Daniel Ward shares his opinion on how better communications could mitigate the effects of future pandemics
Staunching the spread of the coronavirus is the defining challenge of a generation but may only be a dry run for overcoming the impending threat to human existence that is global warming. In both cases, the route to success lies in global communication and cooperation.
The virus can spread insidiously across borders and does not discriminate by color, wealth, or race. In some ways it is much like an idea or a trend in that it is an embedded code that disrupts the traditional order and creates havoc. Its effect on the whole world and its dire consequences remind us of climate change.
Unfortunately, initial communications about the virus from China were misinterpreted and suppressed by a Chinese regime more concerned with a global trade war than a pandemic. It didn’t help that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s staff in Beijing had been reduced from 47 to 14 people since January 2017 (Reuters, March 25, 2020) and that, according to a January report by its inspector general, the State Department’s mission is compromised by “staff shortages, frequent turnover, poor leadership, and inexperienced and undertrained staff.”
By reaching the point of allowing this pandemic to force lockdowns in more than 100 countries, we are already experiencing the consequences of poor international communications. Warnings about the virus were circulating in academia last year, but economic competition between the world’s superpowers was so fierce that even the threat of a global pandemic was pushed to the backseat.
International cooperation is the most effective course of action when we see how quickly this disease can spread through trade and travel. The administrations that have thus far been relatively successful in abating the spread of the virus are those that closely followed initiatives against the outbreak and communicated with foreign and local experts, listened to advice, and examined different social customs that influenced the virus’s progress.
On March 8, Stanford was the first Californian university to shift all of its classes online after a Chinese student of linguistics started to petition for the move, having monitored discussions on Chinese-language social media platforms, which documented the need to be proactive against the spread of the virus. It was a good move, but the safety of thousands of students, let alone a state, or even a nation, should not be reliant on the good sense of an international student.
Following the example of several Asian countries, social distancing has been adopted in the absence of widespread testing, but for it to work, the vast majority of people have to choose to cooperate for the greater good. Such behavior is more common in some cultures than others. Here in the U.S., where individualism is so prized, some enforcement has been necessary, but most people have reacted to informed explanations of how social distancing works and has worked in other countries, demonstrating an appreciation of community beyond expectations.
Isolationism is an unrealistic policy in today’s interconnected world. The challenges and threats that we will face will need concerted, multilateral cooperation to be overcome, be they disease, poverty, radicalism, or climate change. But maybe this coronavirus pandemic will give us the opportunity to rethink globalization and recognize that we should be learning from each other, not just profiting.