Covid-19 In The West: Pride Or Health?

Just weeks ago, the global community observed the Wuhan virus from a distance, watching as Chinese authorities locked down entire cities, and as neighbouring areas and countries enforced travel restrictions and encouraged social distancing. On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO), declared the virus a public health emergency of international concern, and six days prior, had already given advice for entry-screening in countries or areas without transmission of the novel virus. Today, COVID-19 is considered a global pandemic with over 75,400 confirmed cases outside China. Its epicentre is no longer Wuhan, but Europe. This past week has seen a chaotic flurry of activity across Western nations. Italy extended its ban on public gatherings to the entire nation. France closed all non-essential public locations. Norway announced the imminent closure of its ports and airports. Spain declared a state of emergency and placed the country in lockdown. The U.S. imposed travel bans on 28 countries, including the U.K..

The West’s response to COVID-19 has hardly been free from criticism. The Trump administration has made major cuts to the global health emergency infrastructure over the last two years, firing the government’s pandemic response chain of command, and reducing the global disease-fighting operation budgets of the key health departments include the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Security Council (NSC), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Foreign Policy’s Laurie Garrett reports. On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the White House could not keep its promise of producing one million test kits by the end of the week. Infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, William Schaffner, critiqued the government for its lack of urgency and productivity, telling Business Insider the U.S. was “trotting along” compared to other countries speeding ahead. Though COVID-19 entered the U.S. and South Korea on the same day, South Korea is testing up to 10,000 people a day and building ‘drive-thru’ screening clinics, while batches of U.S. test-kits have proven faulty, thus critically delaying monitoring and tracking processes nationwide.

Meanwhile, the U.K.’s novel herd immunity strategy to tackling the virus has been met with widespread scepticism, if not outright backlash, from political and scientific communities alike. Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt deemed the lack of restrictions on public gatherings and mass movement ‘surprising’ and ‘concerning’. Professors, lecturers and researchers in a range of scientific disciplines, from universities including Imperial College London, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Oxford, and Cambridge, have submitted an open letter to the government, demanding that ‘more restrictive measures’ be taken to combat the virus, contrary to the terms of the government’s action plan announced on Thursday. The U.K. has since announced plans to enforce self-isolating practices for those over 70, a statistically high-risk group.

Fear, urgency, and perhaps even a sense of global solidarity, have stirred up a truly worldwide buzz on the COVID-19 pandemic in the last week. The question is, why has it only come about now? When China put over 50 million people on lockdown; when Chinese doctors were under-equipped and over-worked to the point of death; when the WHO declared the virus to be of ‘international concern’ – what was the rest of the world thinking? International concern manifested in brutal racist lashings, snide comments and suspicious stares, not proactive assistance, precautionary advice or pre-emptive measures. The reasons behind the hesitant, reactive response of the West appear three-pronged. First, being a safe geographical distance away to the virus source initially diluted the fear and horror of its consequences, delaying a proactive response. Secondly, as Ian Johnson writes in the New York Times, the West juxtaposes its liberal democracies with China’s communist authoritarianism, and thus renders its experience and decisions irrelevant, providing no lessons ‘other than in what not to do’. And finally, an extension of this attitude, one of complacency, seems to be the underlying and yet defining feature of Western passivity, rooted in the pride of Western, developed, ‘First-world’ civilization, unshaken by any threat of disease or death.

Places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan appear to have heeded warnings from China with the most vigilance, with success reflecting in curbed rates of infection. This may partially be explained by the memory of SARS in 2003, which has rendered respective governments far from complacent in the face of such an outbreak. Authorities have instead been assertive and prudent in their decisions and efforts to control community spread, implementing temperature screenings, carrying out thorough contact tracing, and enforcing self-distancing practices.

The coming week will be critical in determining the trajectory of COVID-19’s spread across Europe and the U.S.. The warning signs from China weeks ago were overlooked, but governments must not be deceived into inertia any longer. For the virus to be dealt with effectively, health must be prioritized over national pride. It is imperative that authorities heed this warning, for the wellbeing, safety and security of the citizens they serve.

Naomi K L Wang