COVID-19 : pandemic and pandemonium in the global village

by Apr 1, 2020

The Corona pandemic is a phenomenon in a global village which is very different from that when the concept of surrealism was coined a hundred years ago. Artists then saw the goal of surrealism as a concept to “liberate thought, language and human experience from the oppressive boundaries of rationalism, unleashing the minds of the masses from the rational order of society.” They painted sceneries that were blurred and, unlike previous paintings, not a facsimile of objects or landscape, rather an interpretation of those objects in that particular artist’s imagination. For much of the that century and in the current 21st century, developments in science, technology, the social sciences deviated from that path as rationalism, logic and a data driven society led to huge leaps in technology as demonstrated in the computers, the internet, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.

In COVId-19, something went wrong, particularly in the two super powers that are in the driving seat, China and the USA. Trump was wrong when he called Covid-19 the “Chinese disease”; rather it is owned by both countries. Local authorities in China supressed news of the disease and America which through its intelligence was probably the first country to know about it failed to act. Both countries failed in that respect and America with its technological prominence and resources which it could have used to contain Covid-19’s spread failed to take decisive action that could have prevented the pandemic. The pandemic started in China but the spread and severity is due to the way the world has become a global village in which these two countries play a pivotal role and the surrealism in both of them, a denial of reality, science and previous health issues.

News of the silent killer was buried but Covid19 failed to go away and instead spread in Wuhan city, the province, country and the world. When doctors started raising the alarm and were quickly silenced by local authorities, it severely hampered measures that could have been taken to address the problem and prevent its spread. This action went against all logic and failed to take into account previous incidents, notably the SARS case ten years earlier. Trump’s America which had received intelligence reports of the pandemic, ignored those signals and even before the outbreak, had started dismantling the infrastructure that had been built to work with the Chinese on such occasions.

In the USA, Trump, the ultimate surrealist not only downplayed the disease but totally ignored the (NSC) playbook/workflow that Obama had left him with dire consequences for the country which now has the largest number of people affected with Corona virus. He dismissed it as a minor problem that would quickly go away saying Corona is “close to zero”. He has appointed his vice-president to head the task force, a man who had a disastrous record on HIV infections as governor of his state, makes frequent (daily) TV appearances where he spews lies, contradicts scientists, promotes unproven remedies, avoids any responsibility, fails to use powers that he has to direct and coordinate an effective campaign and has expressed a desire to end the lockdown against the advice of the experts. Trump has therefore, in effect aggravated the dire situation in his country and is prolonging the crisis in the US and the world. The pandemic could not have happened at a worst time as Peter Wehner wrote in The Atlantic, in his article, The president is trapped, noting that Trump lacks the essential leadership background and skills which he said “are calmness, wisdom, reassurance; a command of facts and an ability to communicate them well; and the capacity to think about the medium and long term while carefully weighing competing options and conflicting needs… We need a chief executive whose judgement is not just sound but exceptional”.

The pandemic is severe and there is no sign that it is being brought under control although there are some positive developments in major hotspots. The sad news is that the regime in China while making enormous progress in containing the virus in that country is unlikely to admit the flawed reporting or make the radical changes required in preventing the actions that caused this pandemic. While it has banned the kind of markets that sold the bats that gave rise to Covid-19 it could go further. This could involve an overhaul of food safety legislation but even more important, the local authorities that suppressed the information have yet to be penalised and a more open media and whistle blower system relating to food and hygiene system would need to be implemented. In the US, despite abominable management by Trump, polls indicate that his approval rating on the management of the pandemic is unbelievably on the rise. Consequently, in the two superpowers that will continue to play a significant role in such developments have characteristics that may cause similar pandemics and, make it hard to resolve the current one. Somehow, surrealism in their systems and body politics appear to still is in force to the detriment of those countries and the world.

As the world grapples with this pandemic we have to look at how to deal with it in the now and, in the long term. Policy makers have to look at countries that have prevented the outbreak, made the greatest impact in levelling or even reversing the curve as well as the mortality rate relative to the level of infections. Taiwan comes in the first category, where despite its close proximity and ties to China, it has had very few infections. Taiwan took prompt action in border control measures against travel from China complemented with an extensive testing programme. China and South Korea are examples of countries with severe outbreaks that have made tremendous and successful efforts at reversing the trend. This contrasts sharply with Italy, Spain and the US which have seen rapid and continuing increases in infections. . Germany which has close to the number of infection as Spain has a fraction of the mortality rate of the latter has been lauded for it aggressive testing programme and excellent health infrastructure.

Lessons need to be learned from the successes and failures in those countries. Crucial factors in all cases have been border controls, testing, social distancing and the appropriate health infrastructure. While Trump has lauded himself with taking prompt border closures, he delayed implementing testing and social distancing and the federal government has failed to take a lead or assist in coordinating local and state governments’ campaigns. Authorities have also had problems in securing vital equipment with states bidding against each other, thus ramping up the price of equipment. This suggests a coordinated campaign is needed by national governments because market forces cannot, as Trump appears to believe, resolve the plethora of issues.

As researchers are frantically trying to curtail and roll back the pandemic, governments can make use of technology, notably, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. South Korea and Taiwan have made great use of monitoring systems based on mobile phones. In London, an app has been developed to map the spread of the disease. As noted in my paper on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Big Data is an essential tool. The mapping of the disease and measures taken by different governments can hopefully be facilitated by Big Data and Artificial Intelligence to provide the armoury to fight spread COVID-19, the former to handle the huge data and both to identify patterns, analyse them, take actions to curtail and minimise its spread and assist in the development of a vaccine.

In the medium to long run countries need to prepare for and avoid such pandemics and in the likelihood of such epidemics, implement plans to minimise the impact. A starting point is the playbook/workflow that Obama left the Trump administration which outlines the measures and sequence of actions needed. Countries and the world must have early warning and rapid response systems. The World Health Organisation (WHO) needs to take a lead in assisting in the development and management of such systems; pandemics are likely in their frequency and in the global village we live in they can spread very quickly. Given the real politique situation we live in, we would expect a lead nation. With the US abrogating that role, by electing an America First president, particularly as American voters who have perversely given their approval to the way their disaster of a president is handling the crisis, with his rising poll numbers, China may assume that role. Interestingly, China is providing assistance to Italy and has even offered to assist the US. If US voters decide to re-elect Trump they would be confirming their acceptance of playing second fiddle to the Chinese because they would be electing a man who has not only expressed a desire to pull out of world affairs but is incapable of assuming the mantle of world leader. Interestingly, the European Union which is the largest economic unit has proven to be incapable of taking that leadership role as national governments within the union have asserted national controls.
Two other developments are likely to emerge from this crisis. There will be a push to analyse the bio-chemical content and genetic codes of plants and animals to try and evaluate their toxicity with regards to their usage and as ingredients in food. There is likely to be a push for a more vegetarian diet as many of these food scares have come from our carnivorous diet, notably, the Mad Cow disease and the SARS outbreaks.

Covid-19 has started and spread because of surrealism in the two super-powers, let us hope that things change for the better in both of them. In China, let us hope for a more open society where the messenger of bad news is not ignored and the system allows such people to come forward. In the US let us hope that voters can come to their senses and elect somebody fit for the role of president with the appropriate skills, character and intellect, attributes that are so lacking in the current occupant who failed to see what was happening and continues to put lives at risk because of his ego, ignorance and lack of empathy and intellect for such a crisis.

J Boima Rogers is principal consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO)