Some of this is simply outdated – Asia has been struggling with coronavirus since the end of last year, so governments have had more time to respond, and waves of infections have increased and decreased . Europe and the United States are in the relatively early stages of their outbreaks and the numbers are also expected to slow in the coming weeks and months.
But this explanation misses a fact: the West did not have to go through the same cycles as Asia, where governments and public health systems were little aware of the virus and tried to understand it while reacting to epidemics.
In Asia, it is increasingly surprising that the long lead times of many countries elsewhere have not been better used. This is particularly the case in China, where state-supported media have argued that the country’s response to the virus has saved the world from a much worse pandemic and that the sacrifices made by the Chinese people have been wasted by mismanagement of governments. in the West.
Many of these governments wanted to lay the blame for the virus on Beijing, but while initial cover-ups and lack of transparency undoubtedly delayed international response, by February at the latest, much of what we know about the virus – including its severity and the ability to spread quickly – was widely known, yet countries have still not acted or refused to act.
Someone else’s problem
While it is easy to forget now that the coronavirus exploded in a global pandemic, at the beginning, the worst of the epidemic seemed to be contained in China, with most of the deaths seen in Wuhan, at least in part due healthcare overflowed with the city system.
Sporadic outbreaks outside mainland China have not experienced the same levels of death as in Wuhan. And there hasn’t been the kind of rapid spread inside China that later came to Europe and the United States.
“I think the penny hadn’t gone down that it would really continue to spread,” said Benjamin Cowling, professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong. “In Hong Kong we picked up all of these cases and then checked their contacts, and it didn’t seem so contagious. There was an opinion that maybe outside of China the infections would not spread not as easily. “
Cowling added that “it was only about a month later, especially when northern Italy experienced this outbreak, that suddenly it was recognized that there could be a lot of under-the-radar transmission. ”
But while authorities and experts were certainly caught off guard by the speed and extent of the spread of the virus, several experts agreed that there was also a general feeling of complacency among Western governments as the epidemic was a Chinese – or Asian – problem, and wouldn’t necessarily behave the same way within their borders.
“There is often a feeling in countries that they might be affected in a different way because their community has a different structure … or that the warm weather will keep it away, or that their community is larger” said Cowling. “But I think what we’re finding out is that Covid-19 is affecting all over the world.”
Nadia Abuelezam, epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Connell School of Nursing at Boston College, said that “despite a number of scientists warning (American) leaders that an epidemic of this magnitude could occur, little was done to prepare”.
She attributed this in part to the underfunding of the US health care system, but more broadly “there is still a lot of stigma and xenophobia in society that public health officials and other members of society are trying to combat”.
“Unfortunately, this stigma has provoked a slow response and has resulted in a large number of deaths and infections worldwide,” she added.
Failure to act
Despite all the blame on China’s door for its failure to act at the start of the pandemic, officials did not know what they were facing.
In comparison, officials in Europe and the United States knew exactly what they were facing once the epidemic reached their borders, but were often slow to respond, wasting time as the virus spread through Asia and ignoring the lessons learned from other countries.
Despite this, Western governments, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, have been incredibly slow to act.
This cannot be attributed to a lack of information from the United Kingdom and the United States. Taiwan is not a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) and has publicly complained of a lack of data sharing because of this (an accusation the organization denies). However, it was able to establish a world-class response based on publicly available information.
New Zealand, another government that has been praised for handling the pandemic, has also been quicker to introduce generalized restrictions and tests than Washington or London.
The last war
It’s a well-worn cliché that armies fail when they try to wage the last war in the next, but crisis responses are also shaped by past experience, regardless of how much we try to look beyond. .
From the outset, the current pandemic was seen as a resurgence of SARS, from its onset in China, to this government’s apparent attempt to cover up, until it spread to Asia. The two viruses are related and have similar symptoms, but the new coronavirus has long since surpassed SARS in terms of death and spread.
Taiwan has been hit hard by SARS, and its rapid response to the current pandemic has been led by the National Health Command Center (NHCC), a high-level coordinating body established in 2004.
But while SARS may have led to faster action in one part of the world, the 2003 epidemic may have led officials elsewhere to take the opposite approach.
“I expected a quicker response as we have dealt with SARS and MERS and other recent health threats,” said Henry F. Raymond, associate professor and epidemiologist at the Rutgers School of Public Health , about the American management of coronavirus. “But on the basis of the same experiences where these epidemics have been relatively slow to move and for the most part quickly contained, they may have contributed to more complacency than was justified.”
This complacency, combined with calls to preserve the economy at all costs, seems to have pushed some officials to refuse to see what was looking them in the face or to be shouted at by more and more desperate scientific advisers.
Even in Hong Kong, Cowling said he couldn’t bring himself to believe that this virus was going to be much worse than what we had seen previously.
“Scientifically, I knew it was spreading. But I still didn’t really know how to say it,” he said. “I remember very well that there was an article I wrote where I changed the word ‘pandemic’ to something like ‘global epidemic’ because I felt like no one would believe me if I said it would be a pandemic. ”