A pandemic pivot

October 28, 2020

If the current pandemic is a test of the global emergency response system, the international community is flunking big time.It has done just about everything wrong, from the failure to contain the...

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If the current pandemic is a test of the global emergency response system, the international community is flunking big time.

It has done just about everything wrong, from the failure to contain the virus early on to the lack of effective coordination thereafter. As the predicted second wave begins to build – the world is now adding over 400,000 new cases per day – it is truly disheartening to think that the international community hasn’t really learned any lessons from its snafu.

Sure, some countries have successfully managed the crisis. South Korea, despite several superspreading outbreaks, has kept its death toll to below 450, which is fewer than Washington, DC alone has suffered. Thailand, Vietnam, Uruguay, and New Zealand have all done even better to address the public health emergency.

After its initial missteps, China has managed not only to reopen its economy but is on track for modest growth in 2020 even as virtually all other countries confront serious economic contractions.

It’s not too late for the rest of the world. Robust testing, tracing, and quarantining systems can be set up in all countries. Richer nations can help finance such systems in poorer countries. Governments can penalize non-compliance. Even before a vaccine is universally available, this virus can be contained.

But perhaps the most important takeaway from the Covid-19 experience so far has little to do with the virus per se.

The pandemic has already killed more than a million people, but it is not about to doom humanity to extinction. Covid-19’s mortality rate, at under 3 percent, is relatively low compared to previous pandemics (around 10 percent for SARS and nearly 35 percent for MERS). Like its deadlier cousins, this pandemic will eventually recede, sooner or later depending on government response.

Other threats to the planet, meanwhile, pose greater existential dangers.

At a mere 100 seconds to midnight, the Doomsday Clock of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists now stands closer to the dreaded hour than at any point since its launch in 1947. As the quickening pace of this countdown suggests, the risk of nuclear war has not gone away while the threat of climate change has become ever more acute. If fire and water don’t get us, there’s always the possibility of another, more deadly pandemic incubating in a bat or a pangolin somewhere in the vanishing wild.

Despite these threats, the world has gone about its business as if a sword were not dangling perilously overhead. Then Covid-19 hit, and business ground to a halt.

The environmental economist Herman Daly once said that the world needed an optimal crisis “that’s big enough to get our attention but not big enough to disable our ability to respond,” notes climate activist Tom Athanasiou. That’s what Covid-19 has been: a wake-up call on a global scale, a reminder that humanity has to change its ways or go the way of the dinosaur.

Athanasiou is one of the 68 leading thinkers and activists featured in a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, the Transnational Institute, and Focus on the Global South. Now available in electronic form from Seven Stories Press, The Pandemic Pivot lays out a bold program for how the international community can learn from the experience of the current pandemic to avoid the even more destructive cataclysms that loom on the horizon.

Let’s imagine for a moment how a reasonable world would have responded to the Covid pandemic when it broke out late last year.

As the virus spread from Wuhan in January, there would have been an immediate meeting of international leaders to discuss the necessary containment measures. The Chinese government closed down Wuhan on January 23 when there were fewer than 1,000 cases. At the same time, the first cases were appearing in multiple countries, including the United States, Japan, and Germany. On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the pandemic a global health emergency.

Instead of working together on a plan, however, countries pursued their own approaches that ranged from the sensible to the cockamamie, the only common element being the restriction of travel and the closure of borders.

Excerpted from:‘A Pandemic Pivot’


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