For years, scientists have warned about superbugs and other infectious agents borne out of industrial agricultural practices or unleashed by climate change. The fears of a new disease with no known cure that is spreading like wildfire have been the bases of plots for science fiction books and movies. We have had serious scares before: SARS, Ebola, avian flu. Today, we have a new mystery disease, the coronavirus strain innocuously dubbed 2019-nCoV. Misinformation about the virus and its impacts has been transmitted at lightning speed, fomenting fear, confusion and xenophobia. What we do know is that the virus is spreading fast. In the face of this danger, borders are being closed, flights are being canceled, travel is being banned and racism is rising.
Lawrence O. Gostin is a leading expert on infectious diseases and global health, and a public health professor at Georgetown University, where he directs the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law. He also co-chairs the Lancet Commission on Global Health Law and served on two global commissions to report on the lessons learned from the 2015 West Africa Ebola epidemic. In a recent interview, he explained to me that very little is known about the coronavirus, but so far it appears “the death rate is relatively low—higher than flu but lower than SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] or MERS [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome].” What we do know, he said, is that “it is a really dangerous global threat.”
Fears of this new disease have sparked many reported incidents of racism toward Chinese people and people perceived to be Chinese. Asian and Asian American students at U.S. universities are reporting heightened tensions, judgmental looks and outright xenophobia. The Los Angeles Times relayed one student’s account: “She thinks racist sentiment has been latent. ‘The coronavirus is bringing it to the surface.’”
Gostin calls such attacks “simply disgraceful,” “unconscionable” and “morally wrong.” From his years of experience studying the global impact of contagion, he said, “We often do this with infectious diseases. We blame the victim.”
How and where did the disease develop? Gostin explained that “the epicenter of the epidemic was an animal market in Wuhan, which Chinese authorities quickly disinfected and took down.” We know that it is quite common for these sort of infections to jump from animal species to humans; in fact, in 2002, the deadly SARS originated in southern China, eventually killing hundreds of people before it was stopped. SARS is thought to have originated in a species of bats and then it jumped to another species called civets. A market with such animals is thought to have been the cause of the disease passing to humans. But eliminating or strictly regulating these places is difficult. “Wet markets,” as they are called, are an integral part of Chinese culture and indeed, as an Indian they remind me of the markets in many Indian cities—a farmer’s market version of fresh meat and poultry vendors where consumers buy directly from producers.
It’s easy to blame China for the disease. Although Western governments are happy to do business with China and hinge the global economy on the availability of cheaply made consumer goods, politicians and media outlets are openly critical of its human rights abuses—while almost never mentioning Western mistreatment of immigrants or incarcerated people, and more for comparison. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just referred to China’s Communist Party as the “central threat of our times,” and focused his recent trip to Europe on warning allies of the dangers of China.
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China is neither innocent nor is it the threat that Pompeo claims. It does bear responsibility for delaying the warning to global health authorities for several weeks that a new virus strain had developed. Gostin explained that “in that time, five million people left Wuhan city” as part of the traditional travel period for the Lunar New Year, leading to “a large delay and miscalculation” in gauging the scope of the outbreak and containing it.
What he is suggesting is antithetical to the rising right-wing populism the world over that has put more faith in strong borders, nationalism and deregulation rather than in cooperation, solidarity and greater investments in safety nets.
Gostin is also critical of China’s lockdown of 50 million people, considered the “largest mass quarantine in history.” He explained, “[I]t’s unprecedented in the history of humankind,” unimaginable in any other nation than modern China. But more than unethical, Gostin believes it may not be effective because “the first rule of public health is to gain the trust of the population.” But the mass lockdown has reportedly generated fear and panic — a natural response for anyone feeling “trapped as guinea pigs in a zone of contagion.” Gostin explained that while trapped, people will be “cross-infecting one another,” and once the quarantine is lifted, they will leave. He worried that as a result of the desperation and anxiety created by the lockdown, there may be “emotional and mental health and stress-related illnesses” as well.
While China bears some blame, here in the U.S. there are deep concerns about whether President Donald Trump’s administration is adequately prepared for a pandemic. Under Trump’s leadership, former national security adviser John Bolton dissolved the National Security Council’s global health security team. That team, according to Mother Jones, was a “group of world-class infectious disease and public health experts,” and was “working on implementing a national biodefense strategy to coordinate agencies in order to make the United States more resilient to the threat of biowarfare and epidemics.” Trump has additionally lowered the budgeted amount for global health funding. Gostin is worried that “taking away all of this expertise and coordinating function at the White House and at the interagency level is a serious disservice to the United States because we are not prepared.” He pointed out that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also seen its funding for overseas operations severely curtailed. He lamented, “We don’t learn the lessons of history. We just lurch from complacency when there is no disease to panic when there is. That’s no way to be prepared.”
The development and spread of dangerous new diseases are all but inevitable as the past several years have demonstrated. Rather than scramble to respond to each new contagion as it occurs, Gostin suggests investing in “upstream solutions” rather than “downstream” ones, such as “preparedness and prevention, and robust health systems in place.” They are “cheaper and better for the public health,” he said. What he is suggesting is antithetical to the rising right-wing populism the world over that has put more faith in strong borders, nationalism and deregulation rather than in cooperation, solidarity and greater investments in safety nets.
As a global health expert, Gostin insisted the most important message he wanted to convey to those worried about the coronavirus is this: “The idea of America First, the nationalist populism, is against everything that we believe in in global health.” He explained, “We believe in mutual solidarity, we believe in strong institutions like the World Health Organization and the U.N. We believe in international cooperation. All of those things have been devalued by the Trump administration.”