ISSN 2330-717X

The Tragedy Of Missed COVID-19 Opportunities – Analysis


As China’s economy is rebounding, the belated COVID-19 mobilization in the United States and Europe has resulted in huge human and economic damage. New policy plunders could make the situation much worse globally.

My new report, “The Tragedy of Missed Opportunities,” focuses on the huge COVID-19 human costs and economic damage. Released by a global think-tank, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS), it identifies the missed opportunities in the virus battle and its consequent human and economic costs ” [link and here].

In the United States, the Trump administration’s futile effort to “protect the economy” (read: the markets) has had disastrous repercussions. Yet, the White House continues to suppress science-based medical policies. 

The European Union was more willing to battle the virus but was unable to do so proactively because it lacks the needed common institutions for effective response. 

Despite several major opportunities to initiate early mobilization, the major advanced economies did not opt for preemptive action. 

Missed opportunities

Between the first recorded case (Dec 30, 2019), and the WHO’s announcement of the international emergency (Jan 30, 2020), the epicenter of the outbreak was centered in Wuhan, Hubei, and nearby Chinese provinces. The first cases were also recorded in some 20 other countries, including the US and major EU states.

That’s when China, Hong Kong, Singapore and later South Korea mobilized against the outbreak. The White House and the EU had the same virus information as these early mobilizers in the first week of January, yet both chose not to mobilize. That’s how they missed the first opportunity for proactive mobilization.

The second opportunity to contain the virus was between the WHO’s international emergency (Jan 30) and global pandemic alert (Mar 10), when the epicenter moved to Europe and then to the US. Yet full mobilization in both began only 1-2 weeks after the pandemic warning – 6-8 weeks later than in China and Hong Kong.

During this period, inadequate preparedness was reflected by faulty test kits and long testing delays; shortages of protective equipment (PPE), which US trade wars made worse, endangering frontline healthcare professionals; failed responses adding to health risks (rejection of medical policies, failed quarantines); misguided media coverage causing an “infodemic” and an odd battle against the WHO.  

That’s how the second major opportunity for mobilization in February and much of March was missed. In cumulative terms, it covers the entire 1st quarter of the year.

As escalation continued in Europe, the epicenter moved to the US, while quarantines and lockdowns diffused worldwide. While China started social distancing measures in January, they were widely introduced in the West only in April. As a result, the outbreak will linger far longer worldwide, while new virus waves and residual clusters are more likely and premature lockdown exits will add to human and economic costs. 

That’s how the third major opportunity to battle the virus failed in February-March. In cumulative terms, it comprises the first half of the year. 

Next, the epicenter will move to developing countries with weaker healthcare systems. Without external support, that could push 265 million people into poverty, as the UN food relief agency has already warned. 

That’s how the fourth major opportunity against COVID-19 would be missed.

Massive human costs, historical economic damage   

In January, there were over 7,700 cumulative confirmed cases in China, but only a dozen in Europe and half a dozen in the US. Since China mobilized against the outbreak then, cumulative cases are likely to stay below 90,000 at the end of June. 

In contrast, Europe and the US could each have some 3 million cumulative cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Belated mobilizations have horrible costs. 

Struggling to deflect responsibility for its disastrous COVID-19 plunders, the Trump White House is fabricating pretexts to target China as a politically expedient scapegoat, while trying to recruit EU NATO allies to a still another Cold War. 

Without vaccination and therapies, the human costs will continue to climb until the epidemic curves normalize, earliest by 2021. The economic carnage will start with the 2nd quarter coronavirus contraction casting a dark shadow over the early 2020s. 

Even in the current baseline case (IMF, Apr 2020), the cumulative loss to global GDP over 2020 and 2021 could amount to $9 trillion. That’s more than the world’s third and fourth largest economies Japan and Germany combined – or three times more than the 2003 Iraq War, still another misplaced tragedy. 

New trade wars could cause global depression

But there could be much worse ahead. The current IMF baseline still downplays the dire economic landscape – from the 2008/9 global crisis to US tariff wars – that preceded COVID-19. Also, the epidemiologists assume there might be a longer outbreak in 2020, a new outbreak in 2021, or both. 

Since the Trump White House wants to reignite the trade war, it could cause what I call the Great Power Conflicts scenario. In this case, the coronavirus contraction and lingering pandemic risks would result in new trade wars and geopolitical conflicts causing a multi-year global depression. This is the current path of the White House. 

What is needed to avoid such a calamity is the Great Power Cooperation scenario, which would have to cope with lingering pandemic risks would, but deals in trade and technology and diplomacy-driven geopolitics could foster global economic recovery. This appears to be the preferred path of China, most of the EU and US opposition against the Trump White House.

After the tragedy of missed opportunities, only international, multilateral cooperation can offer a way out.

A version of the commentary was released by China Daily on May 12, 2020.

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Dan Steinbock

Dr Dan Steinbock is an recognized expert of the multipolar world. He focuses on international business, international relations, investment and risk among the leading advanced and large emerging economies. He is a Senior ASLA-Fulbright Scholar (New York University and Columbia Business School). Dr Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognized expert of the multipolar world. He focuses on international business, international relations, investment and risk among the major advanced economies (G7) and large emerging economies (BRICS and beyond). Altogether, he monitors 40 major world economies and 12 strategic nations. In addition to his advisory activities, he is affiliated with India China and America Institute (USA), Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and EU Center (Singapore). As a Fulbright scholar, he also cooperates with NYU, Columbia University and Harvard Business School. He has consulted for international organizations, government agencies, financial institutions, MNCs, industry associations, chambers of commerce, and NGOs. He serves on media advisory boards (Fortune, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, McKinsey).

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