Until now, most international bodies have remained cautiously optimistic regarding the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), refusing to take hard measures necessary to prevent the spread of the disease. This hesitancy is understandable, given that the Western world has not experienced a major pandemic since the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and given world leaders’ desire to maintain solidarity with those countries hit hardest by the outbreak. As a military officer, I can also appreciate their desire to maintain calm. Calm people are rational people, and calm people mean calm markets and civil order. Still, it seems likely that there are more factors at play constraining action.
As the virus continues to spread and casualties mount, it is becoming increasingly obvious that what the world needs is neither Pollyannaism nor cowardly political calculations, but decisive leaders willing to make tough decisions to prevent greater future problems. Paralysis does no one favors in the long run.
To most casual observers, the lack of common sense was on display as early as mid-January, when, despite revelations that the virus was airborne, that patients could spread the disease before demonstrating symptoms, and that it had already jumped from China to neighboring Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, and Japan, the World Health Organization (WHO) refused to declare a global health emergency for several more weeks (it finally did so on January 30). This not only downplayed the problem, but delayed the delivery of resources to infected areas and postponed the gathering of experts to study the problem and issue recommendations.
To date, the WHO has still not declared the situation a pandemic, despite the number of cases reaching almost 80,000 and affecting 37 countries in all six WHO regions, with hot spots as widespread as South Korea, Iran, and Italy. The WHO also has sought to downplay the seriousness of the virus by reporting a mortality rate of 2.5 percent. This, however, fails to consider the “lag effect” by comparing the number of deaths to the number of total cases, rather than comparing deaths to recoveries. These numbers also assume that countries are reporting accurate data, a big assumption that local reporters and netizens in face-saving countries like China and Iran have called into question. More accurate counting reveals that close to 22 percent of patients experience “serious or critical” symptoms, and 9 percent of resolved cases have led to death. In a world of almost eight billion people, a 9-percent mortality rate could mean deaths well into the hundreds of millions, eclipsing the 1918 Spanish influenza’s 20 to 50 million.
When countries like Australia and the U.S. instituted sensible travel restrictions to and from China, the WHO criticized these measures and advised that they be lifted. Counterintuitively, it went so far as to argue that such travel restrictions would actually promote the spread of the disease rather than slow it. The European Union has likewise failed to institute travel restrictions, taking a hands-off approach by allowing individual member states to institute their own restrictions. In a continent without internal borders, though, the pitfalls of this approach are blindingly obvious.
Although I have no medical expertise, I’ve noticed that the problem is not unlike defensive operations in the military. When you want to prevent an enemy from infiltrating an area, you do not rely on a single perimeter alone. You use a “defense-in-depth,” a series of concentric and mutually reinforcing defensive positions, to keep the enemy out. This is not an esoteric concept unique to the military, though. It is common sense. Why the WHO and EU would refuse to supplement local quarantines in infected areas with travel restrictions between countries is not just bad defense, but willful negligence.
So why have the WHO and EU so far failed to take decisive measures to stem the spread of the disease? It is not just an outpouring of optimism and a desire to avoid panic, but rather a matter of politics. The WHO, being a component of the United Nations, is inherently political in nature, keen to avoid upsetting member states, especially ones with as much clout as China.
Understandably, China wishes to avoid economic catastrophe by continuing to engage in global commerce, a sentiment that importer countries, manufacturers, and retailers share. It likewise wishes to continue study abroad programs and global tourism and to protect its citizens against backlash. China, however, is also concerned about internal stability and maintaining Communist Party control. To achieve these objectives, China is not just willing to engage in deceitful data manipulation but also to use its full national weight to bully other countries and international organizations.
While I would stop short of accusing anyone of malfeasance, it is interesting to note potential conflicts of interest within WHO leadership. The current cabinet chief, Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, has served several WHO leadership assignments in China, including his most recent job before assuming his current role. It is thus highly likely that he maintains both personal and professional relationships there that would make him hedge against advising tough measures, which could make the situation harder on his former host country. More interesting, though, is that the WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Universal Health Coverage and Communicable and Noncommunicable Diseases, Dr. Ren Minghui, is a Chinese national who has previously held senior WHO leadership roles within his native country. As a senior leader within the WHO, he most likely has maintained close communication throughout the crisis with his native government, which implicitly or explicitly demands his support.
It is also worth questioning the motives of the European Union. Having received over $350 billion in Chinese investment, and playing host to over 10 million Chinese tourists and 300,000 Chinese students per year, Europe is keen to avoid upsetting its financial benefactor. In addition, as alluded to in the introduction, Western leaders wish to avoid disrupting financial markets. They likely calculate that tough measures could spook citizens and lead to sell-offs and bank runs (as I am writing this article, the DOW Jones has spiraled over 1000 points on news of the virus’s spread). And as the migrant crisis of 2015 has displayed, Europe is a continent obsessed with social cohesion, race relations, and tolerance. It will do anything to avoid the appearance of discrimination in dealing with this crisis, even to its own detriment.
I recognize that it’s easy to criticize the men in the arena from the bleachers, but after watching global leaders make one transparently bad decision after another as the virus continues its global rampage, I’d say it may be time to recognize political limitations and start demanding decisive leadership. As we say in the military, hope is not a plan.
Adam D. Jannetti is a United States Military Officer and Olmsted Scholar currently pursuing a masters degree in International Relations at the International University of Andalucía in Spain.
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