If any one section of the population is at risk, all others are compromised
We now know Covid-19 simultaneously attacks all vulnerabilities in its victims. Any one of them can prove lethal: Lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, brain, nervous system.
In uncannily similar ways, the global coronavirus emergency has become an extraordinarily probing stress test for governance. We have learned that no one can be defended in isolation. Nothing can be tackled piecemeal. Either the entire body politic survives, or everything falls apart.
Here, the example of the US is especially salutary, as its coronavirus death toll spiked above 100,000 cases this week (over three times higher than the UK, the second-worst affected country in terms of cumulative fatalities.)
We all know the richest nation in the world has nonetheless developed immense structural problems, which have only grown worse in recent decades: Inequality, racism, dangerously runaway militarism, an astonishingly broken health care system, and the steady ascent of proto-fascist extremism exemplified by President Donald Trump. When Covid-19 struck, these potent ingredients swirled together to constitute a perfect storm.
With numbers soaring each passing week, an estimated 25% of Americans are now unemployed, with the impact burgeoning down the income ladder. At least 30% of them have lost their job-based health insurance even as the pandemic rages, while an unconscionable number of states (cheered on by the president) are attempting to force unwilling workers to “re-open the economy” by risking their lives.
This is the only country in the world where the elementary act of wearing a mask has become politicized to the point of sheer lunacy (again spurred by Trump’s ox-like obduracy). The great country music singer Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne tweeted that her own daughter was abused for wearing one to buy groceries in Nashville, explaining “she nearly died of H1N1. She was in the ICU for a week, on a ventilator for 3 days. She CANNOT get covid. The ignorance & hatred is so painful. She’s trying to survive.”
One of the most astonishing lessons of the coronavirus emergency is that many leaders and many countries maintain an insurmountable mental block about learning from other societies they consider inferior. This is the only explanation for why the mass of Western Europe, for example, ignored and then strenuously resisted readily apparent solutions from Asian countries about how to cope with Covid-19.
In this regard, it’s astonishing to note the nine worst affected countries, as ranked by deaths proportionate to population, are all European (the US is number 10). Contrast to, say, Vietnam, which shares extensive borders with China and has the comparatively huge population of nearly 100 million, yet has kept cases down to roughly 300, with exactly zero fatalities.
The main difference is unquestionably simple humility, combined with collective will. Vietnam shut schools in January (they re-opened this month), quarantined and tested every single person who entered the country (at government cost), and everyone started wearing masks and maintaining social distancing from the moment the first cases were recorded.
But look at Spain, at half the population size, yet deaths already past 27,000. Even as infections mounted in Italy, the head of national emergencies in Madrid claimed his country would somehow “only have a handful of cases.” No masks, no stockpiling PPE, no strictures on gatherings, they went stubbornly ahead with soccer matches, political party conferences, and massive public demonstrations right into March. Only then, abrupt lockdown.
If denial has proven almost unimaginably costly in the West, the flip side that is heedless panic has wrought an epochal catastrophe in India. On March 24, when there were just 564 cases (and 10 fatalities) the prime minister imposed the most draconian lockdown in the world with precisely four hours warning. International and state borders were closed, all public transportation ceased, and every conceivable supply line was severed overnight.
Chaos ensued, and continues to overwhelm the country. The gargantuan “functioning anarchy” (as described by 1960s US diplomat, John Kenneth Galbraith) has utterly flunked the Covid-19 stress test. There is no good news. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.
What comes next is likely to be unspeakably worse.
It doesn’t have to be that way for other countries in the region. The significant advantage of crafting and implementing policy in May is being able to draw wisdom from the experience of other countries across the previous months. The entire world now knows in painful detail exactly what works, and what has failed.
Lockdown works very well, but only if and when every constituency is made to feel adequately secure. If any one section of the populace is left at risk, it compromises the safety of all others.
Each step of the way ahead demands meticulous preparation, scrupulous implementation, and the cooperation of every member of society. Absent any of these factors, and the health crisis very quickly morphs into an uncontrollable humanitarian disaster.
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.