The good thing about coronavirus

March 2, 2020

It is far too early to know whether the coronavirus epidemic will have been just a huge scare or a major disaster. Some epidemiologists fear that half of the world population may be infected. With a mortality rate of 2%, this means that 1% of the currently living could be wiped out. The toll would be 78 million people, a bit less than the size of the population of Germany or Turkey. There are no words to describe such a threat.


How can one think of a “good thing” about this immense threat, then? So far at least, the epidemic looks like a giant Rohrschach test, you know these colored inkblots that reveal your personality, except that it reveals the nature of governments and, more widely, societies. It is fascinating to observe how governments react to the threat. Even if the epidemic soon disappears, eventually its fallout could be spectacular, for better or for worse.


Take China, a country whose government has been keen to promote worldwide its autocratic and secretive regime. The initial cover-up was unsustainable and forced the government to a U-turn that all citizens could see, a rare event. The famous hospital built in ten days looked like a massive achievement, until it backfired when the health system became visibly overwhelmed, in effect abandoning scores of sick people. The tight limitations imposed on the population may eventually be efficient but it has violated elementary human rights. Even though most citizens are under no illusion about the nature of the regime, this is a traumatic experience.


Similar observations apply to other autocratic and secretive regimes. Iran’s unbelievable numbers of reported cases and deaths will eventually blow up. Russia is likely to follow the same path, as it did with AIDS a while ago. As we know from the Chernobyl case, people are deeply hurt when they discover that their governments chose to protect the regime over their own lives. There is always a price to pay, sooner or later.


Trump’s initial denial of the issue will be soon be revealed as yet another lie. Maybe the US health system is better equipped to deal with the epidemic than most others, but the President will suffer badly if it emerges that his early denial has led to scores of avoidable deaths. The Italian and South-Korean governments also reacted very slowly. Either they were not aware of what was going on or they were clueless about what to do, they were just incompetent. In France, politicized trade unions of health workers immediately blamed the government for a lack of resources, even though it is acting fast, forcefully and transparently. Divisions will rise in an already deeply divided country.


The cruise ship moored in Yokohama has been turned into a Petri dish. Amazingly, the Japanese health authorities tested a minority of the stranded passengers, officially due to a lack of equipment. At the same time, another cruise ship was quarantined in Hong Kong and all passengers were promptly tested. Japan hardly qualifies as a poor country short on technical skills, but its narrow political elite and its bureaucracy are well-known for their bad habits, as the Fukushima disaster already revealed.


A telling contrast is Switzerland. As soon as the first two cases were identified, the government built up testing centers and required that large events (more than 1000 people) be cancelled. Highly expensive exhibitions, like the Geneva auto show or the prestigious watch show, were instantly cancelled. For a country frequently derided for being slow at everything (maybe except downhill skiing), its speed of reaction stands to reduce the extent of the epidemic even though its borders remain widely open. Then look at Israel, which turns its back to foreigners coming from some infected countries when they land at the airport, where they are not even allowed to disembark, while Israeli citizens coming in from the same countries are immediately taken care of. If that is not a fortress mentality, then what is?


Epidemiologists worry about the impact of the epidemic in poor, ill-equipped countries. Kazakhstan and Côte d’Ivoire have built brand new capital cities but they may lack elementary health systems, like many other countries whose armies sport advanced weaponry. Development economists have long identified health systems as a priority that public and private donors should focus on. They stand to be proven right, but the proof might be cruel.


These examples, and many more will occur in the coming weeks, should not go unnoticed when the epidemic finally tempers down. They all will reveal what is deeply wrong, sometimes reassuringly good, in each country. These things mostly went unnoticed because they have been part of the landscape for a very long time, just a normal fact of life. If many lives are lost, they will be exposed for all to see. Hopefully, it will be much more difficult to ignore the facts or blame foreigners for national failings. This could be the silver lining of the disaster that awaits the world. It would be a tragic failure if the lessons that we are about to learn end up wasted.