Lessons from the Pandemic

Since its start in Wuhan, Hubei province, in China, when a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown origin were reported in December of 2019, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc with the economies and social fabric of most countries in the world. The differences in its evolution throughout the world permits us to draw some lessons on how best to deal with a new pandemic. By looking at failed policies will we be able to confront future challenges.

The wrong, and the right, approach to the pandemic

The policies by the Trump administration to the pandemic can be categorized as a “tragedy of errors”. From denying its existence, to minimizing its seriousness, to delaying the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospital workers and people at large, to trusting people without any experience in managing pandemics and disregarding experts’ advice, the former administration’s approach was responsible for the loss of tens of thousands of lives.

In addition, there were unclear messages from the president, often at odds with information from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

While China has successfully controlled the pandemic, other countries -including the United States- still suffer its consequences. Authorities in China were able to implement, from the beginning, draconian measures to prevent the rapid spread of the pandemic. Some of the policies followed by China and other countries were easier to enact in authoritarian societies.

From 3 January 2020 to May 17, 2021, there were 104,428 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China with 4,858 deaths reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). A note of caution: many experts consider this a gross underreporting by the Chinese authorities, although China’s success in controlling the pandemic cannot be denied. In contrast, from 3 January 2020 to May 17 2021, there were 32, 605,236 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and 580,166 deaths reported to WHO.

A report commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations on improving the preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic concluded that China’s compliance with its reporting and information-sharing under the International Health Regulations (IHR) agreement was “at best flawed, particularly in the early days of the outbreak, when transparency was most important.”

In the U.S., the pandemic was treated as a political rather than a public health issue, and leading scientists were contradicted on their suggestions and their opinions were disregarded. The American TV viewer watched in disbelief as the former president ignored the advice given by the country’s top scientists and persistently promoted false cures for the disease. Thousands of people died as a result of his advice.

Advantages of national, centralized policies

While China had a centralized response system to the pandemic, in the U.S. each state was left to fend for itself, frequently competing for vital elements like personal protective equipment (PPE). Also, while China was able to quickly speed up the production of clinical gowns and surgical masks, a shortage of these items in the U.S. lasted for several months.

In China and other Asian countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea one of the key factors of success was to conduct, from the beginning, continuous testing, isolation of the infected, quarantining the contacts, and widespread use of masks, basic measures that are critical for successfully controlling the spread of the pandemic. Those actions were complemented by the closure of all places of mass gatherings and the suspension of all social events, which were strictly enforced.

The speed of China’s response was critical for its success, as explained to The Lancet Gregory Poland, director of the Vaccine Research group at the Mayo Clinic. In China, a 1,000 hospital beds were built in a matter of 10 days to take care of patients with coronavirus, while in the U.S. many hospitals were unable to respond to the increasing demands.

The CFR-Task Force also said that the pandemic exposed the U.S.’s inadequate investment in public health, and its failure to maintain an adequate Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) explains shortages of medical supplies and competition among states over scarce resources.

Super spreader events as a catalyst to the pandemic

Avoiding super spreader events is an important way of contributing to lower the number of infected people. The Trump administration had shown an uncanny ability to promote the faster spread of the pandemic by conducting rallies and social events in total disregard of its own scientists and CDC’s directives. More recently, American peace activist Dr. Alice Rothchild has denounced the Israeli military’s attacks on Gaza as super spreader events, and asked that vaccines against the coronavirus be distributed among the Gazan population, who are the victims of their own and Israel’s leadership.

Vaccines as game-changers

The U.S., other governments, multilateral organizations and private firms have provided substantial financial resources for developing new vaccines against the coronavirus. While in the past it took four to twenty years to create conventional vaccines, the new messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were developed in the record time of 11 months.

Now there are approximately a dozen vaccines approved for general or emergency use, and more than a billion doses have been administered worldwide. Some important challenges remain, however.

The development of new variants of the virus, some of which may produce infections more difficult to control with the existing vaccines, may show the need to produce new vaccines, or a regular round of vaccinations to keep immunity effective. In addition, many people are still reluctant to be vaccinated and there is a fierce global competition for a limited supply of vaccines.

The CFR-sponsored Task Force has stated that the U.S. should treat pandemics as a serious national security issue and translate its rhetoric into concrete action, revamping its current approach to pandemic preparedness and response. One of the most important lessons from this pandemic is that we need to be better prepared to confront future challenges.

China has successfully controlled the pandemic. In the U.S., as the Biden administration continues to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, the end of the pandemic seems to be within reach. Most other countries, however, are lagging far behind and new, concerted, and more generous efforts by the richest nations are needed to control the pandemic at a global level.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”