One way the world is changing pandemics

Globalization is shaping the coronavirus, and that’s reason for hope. The best defense we have against pandemics is the knowledge we share, after all.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
A member of the California National Guard carries bags of food at FIND Food Bank in Indio, California, on March 26, 2020.

In this week’s cover story, Peter Grier looks at five ways the coronavirus could change the United States. Across the world, our lives have been so thoroughly upended, it’s natural to wonder how they can return to what they were before.

But we can also look at the question from the opposite direction. How is the world shaping the coronavirus? Admittedly, that’s a very weird question. But bear with me, because it yields answers that can help us all get a better handle on what is happening and why there are very good reasons to be optimistic.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of COVID-19 is how rapidly it has spread. Since first appearing in China late last year, it hopscotched to other parts of East Asia, Europe, and North America. Its path has been shaped by globalization, tracing the routes of commerce.

This has put these countries on a “war footing.” American President Donald Trump has cast himself as a wartime president. French President Emmanuel Macron has said his country is at war and conspicuously set up his “situation room” in the Élysée Palace. Chinese President Xi Jinping declared a “people’s war.”

It is a natural piece of rhetoric. “Troops” must be mobilized (be they fusiliers or fruit grocers), supplies and logistics managed, sacrifices made, and costs minimized – both to the economy and human life. But in some ways the comparison is more appropriate than many of us imagine.

War, in its highest sense, is a desire to protect at any cost. And as actual wars have declined dramatically during the past few centuries, other kinds of “wars” have emerged – against poverty, against drugs, against terror. Even actual wars have occasionally taken on humane motives; the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was to prevent a genocide.

Just as all these so-called wars have met with mixed success, so our new war against the coronavirus has been uneven. Taiwan and South Korea have done remarkably well. Many other nations have floundered. But in that is a lesson. Generals will tell you that wars are won on logistics and supplies as much as strategies. And in having to deal with SARS and the bird flu, Asian nations have learned hard lessons. Now the rest of the world is learning.

And the lessons we are learning are key. Even amid the world’s struggles, one fact is clear – pandemics are leading to fewer deaths. In the distant past, the bubonic plague and smallpox killed more than a quarter of the populations of Europe and Central America. Even in 1918, the flu pandemic killed as many as 50 million people worldwide.

And so globalization is shaping the coronavirus in another way, too. It is dramatically reducing its toll. “This is because the best defense humans have against pathogens is not isolation – it is information,” notes a report in Time magazine. In that way, ironically, the best defense we have against pandemics is each other and the knowledge we share.

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