7 May 2020.
For weeks now, Covid-19 has dominated the world’s media. We’ve had endless facts, advice, and commentary on the virus itself, the number of deaths and infections, the level of testing, the dos and don’ts of hygiene and social distancing, the flattening of the curve, and much else. But, on the underlying significance of the pandemic, remarkably little.
Yet, the pandemic is itself the symptom of a deeper ailment which holds crucial lessons for the human future. Four lessons merit close attention.
The global mayhem caused by Covid-19 in just a few short weeks – in excess of 3 million confirmed cases and well over 200,000 deaths – has exposed how ill prepared most countries are to deal with the threat. Yet the pandemic was foreseeable and foreseen.
In the last century the number of infectious diseases, like SARS, HIV and Covid-19, has increased almost fourfold. Contributing factors include the dramatic rise in the world’s population, especially since 1950, the growth of densely populated cities, greatly expanded and faster modes of transport, and the unprecedented growth of the world’s livestock population.
In a globally interconnected economy with long supply chains, the spread of infectious diseases and our ensuing vulnerability are entirely predictable. Several studies and reports over the past 15 years have viewed a global pandemic involving a new respiratory disease as virtually inevitable.
Yet, while many East Asian governments put their experience of the SARS epidemic to good use, the same cannot be said of the world’s most advanced economies in Europe and North America. Here we have seen insufficient hospital beds and intensive care units, serious shortages of personal protective equipment endangering health workers, and inadequate Covid-19 testing capacity.
The chaotic response of many governments, notably in the US and UK, resulted in a wave of potentially preventable deaths. The lack of a well prepared, adequately resourced, flexible and widely accepted national plan greatly impeded a timely response.
In the absence of such plans coupled with access to adequate and timely medical supplies, efficient testing facilities, and comprehensive training of health workers, history will almost certainly repeat itself.
Collaborate or perish
Effectively harnessing a nation’s human and material resources is essential but not enough. A pandemic is a global phenomenon that calls for a global response.
Sadly, Covid-19 has exposed the flaws and fragility of our international institutions. Years of neglect, inadequate funding, rise of chauvinism and populist politics, great power rivalries, and the open hostility of US administrations have taken their toll.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has for years experienced immense financial stress. Its 2018-19 budget, supposedly servicing global health, was some $6 billion, whereas the state of Victoria with a population of just over 6 million had a health budget of close to $20 billion.
To make matters worse, the WHO’s response to Covid-19 has come under sustained criticism by a US administration more concerned to find scapegoats for its shortcomings than solutions to the pandemic crisis.
Compounding the problem has been the UN Security Council’s eerie silence. US-China rivalry and futile point-scoring prevented it from even meeting for the first three months of the outbreak. Even now, it has yet to agree to any meaningful resolution.
Other international bodies have fared no better. The G20 have done little, other than to suspend debt repayment by the world’s poorest countries for the next six months. As for the G7, its most recent meeting ended with call for a review of the WHO’s performance and a few glib words on the importance of international cooperation.
Especially disappointing has been the European Union’s inability to develop a coordinated response to the pandemic. Worse still, it singularly failed to assist its two worst hit members, Italy and Spain, in their hour of greatest need. It remains to be seen whether the tardy apology offered by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the $850 billion stimulus package for the worst affected member states will be enough to repair the EU’s tarnished reputation.
The lesson is clear. Unless multilateral institutions are carefully nurtured, adequately resourced, and allowed to exercise an effective coordinating role, they will wither away, and so will our capacity to manage not just future pandemics but the many other international crises on the horizon.
A momentous shift from West to East is under way. We must find creative ways to live with it
The virus Covid-19 was first transmitted to a human in China, but its most horrific spread to date has been in Europe and the United States. How do we explain the contrasting response?
Western governments and media, especially in the English-speaking world, have vehemently condemned China’s lack of transparency.
China’s early handling of the Covid-19 outbreak is certainly not beyond reproach. Provincial authorities were at first reluctant to disclose the severity or scale of the outbreak. For its part, the central government was initially disinclined to contradict local assessments. But once the scientific evidence became clear, action was swift and decisive.
By mid-January, all movement in and out of Wuhan, the centre of the epidemic, and 15 other cities in Hubei province – home to more than 60 million people – was stopped. Soon after strict quarantine measures were applied to a great many cities covering some 760 million people. Whether one accepts China’s official figures or not, one thing is clear. Within a couple of months, the pandemic was brought under control.
But China is not alone. Authorities in other Asian countries, using diverse strategies and tools, have also proved highly effective. South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Malaysia in particular, despite their proximity to and high levels of interaction with China, have significantly limited the number of deaths and infections.
The following statistics are highly revealing. As of 25 April 2020, the Covid-19 mortality rates (number of deaths per 100,000 people) for Taiwan, China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia were all below 0.5. For Germany it was 6.95, while for the US, UK, France, Italy and Spain the mortality rate ranged between 16.95 and 48.21.
The trendline is clear. The economically successful countries of Asia have done remarkably better than their counterparts in Europe and North America. Some have attributed their relative success to authoritarian enforcement of rules. But authoritarianism is hardly the defining feature of the political landscape in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan or even Malaysia. What distinguishes these societies are certain cultural mores and traditions which emphasise respect for authority, discipline, and a deep sense of collective responsibility.
The East Asian response to the pandemic is just one more sign of a wider shift from West to East. The West-centric world, in which first Europe and then the United States held sway, is slowly but steadily giving way to a new world in which other civilisational centres are emerging or re-emerging.
By virtue of its history and geography, Australia is uniquely placed to adapt to this historic transition. But whether the political class has the foresight and skills to oversee this cultural as much as political transition is another matter.
Everything is connected to everything else
Ours is a deeply interconnected world. Within a few weeks of the outbreak, the complex linkages between health and economy became all too apparent.
Quarantining and social distancing measures soon brought large swathes of economic activity to a standstill, and with it has come the accelerating loss of jobs.
However, all are not equally affected. Those living in poverty or on low incomes are more likely to catch the virus and to be hard hit by the ensuing economic shock. These are people who live in overcrowded accommodation, are obliged to travel to work, suffer from underlying health conditions, or lack affordable access to health care.
The impact is especially acute in poorer countries, which may have higher levels of health illiteracy, fragile health systems and weak social safety nets. Executive Director of the World Food Programme David Beasley has warned that ‘more people could potentially die from the economic impact of Covid-19 than form the virus itself.’
Unless corrective action is taken, the unprecedented global lockdown, necessary as it is, will widen the socio-economic gap within and between countries. Economic hardship will in turn heighten the potential for popular anger, and with it the likelihood of racism, stigma, hate speech, and political extremism.
The ecological implications are just as sobering. Though the precise origin of Covid-19 has yet to be established, much evidence suggests a link between pandemics and the money-driven trade in wild animals. By alienating them from their natural habitats and keeping them in highly stressful conditions these practices conform to a wider pattern of exploitation that ignores the ecological equilibrium upon which all life depends.
One other consequence of Covid-19 is worth noting. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres told a closed meeting of the Security Council on April 9, there is a real danger that the pandemic will hinder conflict resolution efforts in the Middle East and Africa, stall crucial peace processes, and worsen human rights violations in several countries. Significantly, his appeal for an immediate global ceasefire has yet to gain universal acceptance.
In short, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought home to us with brutal clarity the reality of a world in profound transition – a world in which practices and policies long accepted as the norm are no longer working. A post-Covid-19 return to a US-led neo-liberal order is simply not plausible.
In Australia, as elsewhere, the current emergency presents us with a rare opportunity to reinvigorate the national conversation and breathe new life into our institutions – not just political but economic, cultural and educational. We need an Australia that places equity and ecological balance at the heart of its economic policies; that is internationally minded but aware of the pitfalls of uncontrolled globalisation; and that can creatively navigate the East-West cultural divide, cementing old friendships while forging new ones.
A tall order, no doubt! But what is the alternative?