Easier said than done. Stop the arrogance and be a global team player

Erik Solheim and Kaveh Madani

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel if we recognize the successful mitigation practices of the East Asian countries in fighting COVID-19.

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The coronavirus pandemic is taking lives around the world. The leaders of the western countries are now being questioned for their lack of preparation and slow actions, putting millions of people at risk.

hina’s population is twenty-three times bigger than Italy. But Italy has now overtaken China’s official COVID-19 death toll. Unlike China, Europe, United States and Canada had time to get prepared for this. Yet they did not choose to act like Singapore, a country very close to China that was affected by the virus very early. Singapore now has only a small fraction of COVID-19 cases in comparison to similar-size European nations and no death so far.

While China has reported no new domestic transmission, Europe is on its way to see many more people dying than in East Asia. North America does not look any better. It is simply impossible to understand why the West is refusing to learn from China, Singapore, South Korea and other Asian nations who have managed to already beat the deadly virus.

Until recently, some in the West were hopeful to win market shares from China, but now we cannot convince the investors to keep their assets in our falling markets. The problem is not Chinese, Italian or Iranian anymore. It is global. We are in it together.

The coronavirus crisis is a stress test for the nations of the world to evaluate their decision makers, management institutions, economy, scientific knowledge, social capital, public trust, and resilience. COVID-19 so far has not discriminated the developing world over the developed countries. The modern virus is a reliable indicator to verify the politicians’ claims about their capacity to deal with large scale, multifaceted problems.

Some politicians have a hard time deciding on what they want to save: people or economy. Prioritizing economy over humans sounds unethical and means surrendering to a lethal virus. Prioritizing human over economy on the other hand calls for making big economic sacrifices. Yet, a bankrupt economy cannot take care of people in the long run.

There are still many known unknowns and too many unknown unknowns. Addressing this crisis will involve trials and errors. To make the solution process less costly we need to recognize the success and failures of others. We need the humility to learn from others.

This pandemic is highlighting the necessity for knowledge exchange and acting based on collective wisdom in an interconnected world. The era of one-way knowledge transfer from the global north to south or west to east is over.

Many countries wasted precious time safeguarding their citizens clinging to the belief that the crisis was “Chinese” and would not trouble them. Discussing how China could have managed the crisis better would not save the world right now. Instead, we must capitalize on the successful lessons learned in the first hit nations, some of which having had the greatest success so far.

Singapore has already proven to us that the coronavirus infection is not a destiny if we have a strong will. South Korea has taught us how smart societies can capitalize on the achievements of the fourth industrial revolution to protect their citizens against a lethal virus even without a need for locking down communities. China has shown us that even after early failures a determined nation can turn around and get it right. Those leaders in the west who dismiss such valuable experiences in the east are not just arrogant and ignorant. They are gambling with the lives and future of innocent humans.

We don’t yet have the magic formula for the vaccination and medicine to suppress the virus but the East Asian countries have taught us that is important to:

1. Test, test, and test

China managed to administer active screening in public spaces (streets, rail station, airports, etc.). South Korea used its “smart world” capabilities to identify and contact all “suspicious“ cases and tested them. As the Director General of the World Health Organizations (WHO), Dr. Tedros recently noted: testing a subset of the population based on selective criteria can be misleading and limit our capacity to stop the virus. Test, test, and test is his advice.

2. Detect and discover proactively

Singapore and South Korea were very successful in using advanced technologies to spur cases. Cell phone networks and data collected during tests were used to track infections, trace social networks, and warn the susceptible people. Practicing similar methods in the west might not be in line with privacy laws, but our societies need to decide if enforcing privacy laws is ethical when the lives of people are jeopardized. We can improve and reestablish privacy laws after saving people’s lives.

3. Separate

Social distancing is still our most effective measure against the invisible virus. Based on the experiences so far, most transmissions occur within families. Advising people to stay at home is helpful but would not stop the virus. East Asian nations were not sending the infected people back to their families to prevent transmission. The western governments must adopt similar policies and use empty hotels or dormitories for isolating the affected people. The very last thing a patient wants is to infect her partner, children, and parents. This will also benefit those in the hoteling and hosting business during the cupping recession.

4. Restrict travel and close borders

The domestic and international travel restrictions imposed by some East Asian countries such as Singapore and China prove how effective such policies are. This is now basically happening everywhere, but countries must not interpret border closure as a political act. We need to restrict the movements of people between nations and within nations periodically to save the lives of billions of people around the world.

5. Equip yourselves

Obviously, we need to work together to find affordable vaccines and medicines for COVID-19. But before we have the full cure, we need to equip our systems with proper equipment. Many countries in the west are not yet prepared. The virus peaks are close, but we don’t yet have enough ventilators and intensive care unit (ICU) rooms available.

The coronavirus pandemic can be a turning point in our history when the east-west and north-south borders are broken by our collective wisdom based on the mutual understanding of our moral obligations and responsibilities in an interconnected world. The existing social, political, and economic institutions of the world are not yet prepared to deal with problems at this scale. So, it is very critical that in transition to a less dividing world, we don’t doubt the value of what we have collectively achieved so far. Our systems need revisions and improvements, but we cannot move backwards.

A particularly dangerous anti-democracy narrative that is being promoted these days is that democracies cannot accomplish what China, Singapore, and South Korea have achieved without infringing on human rights. This argument discredits the level of effectiveness in the operations of the East Asian nations.

Democracies have already proven their ability to turn around quickly when the society feels the need for a change. Perhaps, no other nation transformed its economy into a war economy as fast, determined and well organized as the United States during the Second World War. This transition was, of course, facilitated by a brilliant leader like Franklin Roosevelt. But even the great President Roosevelt would have failed if the democratic system he was running had not been flexible, pragmatic, and able to learn.

The coronavirus crisis is unprecedented for our generation. This crisis has challenged our knowledge and revealed our incompetence in dealing with urgent and serious global threats. We cannot win the coronavirus battle, if we don’t consider all nations equal and know that everyone’s contribution is valuable.

The advice from the renowned Persian poet of the 13th century, Saadi Shirazi, is a good reminder that we are equally in this crisis together and together we will prevail.

Saadi Shirazi (1210–1291):

“Human beings are members of a whole,
in creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
the name of human you cannot retain”

About the authors

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Erik Solheim (Twitter: @ErikSolheim) is the former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. He has previously served as a Minister of the Environment and Minister of International Development in Norway.

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Kaveh Madani (Twitter: @KavehMadani) is a Henry Hart Rice Senior Fellow at Yale University and a Visiting Professor at Imperial College London. He has previously served as the Deputy Head of Iran’s Department of Environment and a Vice President of the United Nations Environment Assembly Bureau.

Former Deputy Head of Iran’s Department of Environment, Ex-VP of United Nations Environment Assembly Bureau, Rice Senior Fellow at Yale, www.kavehmadani.com

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