Coronavirus: How the world is reacting to a pandemic | Neville Zammit

As the world is realizing that this is not a drill, society should come to terms with our new vulnerabilities as a global community. It is also serving as a stark reminder for Maltese ‘millennials’ that times are not always booming

Photo by James Bianchi
Photo by James Bianchi

The beginning of the new decade was characterised by the novel coronavirus originating from a wet market in Wuhan, China. It was thought as yet another sensationalized outbreak similar to the recent Ebola and Zika, which quickly faded out of the limelight. However, this is more of a black swan event like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crises – unexpected and globally devastating.

It captivated the world’s attention for over 2 months while it disrupted whole industries, hospitals and schools. But most importantly it served as a harsh wake-up call to face our vulnerabilities as an all-knowing, all-powerful species.

As the novel virus made its way out of Wuhan, around China and beyond, one could admire the technological responses that were also novel. Functional online dashboards (see John Hopkins) were made available to track the spread and the death rate, people could turn to educational videos on YouTube and Netflix (Pandemic series premiered in January). Unfortunately, other shady sources of information were also successful in promoting ineffective face masks, garlic remedies and expensive lotion cures. The age of fake news was never more apparent, and this misinformation will hopefully push people to be more sceptical. As a society we need to trust the topic experts and for this we need to turn to governmental authorities (CDC) and international agencies (WHO) to keep us updated.

Tech titans were also trying to do their part. Facebook took down adverts for masks while providing WHO with unlimited advertising space. Google did its best to scrub the web from misinformation and made all its employees work from home. Amazon and Microsoft set up a multi-million fund for organizations working to contain the virus. These companies together with their subsidiaries (WhatsApp, YouTube, Teams...) experienced greater loads as they enabled teleworking, e-commerce and entertainment during quarantines.

People could also witness live footage from China of the construction of a 1000-bed hospital in a matter of days. The Chinese regime also flexed its muscles by imposing lockdown on millions of its citizens. A measure which undoubtedly helped contain the virus within such a mammoth population. The same measure is proving difficult to enact and enforce in Europe.

In terms of devastating effects on the world markets, needless to say quarantined workers affected production at the world’s factory (China) and disrupted supply chains from phones to cars. However, nothing came close to what the tourism industry experienced. The cancellations of flights, hotels and conferences could only be compared to that of 9/11. Although not even, as in 2001 people didn’t travel half as much, it wasn’t until at least 10 years later when low-cost airlines, and Airbnb were enabling travellers. As could be expected share prices of pharmaceuticals companies rose but also that of video-conferencing software.

Here in Malta we were not spared this drama. As the virus was taking its toll on our closest neighbour, port workers refused to handle Italian containers. Panic buying at supermarket was predictable if not understandable. You quickly run out of supplies if you have a family of four to feed, your baby needs formula milk or your son only eats 1 brand of biscuits. A couple of days of missed catamaran imports and we can be thrown into war-like shortages and chaos. This is revealing our selfish nature in difficult times instead of a more communal sharing of resources while also highlighting our dependency on import of essentials.

It may have been easy at first to dismiss the media as blowing it out of proportion, but an infectious disease should never be taken lightly. ‘Corona’ could be heard from office corridors for months now and its only logical that it’s still making headlines as people feel the need to keep up with the latest developments. Experts’ latest estimate of the COVID-19 death rate is 1% - 10 times more than the common flu (0.1%).

Reverberations of such a widespread economic and psychological shock will probably be felt beyond 2020. Uncertainty and fear linger in stock exchanges, schools, ITU wards and executive meetings.

Such slumps help trim the fat of corporations to weather the storm, however only the financially fittest do. They will reconsider non-essential travel and resort to video-conferencing. For many countries this could be a huge experiment in teleworking. These technologies have been around for many years but are still nowhere as a seamless as they should in this day and age. If successful, these could shape future workplaces.

Likewise, the healthcare and education sector could use with some forced modernising. Doctor to patient video calls as well as online student appraisals (replacing parents’ day) could well hit it off.

The deadly statistics of the Diamond Princess delivered a huge blow to the cruise liner industry. Perhaps it’s not that wise to take a week-long holiday on a grossly inefficient floating sewage plant, which can also double as a viral playground. The fact that other cruise liners were refused port entry should make people re-think their holiday planning, perhaps permanently?

Another lesson which can be learned from the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus is how globalization has made us vulnerable to very remote dangers. Globalization enabled trade, travel, innovation and consumption to flourish as it provides the biggest possible stage. However, this has exposed how one market in a previously unknown province in China landed on our shores and disrupted schedules of factories, hotels, schools and hospitals. This makes the case for stronger international agencies like the WHO to safeguard our health as species and not in terms of fragmented countries with imaginary borderlines. By the way, anyone seen the EU?

The ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic wiped out one third of the human population 100 years ago. Undoubtedly, we have better hygiene standards and advanced medicine incomparable to those times. Nevertheless, experts continue to stress that even in such a critical global scenario, a vaccine is still at least 12 months away. Clinical trials must ensure the absolute safety of a vaccine as the last thing the healthcare community needs is further fear of vaccines (see the anti-vax movement in US).

Due to the novel nature of the virus, it is still unknown if it will recede in summer. Other flu strains have returned after the hotter months. Will thermal screening at airports still be a thing next year? Is constant hand washing and coughing in elbow just a fad or will this prolonged concern develop new, healthier habits?

The WHO is very cautious in declaring any outbreak an epidemic and then a pandemic as it needs to manage expectations and uphold the full trust of the public. Given how lightly many countries are taking this while Italy have their healthcare system on its knees, the WHO have finally elevated this to a pandemic. This should push other countries which are still at the onset of the outbreak to take this very seriously and avoid crises like Italy, Iran and China. South Korea and their aggressive testing is being considered the model response to follow.

As Bill Gates’ warned back in 2015, we are not ready for the next pandemic. Vaccine research funds dried out when SARS left the headlines, and an immense inequality exists between countries in terms of basic hygiene and healthcare facilities.

As the world is realizing that this is not a drill, society should come to terms with our new vulnerabilities as a global community. It is also serving as a stark reminder for Maltese ‘millennials’ that times are not always booming.

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