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Last October, a consortium of U.S. and British foundations published the Global Health Security Index, designed to assess the “state of international capability for…rapidly responding to epidemic and pandemic threats.”
While it wrongly characterized every nation as ill-prepared for a pandemic, its most spectacular forecasting failure involved labelling the U.S. and Britain as the two countries best prepared to deal with a pandemic.
That’s because the report failed to identify the key element in addressing COVID-19: political will. Success happens when political leadership is thoughtful, science-informed and forward thinking. When it’s not, all hell can break loose.
Singapore and Taiwan have been highly successful, with very low COVID-19 infection and death rates. Their leadership established robust plans years ago.
By contrast, the U.S. is doing spectacularly badly, thanks to its capricious and ill-informed president and its patchwork state-by-state approach.
Italy has suffered a “tsunami of unprecedented force” because political leaders were slow to respond, displayed ill-advised bravado and ignored scientific warnings, leading to an incomplete, delayed response, and ultimately tens of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths.
Buried in the Italian disaster, however, is a nugget of unparalleled success. The town of Vo tested all 3,300 residents for COVID-19, guided by scientists from the University of Padua, finding 3 per cent infected, 40 per cent of them asymptomatic. They quarantined all, and a second wave of testing found a further 0.3 per cent asymptomatic cases, who were also isolated.
Vo has had no new cases since.
New Zealand and neighbouring Australia have had contrasting political responses. Despite only 20 cases and no deaths, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has declared a nation-wide lockdown, with stricter rules than most other countries. Deaths in the country of 5 million could be as low as 20, or 0.0004 per cent of the population.
Australia, headed by the Pentecostal Scott Morrison — a believer in the Apocalypse — has responded to COVID-19 with mixed messages and inconsistent behaviour. Cases have surged nearly 30-fold and dozens have died.
"Canadian governments still can’t resist playing politics. Despite the posited connection between the climate crisis and novel pandemics, the Liberal cabinet is floating the idea of a $15 billion package to resurrect the fossil fuel industry."
Canada has, characteristically, pursued a middle-of-the-pack course. Initially reacting slowly, Canada’s political leaders are now ramping up and stiffening rules about social distancing, social isolation and quarantining. The late start has meant that, unlike in Singapore and Taiwan, Canada’s business sector and social life have necessarily ground to a halt, requiring major public disbursements to keep the economy alive. Testing is still not widespread enough to slow the spread of asymptomatic infection.
In the year prior to the pandemic, Public Safety Canada gave out $70.0 million in grants, but none to support pandemic preparedness, while the Public Health Agency of Canada gave out $4 million similarly unrelated purposes.
Now the federal government will spend over $300 million on pandemic and COVID-19 research.
Canadian governments still can’t resist playing politics. Despite the posited connection between the climate crisis and novel pandemics, the Liberal cabinet is floating the idea of a $15 billion package to resurrect the fossil fuel industry, against scientific advice.
And the BC and federal governments won’t shutter construction camps for the Site C dam and LNG Canada worksites, despite high risks of COVID-19 spread.
The silver lining in these various responses to COVID-19, however, is that governments all over the world are pushed into rapid cooperation, collaboration, sharing knowledge and consulting scientists, and all of us are learning to live simpler, less consumptive lives. These invaluable lessons can help us address pollution, over-consumption of resources, habitat and species loss and the existential climate crisis.
One can only hope.