Going Viral: COVID-19’s Harsh Lessons
When the history of COVID-19 is written, its authors will not only judge the process of contagion, mortality rates and economic paralyses; they will also account for the triple crises of trust, governance and globalism. Many assumptions have simply been shattered while others — such as suicidal de-pendency — have been confirmed. It may be in vogue to debate whether or not COVID-19 is era-defining; if it is a watershed moment that will change the trajectory of history, but this is all specula-tion. Instead of focusing on some distant, ill-defined future, it is important to deal with the here and now: what went wrong and what is being done to correct it?
COVID-19 has evolved from a virus into a way of thinking. It entered the public lexicon as synony-mous with quarantine, social distancing and lockdown. It has been used to empower some, disempow-er others, spread fear and confusion. It has poisoned debate and placed obstacles in front of collective solutions. In some places, like Iran, COVID-19 is deployed to galvanise governing cliques by deflect-ing responsibility—usually to arch-nemeses and foreigners. The radical right in the US and Europe have been similarly energised. All in all, COVID-19 is a health condition that affects human and political bodies.
In Europe, this is compounded by a crisis of trust. Trust in public information, trust in government strategies and trust in allies, are all waning. If the polls are correct, Italians now have a fairly unfavour-able view of the EU and Germany because of the misperception that neither did enough to help it in its darkest hours. This is, of course, erroneous, but without a sustained corrective information blitz, it has anchored in the public eye. Piranhas will, of course, exploit the information gaps. China — in a bid to rehabilitate its public image — has gone on a charm offensive, so-called mask diplomacy, delivering protective gear while disseminating confused narratives as to the root causes of the pandemic. Similar-ly, questions as to the lack of preparation and the unwanted dependency on China and India for vital medicines and medical equipment has many asking how something as central as healthcare could be hollowed by neglect and corruption.
There are always exceptions to the rule, but in this case, few and far apart—at least in Europe. Other regions have fared better in rapidly responding, keeping abreast of the situation, ensuring that ade-quate supplies and information reached their citizens. For instance, the states of the Arab Gulf and East Asia were much better prepared, and equipped, to handle a pandemic like COVID-19—it shows in the numbers. A sample from both regions is illustrative. As of 24 April, Singapore’s coronavirus deaths were 12, South Korea 240, Japan 328 and in the Gulf, Bahrain 8, Saudi Arabia 127 and the UAE 64. So what happened? Why, for instance, has Italy lost nearly 26000 people, Spain 23000, France 22000 and the UK 20000?
The answer may be found in the relationship between governance and globalism. For all the promise of globalisation, the interconnectivity, transboundary networks, free flow of goods, services and ideas, most people’s needs are still serviced by local actors and flavoured with local spice. Often, where trust in government is high, citizens accept certain limitations for the collective good. They follow national decrees not because of the risk of fines or other sanctions but because they feel an individual sense of responsibility towards their state. The rewards are a more comprehensive approach for confronting the pandemic. In the cases of Singapore, Bahrain and Sweden this took the form of state sponsored testing, the construction of coronavirus-only medical facilities and important information campaigns that explain policy choices and provide contingency support. Task Forces were formed and assumed responsibility for implementation. Trust is key so when the Task Force asks people to self-quarantine, to accept lockdowns and separation from loved ones, people follow instructions because they trust the motives. In places where trust is low, decrees are met with scepticism and rejection and case numbers are reflective.
COVID-19 may be a global crisis, but it is being fought on the local level. Each state must do its part to ensure that others — proximate or not — do not suffer as a result of ill-informed policy choices. This means learning the lessons of others…and there are plenty of lessons to be learned. The German experience teaches that pre-crisis intensive care units need to include advanced respiratory capabilities, in the UAE attention was paid to early warning and disinfection, Singapore was about speed and effec-tive quarantine, Bahrain’s strategy rested on information being quickly transformed into policy cou-pled with testing, testing, testing while Sweden adopted early social distancing and relied on its well-equipped medical services as it races towards ‘herd immunity.’ This is a snapshot. Lessons abound as long as people are interested in learning them.
Hindsight, they say, is 20:20. So far, our 2020 has been a transcendental experience. Friedrich Nie-tzsche spoke of the first law of war being ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger.’ COVID-19 neither kills nor impairs the overwhelming majority of those who contract it and has the ability of strengthening Our World through the turning of two keys: towards enhanced communication and col-laboration between states, scientists, civilians. We have the tools, now we need the thinking.
This article was previously published in Our World on May 6, 2020. The text is available here: https://www.ourworld.co/going-viral-covid-19s-harsh-lessons/.