Featured Image: CDC Tom Harkin Global Communications Center
Photo in Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons
A new viral infection has deeply shaken the international community. COVID-19, the illness caused by a novel coronavirus first detected in China in late 2019, has, at the time of writing, infected over 100,000 people and killed over 3,000 worldwide. It is certainly a scary situation, and scary situations—particularly in the sphere of fighting communicable diseases—prompt drastic actions. China’s draconian (and seemingly effective) measures to contain the virus demonstrate as much. In times like these, though, it is imperative to keep a level head and respond in justified and measured ways.
Before continuing, I must preface by stating that I am not an epidemiologist, nor am I as intimately familiar with biomedical sciences as are many of my colleagues and family members. Now is the time to listen to the advice and recommendations of infectious disease professionals and, importantly, to not panic.
In the realm of foreign affairs, it is as good a time as ever for national leaders to not overreact and to not point fingers. For these leaders, it is also incredibly important to refrain from politicizing the situation as much as possible. We have progressed to this point in global society together; it serves nobody to have world leaders turn their back on cooperation in the face of this challenge.
Indeed, globalization has allowed for quick transit around the world, which has hastened the virus’ spread. We must not forget, though, that the benefits of modern transportation apply to more than just tourists. Supply chains for pivotal products sometimes involve more countries than can be counted on one hand. It takes a high degree of cooperation to run a global economy that affects every domestic economy, market, and consumer on Earth. These supply chains feed into the continued production of critically needed drugs, medical equipment, and other essentials that are necessary in times of outbreak.
We hear much talk in times like these about antivirals and vaccines to stem currently raging epidemics. Note that it is through cooperation between scientists all over the world that vaccine development and deployment times have dropped in comparison with SARS. It is through collaboration with scientists from all over the world that critical research is conducted, and it is through similar collaboration that pharmaceutical companies develop critical drugs to fight deadly disease. After Chinese scientists first sequenced the virus, they posted their results online for scientists around the world to see and work with. Thanks to the globalization of information and research, scientists worldwide were able to learn about the novel coronavirus and will use that information to develop vaccines and therapeutics.
Times like these breed fear. They breed fear of infection, of situations that may lead to infection, and of people that may be carriers of infection. They can, unfortunately, lead to xenophobic acts. It is important in times like these to maintain measured approaches. Epidemiologists have been stipulating such approaches to reduce risk of infection for a while now, like social distancing and heightened personal hygiene awareness. Entities with significant sway, like states, can allay the concerns of fearful citizens by pushing informed public health measures like these. International institutions like the World Health Organization also help to, at least in some part, advocate for informed and non-reactionary measures.
This is neither a time to close borders nor a time to sow division. Of course it is necessary and proper to screen travelers (both international and domestic) for infection, but to shut one’s country off from the rest of the world, and/or, worse, blame others, is to ignore fundamental realities. The virus has taken root globally and will spread, as have many other contagions before it and as will many more in the future. Containment and mitigation require the benefits of maintained supply chains and international collaboration of researchers. We will get through this, in great part due to interdependence and scientific partnership.
Large-scale epidemics call for a heightened sense of global togetherness in every aspect but physically. Yes, it is imperative to listen to epidemiologists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (for those in the United States), and your local and state health departments. The same is just as true for governments as it is for individuals. Just as individuals should remain calm and refrain from taking rash actions (like hoarding and xenophobic acts), so too should governments remain calm and refrain from talking rash actions (like withdrawing from the world).
To individuals as well as to governments: listen to epidemiologists and health officials. Do not panic. Targeting others will get us nowhere. The world will emerge from the coronavirus crisis; by keeping supply chains open and encouraging international scientific partnerships, perhaps we will be better equipped to come away from this with new understandings of infectious diseases and how best to manage them and control their spread when the next contagion arrives.