Governments must catch up to curb the coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus meeting at Downing Street, 2020. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No. 10 Downing Street, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Governments are not doing enough to align their decisions with scientific evidence and their responses are taking too long. In particular, governments of advanced economies have failed to make a genuine effort to understand the pattern of the coronavirus, and the measures they have taken to protect the public are too little, too late.

100 days from outbreak to pandemic

On 11 March 2020, the world witnessed two diametrically opposed analyses of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a global pandemic, with concerns not only around the alarming levels of spread and severity, but also around the levels of inaction.

To date, the total number of infections has reached over 167,000 confirmed cases in 150 countries, resulting 6,600 deaths. China has been hit the worst, accounting for half of all cases and deaths. But by early March, new cases dwindled to less than 1%, and just 1.6% were fatal. Europe has become the new epicentre.

On the same day, however, President Donald Trump’s posturing message focused on restricting travel from Europe and Asia to the United States (US), which impacted the already-feeble stock market. Trump declared the US to be the best prepared country in the world, but the president’s diagnostics and policy decisions were based neither on scientific evidence, nor on the best available advice from experts.

Far from being the shining light in the fight against the coronavirus, the US in fact appears to be underprepared, with a health system that leaves much to be desired. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that since 2019, between 34 – 49 million people have had influenza (the flu) in the US, resulting in up to 16 – 23 million medical visits, 350,000 – 620,000 hospitalisations, and 20,000 – 52,000 deaths. 

Scientific evidence versus electioneering speeches 

Scientists and global health experts have argued that the Chinese government owes its relative success in tackling the coronavirus to the fact that it responded based on an understanding of the local situation and scientific evidence.

The public has been fully mobilised to strictly implement the preventative measures and health practices prescribed by the authorities. While the Chinese government admitted mistakes were made in the early stages of the outbreak at both central and local government levels, this has nothing to do with a ‘totalitarian’ rhetoric.

In contrast, governments of advanced economies have failed to make a genuine effort to understand the pattern of the coronavirus, and the measures they have taken to protect the public are too little, too late.

Some governments have also prioritised stabilising the stock market rather than addressing key public health concerns. The public, of course, is more interested in practical action rather than hypocritical announcements.

The failure of advanced economies to prevent a coronavirus pandemic

WHO experts have repeatedly issued warnings about the gravity of the situation and called for bold action against the coronavirus. However, invaluable time that could have been used for preparation was lost and government responses have been mixed.

Why have advanced economies – given their great reserves of wealth, scientific advancement and institutional strength – failed to learn from China and other countries’ bold and consistent response? Why have they attacked China for its ‘draconian’ approach or the country’s political system instead?

I argue that this crisis has revealed fundamental vulnerabilities. The strategy and approach of curbing the virus will not – and must not – be uniform across countries. The era of globalisation in which we live in means that such crises can no longer be contained within national boundaries. It is essential that we respond to a global pandemic not with adversarial relations, but with global collaboration in the following key areas.

1. A resilient healthcare system

Improved living standards and scientific advances have led to an increase in average life expectancy. Strikingly, the fight against the coronavirus has exposed the unpreparedness of national health systems (the US being a particularly vivid example), and a failure to implement international prevention systems uniformly. Even better health care systems, such as the NHS in the UK, have been under strain due to diminishing resources (in terms of budget and health personnel). How to build resilient healthcare systems is now a leading issue. 

2. Vulnerability of political fragmentation

The coronavirus continues to dominate discussions at the international level. Yet somewhat surprisingly, the outbreak has been used as a means to an end, politically, both at the local and national level. There is no better example than the US. Rather than making bold policy decisions based on scientific evidence and expert advice, politicians have been seeking to use the pandemic to gain electoral advantage.

3. Technological advancements

While discourse at the World Economic Forum and other organisations has been dominated by the hype of technological breakthroughs, the coronavirus has revealed that technological advancements are not yet serving to fight global crises, reduce social vulnerabilities and contain shocks.

Regrettably, neither vaccine breakthroughs nor artificial intelligence have been able to make a significant contribution. It is therefore time to pose some big questions on how technological advancements can be used for the common good and social progress.

4. Vulnerability of the global economy

The services sector, which is the largest driver of the economy in advanced countries, has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus epidemic. Stock values plummeted in the worst recorded fall since 1987. The banking industry and global value chains have been disrupted, resulting in an economic crisis and shortages of medical supplies and products needed to combat the coronavirus. In a nutshell, the coronavirus has exposed the vulnerability of the global economy. Panic and perceived uncertainties have aggravated the situation, potentially leading to a worldwide economic crisis.

The weakening of national health systems and climate change have increased vulnerability to virus outbreaks and pandemics around the world. Neither countries, government ministers, nor celebrities are immune from coronavirus.

A virus belongs to no race: Ebola is not African; MERS is not Middle Eastern; SARS and the coronavirus are not Asian; and the Spanish flu was not European.

As Europe becomes the new epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic, the WHO’s Director General has clear advice for all countries: “test every suspected case.” Leading scientist on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, explained that the severity of the coronavirus will also depend on two things. First, our ability to mitigate the influx, and second, our ability to contain and mitigate the virus within our own borders.

Bold action by governments and the public, as well as a unified international response is cardinal. Time will tell if governments manage to catch up to curb the biggest challenge of the decade.

Authors

Distinguished Fellow
Arkebe Oqubay is a Senior Minister and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. He has [...]