Covid-19: a Collective Failure

Comment International Issues

Image description: A woman in a yellow protective suit puts on a white face mask.

“We have failed in our collective capacity”, reported a recent WHO panel, “to create a protective web of human security”.

Whilst measuring the comparative effectiveness of every state and territory may be difficult, it is becoming more evident that the response to this virus has been a bit of an omnishambles. Now that the American death toll has officially surpassed the combined American civilian and military deaths suffered in World War 2, it seems beyond belief that the now ex-POTUS once compared COVID-19 to the flu.

Whilst smaller, supposedly more-vulnerable, countries battened down the hatches to prepare for the coming storm, the great medical-superstars like the US and the UK stayed out on deck measuring up their political members. The imperialist conceptualisation that somehow ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ would battle through this pandemic unaffected, carrying forth the beacon of epidemiological greatness, seemingly seeped into our leaders’ mindsets.

Indeed, our deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries, in response to the WHO’s emphasis on track and trace systems, noted that “the clue with the WHO is in its title, it’s a World Health Organisation”, implying Britain needn’t heed the advice that was really meant for its underdeveloped counterparts. Bear in mind that South Korea, a paragon of success in dealing with the virus, took these recommendations very seriously, and it is largely down to their successful track and trace system that their case rates and death toll are so low.

For Dr Harries though, the UK’s health infrastructure seemed capable of dealing with this situation already. Was it, though?

Well, no.

Our 2016 Pandemic exercise ‘Cygnus’ revealed holes in the UK’s plans – ventilators would run short whilst PPE supplies would dwindle. What was the Great British response to this? Not much; no follow up document was produced offering advice on how to deal with such a situation, as time and resources were poured into our other Great British enterprise – Brexit.

Such populism excelled in the USA too, with Donald Trump shutting-down an office devoted to pandemic-preparedness set-up under the Democrat arch-nemesis Obama. Moreover, Trump “gutted” the CDC’s public health science and surveillance programme.

Nevertheless, both the USA and UK were ranked as the countries most prepared to deal with disease outbreak by the 2019 Global Health Security Index. With both countries currently first and fifth respectively on the coronavirus death toll list, it is clear that the arrogance of our leaders failed to create the ‘protective web of human security’ we so greatly needed.

What we are beginning to see is that though responses to the pandemic may be regarded as a ‘collaborative failure’, the writing was on the wall much earlier.

The problem, however, is not localised to these obviously, irreducibly brilliant nations. In reality, we have a lot more in common with the European neighbours we’ve been rallying against for the past four years.

Following the swine-flu scare of 2009 Europe became complacent. “The idea of a government warehousing medical supplies came to seem outdated” noted one French senator. The message was not lost: in the following years Belgium destroyed millions of expired protective masks, and chose not to replace them. There was a shift towards ‘just in time’ contracts. With about as much foresight as circus-stall fortune-tellers, European governments failed to see the potential for disruption in supply-chains if a pandemic were to occur.

With events like the ‘apron crisis’ of 2018 laying bare the possibility of extreme PPE shortages, the shortages faced across Europe in the early stages of the pandemic appear to have been somewhat preventable.

Again, the failure seems to lie in some concept of exceptionalism – when European health officials met in Brussels in February 2020, European preparedness appeared to be a given; Robert Speranza, the Italian Health minister, when assessing the emerging crisis talked of the responsibility not only to Europe, but “also for the African continent”. It seemed wealth was going to ascribe the winners and losers in this pandemic.

Comparatively underdeveloped countries in Africa have dealt with the pandemic remarkably well. Although population densities may well account for a distinct disparity in death tolls and infection rates, we have to recognise the efficiency of response: Lesotho, for example, was locked down before a case had even been registered in the country. Of course, there is an economic argument to be made here: the UK economy is markedly larger than that of Lesotho, and thus the desire to keep the country up and running was much more pressing.

Nonetheless, the WHO panel report noted that, in general, those countries that responded quickly and effectively to the Pandemic fared better economically than those who took their time in formulating a response.

As of present, the European humanitarianism seen at the February 2020 conference seems to have dissipated; “the full potential of vaccines cannot be realised if narrow national interests and economic power determine who gets access, instead of basic principles of fairness”.

As jokes fly about how the UK had beaten the EU in the vaccine race, and we push forward a much-needed and remarkably successful vaccine programme, we seem to have forgotten about promises made to the developing world. Though systems are rapidly being put in place to ensure a quick vaccine rollout in Africa, the idealism professed last February about aiding developing countries seems to have been subsumed within a drive to protect ourselves. Whilst there is certainly a fairness in individual countries protecting their own citizens, the developing problem of virus mutations calls for a much wider, faster, and broader distribution of at least the first jab of the coronavirus vaccine.

Whilst there is certainly a fairness in individual countries protecting their own citizens, the developing problem of virus mutations calls for a much wider, faster, and broader distribution of at least the first jab of the coronavirus vaccine.

As such, whether you morally agree with the WHO opposition to the principle that “high-income countries [should] be able to vaccinate 100% of their populations while poorer countries must make do with only 20% coverage”, misses the point – parallel, universal vaccination needs to be the aim.

Having documented these failures in preparation and implementation, there is a need to return to the origins of this pandemic.

As much as we may criticise our own, and other governments, the Chinese government must shoulder a significant proportion of the blame for the life-changing effects of this pandemic.

In a documentary soon to be released by ITV, doctors from Wuhan claim that they were aware of the virus from November 17th 2019, but “provincial leaders told the hospitals not to tell the truth” about the emerging situation. Indeed, the recent WHO panel report notes that China had genome sequencing evidence that indicated the spread of the novel coronavirus. Yet, the seriousness of the spread was played down, whilst the Chinese government actively lobbied other governments against declaring a health emergency.

What we are beginning to see is that though responses to the pandemic may be regarded as a ‘collaborative failure’, the writing was on the wall much earlier.

Although some countries may have acted efficiently, on the whole it is fair to say no-one is coming out of this smelling like roses. Moving forwards, we need humility, cooperation and continued planning to ensure this does spiral out of control again.

Image credits: CDC from Pexels


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