A global disease exposes the weaknesses of the world’s dueling powers.
102 years ago the last global pandemic killed about 50 million people. World War II, the deadliest military conflict in history, saw an estimated total of 85 million deaths, about 3% of the 1940 world population. Corona or Covid-19, with a similar death rate of about 2%, is predicted to ‘likely’ become a global pandemic in the next 30 days according to the US Defense Department. The difference between the current Coronavirus and similar outbreaks in the recent past (such as SARS or MERS) is that symptoms kick in typically later and are milder. The incubation time is also longer and some carriers for the virus are infectious, yet are reported to show hardly any symptoms. The death rate is also lower, particularly high with mostly older people and those with weakened immune systems. All of these factors lead to a very infectious virus, if left unchecked. Why does the virus spread so fast both in authoritarian China and increasingly fast in the democratic United States?
China is where it all started. The virus jumped from animal to human, if one follows the most logical scientific explanation, on a bush-meat market in Wuhan, central China. The characteristics of this virus together with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) corrupt regional government structure, without any transparency and checks and independent review, caused an accelerated spread. Instead of reacting to obvious signs that a new virus has broken out and attempting to stop the global spread, the CCP arrested people who started warning about it early. The silencing and subsequent death of Dr. Li Wenliang became a prominent and public case of this strategy of trying to hide this outbreak under the rug. Astonishingly, this dysfunctional political system has created an incentive structure where shooting the messengers, instead of reacting to the lethal message, is the outcome. To call this irresponsible is an understatement. The CCP has been lying about its GDP numbers and all kinds of other less critical things in the past, but the prolonged deception of its own population and later the world’s population about the virus is a level of irresponsibility that is mindboggling. Equally harsh and merciless were the measures that the CCP employed once it could not hide the fact that it had just started the next global pandemic. Video footage from Wuhan shows a 11 million city completely deserted, and loud speakers proclaiming in the streets to not leave the buildings. The expulsion of Western journalists and suspiciously positive numbers from the affected area make one grow ever more skeptical of what is the truth. The United States is the most prosperous and powerful country in the world by most conventional measures (e.g. military power, technological advancement, GDP, ability to influence other states etc.). It has the resources and know-how to contain and control the spread of the virus and to lead the global vaccine efforts. A recent anecdote by a Vice news producer, Julia Lindau, who on returning to the USA from virus-stricken Lombardy was let through customs without as much as a question or a check, shows reality. The US president is following a strategy of ‘ignorance is bliss’. If nobody is being tested and nobody reports on this, the pandemic won’t exist. As the fatality rate appears to hover between 2% and 3%, the US leadership assumes that the best way to fight the pandemic is to pretend it doesn’t exist and it will solve itself. Trump famously said that this will be over as soon as the weather is warmer because, you know, science.
The latest reports from WHO sources show that the infection in the USA has been ongoing for weeks and the number of actually infected people might be in thousands already. Besides an incompetent leadership, another major factor likely contributes to the rapid spread in the US. It is not media censorship and missing power plurality as in China, although these factors are not completely irrelevant; it is rather its political economy. Neo-liberal, anti-market-intervention policies starting about a half-century ago have made the US the most powerful, but also one of the most unequal societies in the world. Three of its richest people own more wealth than its bottom 160+ million. Millions of families cannot miss a single paycheck without losing their home or insurance, which means they will go to work no matter what. A monopolistic and predatory health care system that gives the best care in the world if you are rich and leaves you uninsured if you are poor and jobless will also drive millions of people to go to work sick and thus put all their colleagues in danger.
Global leadership on this crisis isn’t likely to come from neither China nor the USA and we shouldn’t bet our future on it. The European union, currently seeing its wave of infections sweeping its continent, must take up the challenge. We do not suffer from censorship and failed checks and balances; equally, we have not turned our societies into oligarchies with an extremely vulnerable and exposed working class – and so it is up to us to lead from a position that should give us an advantage at overcoming it at home. Pre-emptive, coordinated, science-driven action must be the European response.