “weigh the situation” before moving so as not to “blunder aimlessly into baited traps”. Additionally, the superior general should cause the enemy to disperse and weaken, thus giving the troops the edge to strike the few. In regard to the implementation of preventive measures designed to control the spread of COVID-19, should the PM have aimed to reduce the number of infected people, making it easier for health care professionals to manage the crisis before reopening the economy and the borders? For sure, he is to ensure the adequacy of medical and quarantine resources now that reopening is given the official stamp of approval.

With his profound insight, Sun Tzu emphasized that no country has ever benefited from a protracted war as the resources of the state will not suffice. He further indicated that a prolonged campaign drains the treasury, exhausts the troops, results in price increases and leads inevitably to widespread hunger. The PM has duly recognized the effect of not having the economy up and running. It is predicted that between April and June this year the economy could shrink by 12 to 14 per cent, an unprecedented downturn in economic growth. As dawn broke on June 1, 2020, Jamaicans started returning to their respective places of work.

Notwithstanding the need to reopen the economy, Sun Tzu’s recommendation was for the superior general to apply the theory of adaptability and adapt his tactics to the enemy’s situation. There is no doubt that the reopening of the economy was carried out within the parameters of containment measures with curfew hours remaining in force up to June 30, 2020; in addition, stay-at-home orders for seniors, 65 and older, and also those who are not well have remained unchanged. The wearing of masks has also been extended to June 30, 2020. The PM has emphasized that the safety of Jamaicans is foremost, but noted that the reopening of the economy is also important. Therefore, with travel and tourism contributing more than 30 per cent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), mid-June saw international tourists returning   to our shores once again.

 Sun Tzu reiterated that the superior general should use data to drive decisions and not be dependent on wishful thinking. European countries are reopening their tourism industry despite the advice coming out of the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office against all but essential international travel for an indefinite period. France reopened its borders to tourists on June 15, 2020 with all visitors from countries that have imposed quarantine measures self-isolating for 14 days; other arrivals will be required to provide a health certificate confirming that he/she is not infected with the coronavirus until at least July with a provision of an alternative of 14 days self-isolation. Italy also reopened its borders to international visitors but had already restarted local recreational activities in parks and museums and take-out services in restaurants.

Spain will gradually reopen to international visitors in July and approval of entry will be dependent upon whether or not these visitors are coming from a country recording low levels of the virus. Outdoor spaces at restaurants and bars have already been opened.

However, the superior general should apply conclusions reached by others to test the current, unique challenge. We would hope that the PM would have analyzed and will continue to assess the changing situations in China, Europe, USA, Canada, Africa and other Caribbean states because   Sun Tzu’s words of wisdom would caution today’s leaders to “reject what is useless and add what is specifically your own” before reopening the borders to tourists.

Guided by logical reasoning, Sun Tzu purported that the superior general must pay attention to the opposing commander. It is possible that the virus could resurge, but the superior general should … “take every possible measure to prevent the enemy from shaping him”. Health and safety protocols at every level — global, national, corporate or industrial — must be enforced. The testing of all arriving tourists for COVID-19 is a responsible measure to reduce the risk of resurgence.

Sun Tzu concluded by sharing the superior general’s other notable characteristics:  wise and impossible to manipulate; prudent, but not hesitant; subtle and deliberate, approaching his objective indirectly; and creating a situation that is favourable for a decisive counterstroke. The repatriation of cruise ship workers and Jamaicans who had officially requested to return to their homeland as well as the deportees who returned home involuntarily may come to mind? 

By now, we would agree that the citizens of this country have the right to be home, but in view of the global pandemic, strategic action ought to guide the repatriation process. Indeed, the probability of being infected with the coronavirus became the reality for some cruise ship workers and deportees. Is this an example of COVID-19 diplomacy and could it have been handled differently?

Sun Tzu, who based his philosophy on the wisdom of Confucius, declared that national unity is “an essential requirement of victorious war”. A profound declaration!  Needless to say, this pandemic event should not become the turf for political nuances as the importance of “winning the battle and becoming stronger” is, at this time, critical to our country’s ongoing thrust of nation building for Jamaicans at home and in the diaspora.

Gaunette Sinclair-Maragh PhD, is an educator at the University of Technology, Jamaica.

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