Coronavirus is a threat to our global society.
Coronavirus — echoing the immortal words of Joe Biden — is a big fucking deal. The most recent developments would tell you as much.
Yesterday the British government announced a stimulus package worth 420 billion pounds — equivalent to 15% of the British GDP. The German government pledged $600 billion USD in economic aid. The European Union itself promised hundreds of billions in aid to support the bloc’s members. The amount of spending in Europe is colossal. By comparison, the Marshall Plan — the US aid package offered to Europe in the aftermath of WWII, hoping to starve off what historian Tony Judt described as desolation and societal collapse on the continent — was only worth $200 billion in today’s currency. In the United States, the Republican Senate and White House are poised to offer economic stimulus worth over $1 trillion USD, including direct financial payments worth $1000, a form of universal basic income — a policy proposed by former 2020 Democratic primary candidate Andrew Yang that was offered little if any attention during his run. Moreover, central banks across the globe are offering unprecedented levels of liquidity and interest rate cuts— far outpacing their response to the 2008 Great Recession. These are serious economic interventions that should give us all pause: Things are not normal — not even close.
The Situation at Home
The economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic and the domestic and international response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, will be monumental.
Markets have already cratered, a recession is likely, and a depression is — unfortunately — not unlikely. But this pandemic goes beyond economics. The travel bans, lockdowns of countries, and the panic that has spread globally points to a larger threat. Coronavirus is much bigger than our pocketbooks or our retirement accounts: The virus threatens life.
A lot of life.
The U.S. Centers of Diseases Control and Prevention estimated that between 160 million and 214 million people could become infected in the United States alone — with between 200,000 and 1,700,000 people dead. By comparison: 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War; 117,000 Americans died in the First World War; 400,000 Americans died in World War II; and roughly 650,000 Americans died in the Civil War. Other reports on the pandemic offer different, but nevertheless, grim outlooks.
Imperial College’s March 16th report from their COVID-19 Response Team illuminated our new reality and triggered the recent extreme interventions. The study found that if no significant changes to social life and medical preparation are taken, 510,000 people will die in the United Kingdom and 2.2 million in the United States. If we follow “mitigation” policies — the same ones we hear governments discussing now to “flatten the curve” — the death toll will still be significant. More importantly, while mitigation will build some herd immunity, a second wave is likely once the mitigation policies are relaxed. The alternative approach would be to enact suppression policies. These are severe interventions — school closures, case isolation, home quarantine, and social distancing — aimed at suppressing cases and halting the pandemic’s spread indefinitely until a vaccine is tested, manufactured, and globally administered. Suppression would save the most lives, but only if we commit. Relaxing restrictions without a carefully planned strategy would make a second wave likely — one that will likely be worse than what we are experiencing right now. The virus is deadly. We have to treat it as such.
The most damning fact from the Imperial College report is that the pandemic surge has not occurred yet. The chaos in Italy, Iran, and other countries, and the fear that the chaos is spreading across Europe and America, is nothing in comparison to what is to come. The peak of cases and mortality will happen in three months barring immediate implementation of suppression-based government policies and individual behavior. Now is the time to make big changes in our lives. Things will not be normal for a while. It is time to get used to it because now is the time to act.
Of course, the situation could change. We have incomplete information about the virus, how it spreads, and what to do for those infected. The situation could not be as bad as I am projecting, however it would be unsafe and contemptible to live life under the assumption that the best-case scenario will happen. Even if we manage the cases, the strain on our health care systems will diminish other medical concerns. We need collective effort and decisive action.
Hard borders will need to be erected. Social distancing will have to be mandated and enforced. Our daily lives will change. Luxury goods — such as the upcoming Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X — will likely be delayed or in short supply. The import of cargo will still be possible, particularly once the immediate surge is contained. However, imports will likely be restricted to the most critical economic goods since any item will need to be disinfected or quarantined upon entry. Similar restrictions will likely apply to humans — international travel will only be used for necessary travel, meaning: Doctors, researchers, heads of state, diplomats, engineers, etc. It is possible we will see similar restrictions on domestic travel — at least for a period. These measures will be required to prevent a second wave of infections and repeating our current crisis and panic.
However, this pandemic reality has only been concerned on the wealthiest and most successful countries so far. This is a global pandemic. It threatens our national and international order and security.
A Global Crisis
Changes in the international economy will have dramatic consequences for the Global South. The restrictions on the international market will thwart economic growth and output in their manufacturing or primary goods-based economies. The impact will likely be, at minimum, of a similar magnitude to that felt by the West. However, many of these countries have far weaker social safety nets; far fewer competent governments; and, most critically, far worse medical resources. Therefore, for much of the world this pandemic could threaten society and life unparalleled to what we in the West will experience.
Many countries in the Global South have poor medical infrastructures. In Africa, the number of cases lag behind the West, but cases are on the rise. In response, African nations have taken drastic steps to curb a surge in cases. But what happens if their efforts are insufficient? Or, should their steps be sufficient, what happens until a vaccine is ready since many of their economies rely on exports? Even in areas that managed to temporarily contain the virus, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and now China, significant interventions were required — ones that will need to largely hold until a vaccine is ready, otherwise risking a second wave of infection. Africa will either experience a lockdown for months to come or face a massive health disaster. Hardly a situation that would benefit global stability.
Moreover, what happens if the situation in North Korea worsens? While the North Korean government has claimed it has controlled the virus, reports have emerged that thousands in the military have been infected, and rumors have spread that the Kim Jong-Un dictatorship has killed people who break quarantine. More importantly, however: What happens until a vaccine can reach the country? This is a country that as of 2019 has nearly 40% of their population undernourished. This is a country that has nuclear weapons and an unstable and authoritarian leadership. What happens if a surge of cases occurs in North Korea? Or at minimum, what steps do we need to take globally to ensure the 11 million vulnerable North Koreans are safe? This is a serious global situation.
The threat is also not confined to North Korea. What happens as the virus continues to wreak havoc in Iran? Cases are surging, and if the government is unable to take extreme measures the death toll in Iran could reach 3.5 million people. While the virus has the potential to bring together and moderate the government of Iran, this is not likely to be an easy process. It is likely that Iran will need international support in fighting the pandemic. Is the world willing to offer it? Moreover, consider the West Bank. Today, Israel closed off Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank but the spread of the virus continues in the West Bank. Will the Israeli government be able to handle a growing pandemic in Palestine? Will tensions explode if Israeli does not? What happens when the viruses reaches numerous other weak governments or unstable situations — such as in Afghanistan where a recent peace deal between the United States, Taliban, and Afghanistan is threatened by the rise of COVID-19 cases in the country. What about Syria or the Congo? This pandemic is not contained within our homes. It is not contained within our borders. Coronavirus is a global threat. We need global leadership, otherwise we risk chaos.
Sweeping and immediate action is necessary. For the time being, normalcy will change. The economy will tank, social life will go digital, and many will unfortunately perish. By leveraging technology, implementing drive-through testing, providing unprecedented economic support, and making virus management paramount domestically and internationally, it is possible we achieve some return to normalcy. But life will be changed, and a new normal will last until a vaccine is created and spread— an effort that will take roughly 18 months. And even after the vaccine has been administered, we will emerge into a world shaped and morphed by our present and immediate threat. A global coordinated response will likely be required.
We each have to contribute how we can: Following government guidelines for virus management; contributing our time and energy towards public works; offering technical expertise; raising our taxes — particularly on the wealthy; rationing goods; and embarking upon unprecedented international and humanitarian programs aimed to protecting the most vulnerable. We have to work internationally to accelerate the timeframe for vaccine creation, production, and distribution. We have to work internationally to surge medical equipment development and medical personnel training. We have work domestically to support our front-line healthcare defenders. This is our new reality.
This feels like a lot. It feels unfair, it feels absurd, and we very well may feel angry. The governments of the world have failed us. The guiltiest party is undeniably China. The Chinese government suppressed coronavirus whistleblowers; took a slow response to the unfolding health crisis, with Xi hiding from public view; and ignored C.D.C. and W.H.O. offers for help. Now, China is expelling American journalists from the country who seek to expose and criticize the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus crisis. However, China eventually suppressed their cases and, despite their condemnable initial response, bought the world months to prepare. We took those hard-earned months and did nothing.
It would be difficult to underestimate the failure that was the United States’ response. The Trump Administration downplayed the situation, failed to rally global leadership, focused attention to the stock-market and industry-specific bailouts, and performed non-existent preparation. The US response has been — to use a technical term — pathetic. However, the inability to lead is not exclusive to America. Across Europe, leaders failed in their response to the unfolding pandemic. Some places in Asia might have done well at initially containing the virus, but, as previously mentioned, their situation will be hard to maintain.
The majority of our governments have failed us. They fought for adulation and praise, playing their self-absorbed role in the drama of “politics” that has saturated our lives. In short, they failed to govern. As a result, we are about to experience a pandemic caused by incompetence and narcissism. This is a scary and, frankly, unfair time. But this is our new reality — and no complaining, tweeting, or downplaying of the situation will change it. Blame and punishment for our failed leaders will have to wait, because blame will not change our present reality. Now, we need to work together on getting out of this situation together. Now, we need action.
Our New Era
War. We are at war. One day, this may be referred to as World War III — but make no mistake, this war is not normal. You cannot argue or negotiate with a virus. You cannot reach an “understanding” or a conditional surrender with a virus. Until we know enough about the virus and how it will spread, we need to have a war-like mentality — focusing on preventing the worst-case scenarios. War conjures many emotions and feelings such as fear and animosity. But it also conjures unity and purpose. We need to harness the good — forming a new sensation of national and international unity. This conflict is different from any other we have faced in recent times: Our enemy is not a substance, our enemy is not a terrorist group, our enemy is not another nation. Our enemy is a virus that does not discriminate. We will either pull together and save lives, or we won’t — forever living in the shadows of those we slay because when the time came, we could not stand together.
This world war will require unprecedented levels of global cooperation. We need international leadership — leaders, medical officials, experts, and researchers working together. Even if we are able to suppress the virus at home, an international effort will have to continue until a vaccine is globally distributed — otherwise we threaten global stability. Now is time for the governments of the world to treat the situation for what it is and what it will be. Now is the time for them to act together: Declare war on coronavirus and COVID-19.
Wartime strategies will need to be invoked domestically. This has already begun in the United States, with President Trump invoking the Defense Production Act today. We also need an agile lawmaking system. This is no time to play for the cameras: Politicians need to put their heads down, stop fighting for attention, bring in experts, and get to work. Action will have to be taken, then retaken again and again as the situation develops. This pandemic cannot be solved in a weekend or a month, it will require a sustained, adaptable approach that will last from infection through recovery. This may seem like a daunting — even risky — task, especially when many of our governments have demonstrated little ability or competency. But these are unfortunately the governments we have. If they succeed in their response to the coronavirus pandemic — by bringing in experts and listening to the smartest, not the most “popular,” voices — they will earn a shot at governing in the future. Or they do a poor job and get voted out of office, either by election or a vote of no-confidence. It is time for government to do its job. We’ll decide if their efforts were sufficient.
War will mean a change in national campaigns as well. The 2020 Presidential Election is underway in the United States and it should not stop. All citizens should receive mail-in ballots and the debates should continue — although with no audiences. How will we judge Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Presidential Donald Trump? By how they will respond (or are responding) to the immediate crisis; how they will lead (or are leading) the international fight against the pandemic; how they will transition from suppression into some form of normalcy; and how they will lead a battered nation and world after we emerge from the immediate threat. The shift in campaigning has already begun: Joe Biden was the first to announce a plan fighting the virus, and focused on the immediate response in the most recent democratic primary debate. Bernie Sanders, who gave far less attention to the virus during Sunday’s debate, has begun to take the pandemic seriously — unveiling a $2 trillion emergency plan yesterday. Even President Trump has taken the threat seriously and is no longer downplaying the threat.
The pandemic will be the ultimate test for our governments and for those who seek to run our governments: Who can get us through the crisis and who can help us thrive afterwards? These questions will define our new wartime elections: For President, for House, for Senate, and for our local officials too. It is our responsibility as a public to aid in any way we can against this pandemic, but it is also our responsibility to have a representative government that has the correct plan to steer us through and out of this crisis, domestically and internationally. It is time for the governments to govern and for the citizens to hold them accountable.
Hope and Possibility
We can emerge from this crisis stronger. We can remember why we need a government; why we need our fellow countrymen; why we need international leadership and commitment; why we need a government that works by and for the people; and why we need our fellow humans across the globe. This situation will lay to bare our societies, and from that naked look we can build a better tomorrow. We will be testing policies that previously were unthinkable—such as universal healthcare and universal basic income in the United States. Our crisis will also break the years-long spell of perpetual political fighting. However, this is also a period of great risk. Many societies are fragile, and countries such as China may view this pandemic as the means to fundamentally alter the international order. Coronavirus has demonstrated the “Liberal World Order’s” weaknesses and we must act to correct these faults. At the same time, revolutionary change in the wake of disaster is risky — and there is much to fret about a Chinese-led world order.
What I have proposed may be an overreaction. Studies have indicated the situation may not get as bad in the Global South as it has in the Global North, and the worst-case or medium-case scenarios of the pandemic may never come to fruition. But even if we overreact, we will save lives — likely more than we would have otherwise. However, if we under-react, we doom millions to death. These are preventable deaths! This is a PANDEMIC. We must act now: Protect, defend, and improve.
Our effort will not end with coronavirus. If you think the pandemic is bad and caused extreme panic, then try not to contemplate climate change or the threat of automation and artificial intelligence right now. These are fundamental challenges to our society that we will require decisive action too. It is likely that this pandemic has inadvertently bought us time for both — but if COVID-19 has taught as anything, we cannot ignore threats until they became unavoidable.
Can we succeed in our war against coronavirus and against our future threats? Can we save our fellow human beings and our societies? Can we emerge from this crisis stronger than before? Yes. There is hope and possibility. We can and must achieve the best possible outcome based on our present reality. But that will only happen if we fight this war together, if we use our spirit, tools, technology, and knowledge together, and, most importantly, if we are collectively willing to give a damn. It is time to change our perception. It is time to get serious.
Can we make the possible and the hopeful our reality? Will hope and history rhyme? We’re about to find out.
Thanks for reading this article. I’d like to thank Scott Singer, Anna Chirniciuc, Jasmine Chia, Matt Mizbani, Jenna Weyant, and my mom for helping me edit this piece.
I am wishing everyone the best in the coming months and years to come.
Note: This article was written during the afternoon of March 18, 2020 (GMT). This means that much of what is written here is subject to change — and likely will change in the coming days or even hours.