Before the coronavirus exploded into the news, a report by the World Health Organization warned that the world was not prepared for “a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic” that could kill 50-80 million people, cause panic and instability, and seriously affect the global economy and trade. The experience of the last 200-plus years has shown that only governments acting in concert can effectively fight such a pandemic – and even then, only with the trust and compliance of their citizens. This points to three challenges facing political leaders in the fight against the new coronavirus, now known as COVID-19.
The first challenge is that politicians are torn between looking decisive and adopting science-based measures that require careful explanation to a skeptical public. For example, governments in several countries, including India, Nigeria, Japan, and the United States, have recently instituted highly visible temperature checks on all passengers arriving at their airports. But feverish travelers can simply mask their condition by using fever-reducing drugs. Furthermore, Chinese researchers suspect that COVID-19 is contagious for up to 24 days before the person carrying it develops a fever. The, United Kingdom’s government therefore, is focusing on informing all arriving passengers about what to do if they experience symptoms after leaving the airport.
More seriously, on January 31, US President Donald Trump’s administration announced a temporary entry ban on all foreign nationals who had been to China in the past 14 days, unless they were immediate relatives of US citizens or permanent residents. Many other countries have imposed similar measures, but the effect could be exactly the opposite of what was intended.
Closing off China might seem justified. But doing so unilaterally, without building trust with other governments, makes it likelier that other countries – such as China’s smaller neighbors – will not notify the world when the virus spreads to them, owing to fear of being closed off and the massive economic costs this would imply. The golden rule in fighting pandemics is to encourage affected countries to notify others immediately of any infection.
Chinese researchers rapidly identified COVID-19, and – after international urging – shared its viral sequence, thus spurring global cooperation in the race to create a vaccine. In so doing, China complied with international rules that aim to ensure that countries work together to combat infections, rather than harming themselves or unnecessarily harming others through protectionist measures.
The second challenge for governments relates to communication. Accurate, trusted information is vital in fighting a pandemic. But in most of the world, citizens do not trust politicians to tell the truth, so they turn instead to social media and other sources of information.
Such platforms can facilitate greater transparency and instant reporting, which governments must not quash, as local officials in Wuhan initially did by threatening doctors who reported the new coronavirus. But social media also gives rise to “infodemics” of fake news and rumor that endanger public health. The WHO currently must refute claims that mouthwashes, nasal sprays, and sesame oil can prevent people from being infected with COVID-19.