As President Donald Trump recently discovered, the novel coronavirus cannot be “talked down.” Delays and unpreparedness in the US and Europe are proving costly to the rest of the world in terms of public health and economic damage.
The epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak is now in Europe and the United States, where the number of the infected may soon exceed those in Italy and China, respectively. Since complacency and inadequate preparedness prevailed outside China until recently, the human costs of the global pandemic are accelerating.
By calling the virus “Chinese,” even against the reprimand of the WHO, the Trump administration is appealing to the worst racial instincts, thereby contributing to hate speech, stigmatization, as well as anti-Chinese and anti-Asian incidents in America.
The White House hopes to disguise its inadequate preparedness, followed by the failure in containment and local testing (which has barely started).
On March 16, the New York Times released a balanced investigative report about the Trump administration’s mishandled virus response. A day later, the administration shared with the Times its pandemic report. Ostensibly, the White House hoped to show it was in control.
But timelines reveal tell a different story.
Even though the leading US health executives had been monitoring the crisis since early January and the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the state of Washington on January 20, followed by the WHO alerts, White House failed to act upon pressing evidence – even against the warnings of the US national intelligence community.
Not so long ago, Trump’s still said publicly that any danger would pass by April 1. When he finally understood the risks, he botched his error-ridden Oval Office virus address and the subsequent mistake-ridden Rose Garden address. Until mid-March, the infection enjoyed a relatively free ride in America.
The pandemic report was clear about the consequences: “A pandemic will last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness… Increasing COVID -19 suspected or confirmed cases in the U.S. will result in increased hospitalizations among at-risk individuals, straining the health care system.” Shortages would ensue.
In the UK, comparable stumbling has caused a similar debacle, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tried hard to express in optimistic terms: “We can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks.” Yet, that cannot be achieved without restrictive measures, which, in turn, could have been launched weeks ago.
In contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been blunt: “Not since World War II has our country faced a challenge that has required such a high degree of common and united action. We can succeed as long as everyone truly understands what’s needed.”
What could have been a multi-month pandemic has now potential to become a multi-year challenge.
Explosion of new cases in the US and Europe
The cold reality is that the US and Europe are mobilizing with a delay of 4 to 8 weeks. As the number of accumulated confirmed cases worldwide is approaching half a million, new cases are increasing by more than 40,000 daily; that is, nearly four times faster than just one week before.
In the worst phase of the Chinese outbreak, the comparable acceleration was barely 4,000; that is, only a tenth of the acceleration outside China today. This escalation is largely attributable to the virus situation in Europe and the US, where the number of accumulated cases will soon exceed that in China.
Assuming that new cases in China will remain low and imported cases can be quarantined; the volume of accumulated cases could remain less than 85,000 at the end of April. But if cases will continue to soar by 40,000 daily outside China – particularly in the US and Europe – through April, worldwide cases would soar to some 1.8 million (Figure).
Over time, such a scenario could translate to huge collateral damage in emerging Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa – through plunges in world finance, trade, investment, and migration.
However, since such a projection is based on current acceleration and steady increases, it is only one possible scenario. In reality, the final figure will prove lower, if the acceleration slows down – or even higher, if it doesn’t.
Cooperation vital to preempt new virus waves, outbreaks
After the restrictive measures are phased out in major economies, certain countries are likely to record odd spikes in death rates, particularly in the virus risk groups. It is a discrete modern-day version of the old eugenics, which permits certain policymakers in the West to bury their mistakes, literally.
As poorly-enforced quarantines are phased out in these countries, flows of people, many of which may be asymptomatic, will start traveling again. Eventually, they will show up in the borders of countries that have managed the crisis relatively successfully – as evidenced by recent spikes of imported cases in China, Singapore and Hong Kong.
What is desperately needed to avoid further nightmare scenarios is multipolar cooperation among major economies and across political differences. In this quest, China, where containment measures have been successful, can show the way, along with major advanced and emerging powers.
Effective global cooperation is urgently needed to reduce the subsequent collateral damage.
This commentary is an updated part of Dr Steinbock’s COVID-19 briefing on March 16, released as “The Global Coronavirus Contraction” by the World Financial Review (March/April) on March 23, 2020