The COVID-19 opportunity to unite in a common cause was squandered. Find out how, and who the leading culprits are in losing humanity’s fighting chance.
I was talking to my brother the other day (remotely, of course). He mentioned that one way to bring unity to our troubled world would be if humanity had a common enemy like an alien attack in the science fiction movies.
As we pursued the idea, we realized that our world is already facing a common enemy right now. Unfortunately, we both concluded that our leaders had squandered this COVID-19 opportunity.
As always, the biggest failure has come from the White House. The United States has the largest economy and the largest military in the world, making it the world’s only superpower.
America Casts Itself as “Leader of the Free World”
America casts itself as the “leader of the free world,” and other countries are inclined to take their word on that. Sadly, the current administration seems far more interested in playing the “blame game.” It prefers to protect its image rather than recognize the COVID-19 opportunity and spearhead a response to what it identifies as “the invisible enemy.”
We’ve seen no effort on the part of the United States to coordinate a response with its global allies. Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi put it this way in the journal Foreign Affairs.
“The status of the United States as a global leader over the past seven decades has been built not just on wealth and power but also, and just as important, on the legitimacy that flows from the United States’ domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises. The coronavirus pandemic is testing all three elements of US leadership. So far, Washington is failing the test.”
“So Far, Washington is Failing the Test”
They’re not only failing, but they’re also casting the blame for their failure to take advantage of the COVID-19 opportunity onto others. The two primary scapegoats are the World Health Organization (WHO) and China.
Let’s start with the World Health Organization. As Richard Pérez-Peña and Donald G. McNeil Jr. explain in the New York Times, the first indication of the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic came from China on January 20.
On January 22, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus held the first of his almost daily news briefings on the pandemic. At that point, he declared, “Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”
WHO Declared a Public Emergency in Less Than a Week
As the evidence mounted that the disease was beginning to spread outside China’s borders, the WHO declared a global public health emergency. That happened less than a week after China’s initial announcement.
In the early stages, the WHO was deferential to China. We have to remember that the WHO is a wing of the United Nations, where diplomacy is always the watchword.
As the New York Times story puts it, “The WHO needs the support of its international members to accomplish anything — it has no authority over any territory, it cannot go anywhere uninvited, and it relies on member countries for its funding. All it can offer is expertise and coordination — and even most of that is borrowed from charities and member nations.”
WHO Cajoled China into Allowing Experts to Investigate
Behind the scenes, the WHO cajoled China into allowing its experts to investigate the outbreak. That took three weeks, but in the end, the WHO got everything it asked for.
Amir Attiran is a public health and law professor at the University of Ottawa. He explained it like this, “Clearly a decision was taken by Dr. Tedros and the organization to bite their tongues, and to coax China out of its shell, which was partially successful. The president is scapegoating, dishonestly.”
Suppose that an influential member state with global influence, I don’t know, a country with a permanent seat on the Security Council, or maybe the country where the UN Headquarters is located, perhaps a country whose leader brags about his close relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, had used the COVID-19 opportunity to step in on the WHO’s behalf. Would that have expedited China’s cooperation? We’ll never know.
Why Didn’t the World Hear about Crisis Until January 20?
Speaking of China, what took them so long to act? Doctors reported the first case of COVID-19 on December 31, 2019. Why didn’t the world hear about the crisis until January 20?
I can remember the SARS outbreak here in the Greater Toronto Area in 2003. Toronto’s mayor, Mel Lastman, took exception to the WHO’s meddling in how he ran his city and the effect it had on its travel and tourism industry. Here’s what he said to CNN during the outbreak.
“They don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t know who this group is. I’ve never heard of them before. I had never seen them before. Who did they talk to? They haven’t even been to Toronto. They’re located somewhere in Geneva. And they haven’t talked to us all. They read the papers, and sometimes the papers exaggerate. And that’s what’s happened right here.”
China’s Problem Seems to Be a Tourism-Conscious Mayor
I’m dredging up this ancient history because China’s problem also seems to have been a tourism-conscious mayor. Zhou Xianwang is the mayor of Wuhan, where the virus first appeared.
Before the outbreak, he was considered a rising star in China’s communist party with a bright political future. He was concerned about the local party congress meeting that was scheduled in his city.
He also wanted to avoid postponing a potluck dinner party the city had planned for 40,000 families. So, not unlike Mayor Lastman, he downplayed the risk, assuring the public that there was little to no human transmission.
Told Doctors to Keep their Mouths Shut
Unlike Mayor Lastman, he also used goon tactics, arbitrarily ordering his police and public health officials to shut down the local seafood market. They also told doctors to keep their mouths shut if they knew what was good for them.
China’s central government grew suspicious about all this. So, they dispatched the country’s leading epidemiologist, Zhong Nanshan, to investigate. Dr. Zhong has a reputation similar to Dr. Fauci in the United States, having handled the SARS crisis, among many other issues.
Dr. Zhong went on national television on January 20. He said that Wuhan’s municipal officials had engaged in a coverup.
Truth Was That the Virus Was Highly Contagious
He went on to explain that the truth was that the virus was highly contagious and that doctors were dying from exposure to it. He told everyone to stay away from Wuhan until further notice.
Within days, the Chinese central government had locked down the entire city. They also punished all city officials involved in the coverup, saying that they would be “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame.”
The central government sent in the army. They backed them up with teams of medical workers and contact tracers.
Government of China Informed WHO on the Same Day
The government of China informed the WHO of the crisis on the day Dr. Zhong delivered his report. That’s what prompted Dr. Tedros to hold that first of many news briefing a few days later.
Wuhan’s overzealous mayor shared the same weakness as Mayor Lastman. They couldn’t comprehend that the gravity of the outbreak outweighed the disruption to the economy that a quarantine would cause.
Mayor Zhou blew his COVID-19 opportunity to be a national hero by trying to hide the problem instead of rising to the occasion to nip it in the bud. It seems to be human nature at the beginning of a severe outbreak to try to downplay it and hope it goes away on its own.
US Administration Downplayed Seriousness of Epidemic
That same human nature was on display when news of the outbreak reached the White House. For over two months, the US administration also downplayed the seriousness of the epidemic.
On January 22, the American president stated, “We have it totally under control. It’s going to be just fine.” On February 28, he insisted, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
When the Chinese government became aware of the coverup in Wuhan, they acted decisively. As soon as the WHO got the word from the Chinese government, they also sprung into action.
Pandemic Likely to Lead to a Period of Global Peace
The failure to seize the COVID-19 opportunity to unite the world against the so-called “invisible enemy” rests more with US leadership than anywhere else. However, the news isn’t all bad.
In another Foreign Affairs article, Barry Posen explains how the pandemic is likely to lead to a period of global peace, despite the bickering exacerbated by the White House these days. Looking back over history, he explains that what gets wars started is false optimism.
Whether its Viet Nam, Iraq, invasions of Afghanistan by both the Soviet Union and the United States or World War I, governments launch wars because of a hubris born of unrealistic overconfidence. Posen maintains that the pessimism governments will be experiencing for the next few years will be a deterrent from engaging in armed conflict.
Maybe we all have our own COVID-19 opportunity to either seize or squander. We can rise to the occasion like Dr. Zhong or bask in the temporary comfort of denial like Mayor Zhu. We all need to discover how to turn this crisis to our long-term advantage in our own lives.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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