We’re learning the hard way what works against COVID-19. But there are deeper lessons we would do well to digest.
That COVID-19 has inflicted immense pain on virtually every society is not open to question.
In the space of a year, the virus has infected close to 110 million people, caused over 2.4 million deaths, driven health and other frontline workers to physical and emotional exhaustion, and brought hospitals to near breaking point.
Lockdowns have caused widespread mental fatigue, anxiety and even depression. Massive dislocation of economies has seen global output in 2020 fall by 4.3%, the largest annual fall recorded since 1945.
In earlier times, such global mayhem would have been interpreted as divine punishment for human sins. We still talk of floods of “biblical proportions”, “apocalyptic” disasters, and “acts of God”.
But for most of us such ways of thinking have little traction. If so, the novel coronavirus virus offers rich food for thought. Why the pandemic in the first place? Why has the Western world made such a mess of it? Who is bearing the brunt of this modern plague?
The number of infectious diseases has increased almost fourfold in the last hundred years. The dramatic rise in the world’s population, densely populated cities, greatly expanded and faster modes of transport, and the unprecedented growth of the world’s livestock population have made the global spread of infectious diseases entirely predictable.
Yet, we in the West were asleep at the wheel, poorly prepared to deal with COVID-19. It is doubtful even now that we are better placed to deal with the next pandemic that will surely come our way.
The chaotic response of many governments – notably in the US, UK and much of Europe – has meant a wave of potentially preventable deaths. The lack of a well prepared, adequately resourced, flexible and widely accepted national plan has greatly impeded a timely response.
COVID-19 has also exposed the weakness of our international institutions. Years of neglect, inadequate funding, the rise of chauvinism and populist politics, great power rivalries, and the open hostility of US administrations have taken their toll. The Australian state of Victoria, with a population of some 6 million, allocates over $20 billion to health and human services. The World Health Organisation, supposedly servicing global health, has an annual budget of under $6 billion.
At the same time, we see sharply contrasting national responses to the pandemic. China’s early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak bordered on denialism. But once the scientific evidence became clear, action was swift and decisive. Within weeks all movement in and out of Wuhan and neighbouring cities was stopped. Strict quarantine measures were then introduced covering some 760 million people. Within two months the pandemic was under control.
China is not alone. Other Asian countries, taking advantage of their cultural and political capital, have also proved highly effective. Despite periodic flare-ups, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan, among others, have limited the number of deaths and infections well below the levels recorded in the US and Europe. The contrast could not be greater (see below table).
A momentous shift from West to East is under way, not just economic but also political and psychological. We need to find creative ways to live with and learn from it.
We cannot ignore the glaring inequalities within and between countries that COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated, Australia included. Women, the poor, elderly, the disabled and migrant populations have borne the brunt of the fallout from the pandemic.
The ecological implications are just as sobering. The close link between pandemics and the money driven trade in wild animals is now well established. With more and more land devoted to growing crops and raising livestock for human consumption, animals look for food and shelter where people are, becoming super spreaders of disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a salutary reminder of the multifaceted crisis we confront. Are we equal to the challenge?
The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not of Conversation at the Crossroads.