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21 October 2020

Ten lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic

Around the world, coronavirus has revealed profound flaws in our politics. Will we do any better in the next crisis?  

By Philip Ball

The second wave of Covid-19 is now truly upon us, and winter will be hard. Yet for all the talk of the pandemic having changed the world, it’s arguably more true to say that it has acted as a lens to bring our global predicament into sharper focus.

Important though it is to ask what we need, and what we can do better, to manage a public-health crisis of such enormity, we neglect the broader sociopolitical picture at our peril. As Philip Bobbitt, director of the Center for National Security at Columbia Law School, writes in Covid-19 and World Order (Johns Hopkins University Press), a pandemic like this was wholly predictable. But “what could not have been predicted”, he argues, “was the utter foolhardiness of the responses of countries, including those that might have been expected to do better precisely because they had the enormous state capacity, scientific expertise, and educated populace to have fielded the state apparatus, social trust, and leadership necessary to prevail in this sort of crisis.”

“We were politically and institutionally paralysed,” Bobbitt adds, “because the nature of the threat fitted so well the vulnerabilities of the contemporary constitutional order.” Covid-19 has both highlighted and exacerbated divisions and tensions that have been building for years. It has shown us where we are now. On the whole, it is not a good place to be. Here, then, are ten lessons learned from the pandemic.

1. Faced with global problems, science can deliver – but it is never the entire answer

Covid-19 has stress-tested science as never before, and its ability to rise to the challenge has been one of the most heartening aspects of the crisis. Impatience for a vaccine is understandable, but if – as seems possible – one or more are available by the end of this year, that will not only exceed expectations but constitute one of the most remarkable scientific achievements of modern times. As experts emphasised at the outset, most vaccines take many years to reach the market. Yet the leading candidates from the 200 or so Covid-19 vaccines in development – including those developed at the University of Oxford in collaboration with AstraZeneca, by the German company BioNTech and Pfizer, and by the US-based Moderna – are already in phase three trials: large-scale tests for efficacy and rare side effects. Although the process has happened much faster than usual, that has not been at the expense of safety checks. It’s not yet clear how strong or how durable their protective effects will be, however, and there are still major hurdles for mass production, fair allocation, distribution and pricing.

Tests for current and previous infection by Covid-19 – technologies that are key to understanding how the disease is spreading and how it affects populations – were also developed extremely quickly. Tests are currently being trialled that deliver results within 20 minutes, which could be central for letting normal(ish) life resume. Meanwhile, scientists have unravelled some of the complexities of how this perplexing virus wreaks harm, and are identifying anti-viral treatments to lessen the impact.

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All the same, strategies to combat the pandemic have been hindered by big uncertainties, such as how to estimate the growth and mortality rates for a virus that sometimes produces no symptoms at all. The effectiveness of masks, the vulnerabilities of different demographics, the risks of airborne transmission and of reinfection: all have been hard to assess. As a result, the limitations of science in the face of imperfect and shifting information have been exposed in an unprecedented way. And scientists’ need for frankness about contingencies, errors and unknowns has sometimes collided with the political instinct to regard such things as signs of weakness.

2. Scientific and technological challenges are worsened by social and economic ones

There’s a danger that all this essential technology becomes seen as a panacea. As Shobita Parthasarathy, professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, wrote in Nature magazine, “we can’t just ‘tech’ our way out of the pandemic”; for example, by expecting large-scale testing programmes to solve all the problems. Tests are never perfect, and only useful if their outcomes can be acted on, which is much harder in regions with more deprivation and hardship. All the same, there has been immense variation in how well both developed and developing countries have coped – unusually and perhaps surprisingly, outcomes have shown rather little correlation with national GDP. Vaccines raise a raft of issues about equable access, prioritisation and distribution.

The historian Margaret MacMillan has written that the pandemic has “brought into sharp relief flaws that were already starting to emerge in our globalised world: growing social and economic inequalities, for example, or the dangerous fragility of international supply lines”. If we simply demand that technologies return us to the pre-Covid-19 world, we will have failed the bigger test – and sustained the risk of further crises.

3. International institutions are not fit for purpose; political action will be determined at the national level

No other recent or ongoing global crisis – climate change, the economic crash of 2008, Aids, the spread of antibiotic resistance – has (yet) posed such an urgent, sudden and far-reaching threat. This was the gravest trial the international order has faced in modern times.

It did not pass. To the extent that we have weathered the first onslaught of Covid-19, it has not been because of international institutions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has offered some sound guidance and support, but has also made serious mistakes, such as being slow to declare an emergency of international concern and too hastily dismissing the value of masks and the evidence of airborne transmission.

These problems exposed its limitations: the WHO is underfunded and lacks the punch its name suggests, and is vulnerable to manipulation from member states. It failed to challenge China’s initial concealment of the problem of person-to-person transmission. The WHO has become a convenient scapegoat for Donald Trump, whose withdrawal of funding threatens to undermine and marginalise it further.

But the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of other international coalitions. The EU has not distinguished itself in its response, which has been fractious and overlooked in many member states as irrelevant. It has suffered from opportunistic assaults by Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine, which has aimed to sow discord with a narrative that the EU failed to protect its citizens. It has never been clearer that the G7 functions as little more than a talking shop, and its proceedings in March became rancorous when the US secretary of state antagonised other foreign ministers with insistent references to the “Wuhan virus”.

The Covid-19 pandemic, writes Bobbitt, has exposed the web of international organisations – such as Nato, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the United Nations, and the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court – as “useless in coping with global threats that pit states against each other”. And yet, he argues, “their successes brought into being the very interdependent world that made pandemics inevitable”.

“We have just learned, the hard way, that the world was unprepared to collaborate in the wake of a pandemic,” writes the American political commentator Anne Applebaum in the same book. Much of the failure of internationalism can be laid at the door of the US, where Trump’s antipathy to “globalists” is obvious, and of China and Russia, which seek to engage with international bodies such as the UN mainly to extend their power, promote autocratic values, and silence complaints about corruption or human rights abuses. There’s no counterbalancing on offer from increasingly nationalistic states such as India, Brazil or the United Kingdom. “Vaccine nationalism” is now emerging as China, Russia and the US cut corners or pressure their researchers to do so, not to speed up a global solution but for domestic political gain.

The contrast between political failures of collaboration and the cooperation apparent within the scientific community is painfully clear. Chinese scientists shared the viral genome as soon as they had decoded it, giving others around the world a head-start in seeking vaccines and antiviral technologies. Information-sharing among researchers has persisted, and in May the EU brought together more than 30 countries, including South Africa, South Korea, Australia, Israel, Canada and Japan (but not the US) to pledge nearly €8bn for developing vaccines and diagnostic techniques. The multinational, successful campaign against Ebola virus set an inspirational example.

But the tide is moving the other way. There has, in truth, never been much international unity to solve global problems; the climate crisis shows how stubbornly politicians refuse to accept drastic measures that might endanger their support with voters and domestic business interests. As the policy analyst Anatol Lieven argues in Climate Change and the Nation State, we might need to accept that political agendas don’t align with global crises, and instead try to leverage arguments about national interest in order to make any headway.

4. Politicians do not rise to crises; rather, their weaknesses are revealed by them

Donald Trump’s incoherent mix of denial, conspiracy theory, empty spectacle and disdain for others’ welfare; Boris Johnson’s laziness, lack of focus, inflated triumphalist rhetoric and flippant bonhomie; Jair Bolsonaro’s macho posturing (“a mere case of the sniffles”) and unconcern for suffering; Vladimir Putin pretending from within a hygienic bunker that Russia had the virus under control – if you were surprised or disappointed by any of this, you haven’t been paying attention. Such behaviour was precisely what these leaders advertised in their campaigns and pre-pandemic governance. These are features, not flaws.

Even their supporters acknowledge that these populists are loose cannons – but how badly, really, could they mess up? If the delivery of Brexit, anti-immigrant policies and border walls, and attacks on the woke, institutional elites came at the cost of a little incompetence, corruption or racism, that was surely a price worth paying?

Maybe, for those constituencies, it would have been – in normal times. But the pandemic seems eerily and fatally tailor-made to expose the worst, and it has done so. Instead of witnessing a gradual, if undisciplined, erosion of US democracy under Trump, we have seen the almost surreal depths of his ignorance and incompetence, from the seesaw of fantastical but contradictory claims – that Covid would vanish, that he said it was a pandemic before anyone else – to the bleach injections, the mask war-mongering, the disabling of scientific expertise and the unhinged theatre of his own infection.

Not all autocratic countries have done badly, China being an obvious exception. The Chinese government’s habitual cover-up was deplorable, although in the end it just lost us time. But in the seriousness and swiftness with which containment measures were taken, China did not much differ from freer east Asian states like Taiwan and South Korea. Again there are clear parallels with, and lessons for, the climate crisis: China is led by technocrats who know better than to ignore what science says, and who accept that their future might depend on finding genuine solutions. Libertarians, on the other hand, deny the problems exist.

“One reason the Covid-19 crisis has been so jarring is that it seemed to worsen the deepening global crisis of governance,” write Hal Brands and Francis Gavin of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in their preface to Covid-19 and Global Order. “Fraying democratic norms, increased populism and nationalism, overmatched and ineffective government bureaucracies, and the growing reach of autocratic leaders have menaced the global order for several years. The pandemic has, at least in the short term, accelerated many of these worrisome trends.”

5. In some democracies, political power is no longer linked to competence

Heavy mortalities and crippling economic impacts have had worryingly little effect on public perception and affiliation. The UK has had one of the highest reported per capita mortality rates in the world, and also looks likely to take the hardest economic hit among all leading nations. Yet were there to be an election next week, polls indicate that Boris Johnson’s party would be returned to power. No degree of incompetence or rule-breaking seems sufficient to trigger resignations or sackings among its appointees.

In the US, the virus has hurt most those states whose governors discounted the danger it posed. Often these were states where hostility to preventative measures was highest – and which supported Trump. Few show signs that this allegiance has been dented; he could yet be returned to office by democratic vote. (Whether he can be expelled that way is another matter.)

That even rather catastrophic ineptitude is trumped by tribal and atavistic affiliation does not bode well for democratic governance. Political power seems now to be more a question of who controls the narrative than who performs best. Trump simply asserts excellence and control rather than demonstrating it, and focuses on crudely vilifying his opponents. Johnson promises “world-beating” systems and “moonshot” mega-plans while delivering little but U-turns and dysfunction.

Trump’s notorious 2016 claim that he could shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue without losing the support of his core voters has been borne out in a manner unimaginably worse. His lies and inaction have undoubtedly boosted the death toll that now stands at more than 210,000 Americans. The same message was writ small in Dominic Cummings’s smirking exit from his post-Durham press conference: we can do anything now. If politicians are indeed able to escape a voter backlash from fatally disastrous Covid-19 policies, it will signal a deeply disturbing new era in democratic politics, in which there will be no crime or corruption that cannot be neutralised with claims of fake news and more stoking of the culture wars.

Science has no immunity to the trappings of performative governance. When the UK deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries claimed in April that Britain had been, in contradiction of all the evidence, “an international exemplar of preparedness”, she seemed to have been infected by the cabinet’s hollow jingoism. When the chief scientists refused to comment on Cummings’s flouting of lockdown rules because it was “political”, they revealed how much the daily press briefings had become a politically orchestrated circus.

Those theatrical events, with science visibly the handmaid of politics, set alarm bells ringing for experts in science policy. And the bizarre choreography and dissembling of Trump’s white-coated doctors addressing the press at the Walter Reed Medical Center bore little relation to medical care. Unless science can find a way to maintain distance and independence from governance, it will find itself compromised.

6. In every urgent scientific debate, contrarian scientists will gain a following

While scientists struggled in the 1990s to understand the nature of the Aids epidemic, a few – including a maverick Nobel laureate – promoted the notion that it was not linked to the HIV virus and was transmitted only between gay men. The view conflicted with the evidence and was dismissed by most of the medical research community, but was vigorously promoted by some media outlets. In retrospect their motivations seemed plain: the contrarian scientists revelled in the status afforded them by ideologically driven commentators, some of whom had philosophical objections to the call for sexual continence.

While over the past three decades the evidence for human-induced climate change has become irrefutable and its effects already alarmingly apparent, a few scientists have continually challenged that conclusion. The same few “experts” would show up in public debates on radio and TV to “voice the other side” and defend the case for unrestricted fossil-fuel energy generation and unfettered consumption.

It has not taken long for the Covid-19 contrarians to emerge; indeed, they are mostly the same people who have questioned the mainstream scientific view on climate change. They oppose lockdowns, masks, distancing and anything that interferes with their right to do as they please. They claim to be the true voice of science and reason, cherry-picking from the data to build their case. Now they, too, have their champions: a handful of scientists who often have right-wing benefactors or links. In the US, these were marshalled to sign the Great Barrington Declaration on 4 October, calling (in the face of most expert opinion) for lifting of restrictions so that “herd immunity” can develop in the population while the (undefined) vulnerable are sheltered. That event was sponsored by the right-wing, libertarian American Institute for Economic Research, which has long downplayed therisks of climate change.

As with any new and complex scientific issue, debate and disagreement is inevitable and essential, and much is genuinely unclear. But this is too easily translated into the media’s preferred narrative of binary argument. And it means that those with vested interests will always be able to find a professor somewhere to lend apparent authority to their prejudices.

7. The disinformation ecosystem will weaponise every crisis

Conspiracy theories about Covid-19 – that it is a Chinese bioweapon, or caused by the 5G network, or a hoax to force upon us a vaccine funded by Bill Gates and laced with invisible spyware – appeared so fast because they did not arise de novo. The pandemic was exploited with alarming speed and ease by existing disinformation networks for their own agendas. Far-right hate groups used it to spread distrust of immigrants, who were accused of bringing the virus with them, and to foment the (often anti-Semitic) fantasy of a “deep state” cabal dedicated to destroying democratic freedom. Anti-vaccination networks insist that Covid-19 vaccines will be improperly tested and harm your health and that of your children. The Russian state misinformation machinery used the crisis to undermine democracies; the Chinese state tacitly encourages the retaliatory idea that the virus is a US bioweapon to spread on state-controlled social media.

It would be a conspiracy theory of another kind to suppose that all this activity is coordinated. But it is nonetheless all connected, in particular across online platforms that link disparate interests and promote cross-infection. Far-right tropes are now surfacing on anti-vax channels previously promoting yoga and Whole Foods; placards supporting the demented QAnon conspiracy (claiming that a child-trafficking paedophile ring led by Democrats and celebrities is controlling world affairs) appeared in UK demonstrations against masks and lockdowns. Russian state agitators barely have to try; they merely take ready-made themes from Western conspiracy networks and repackage them for wider appeal to seed unrest and division.

As such state involvement shows, the biggest mistake would be to suppose that this is all the work of fringe groups. Trump has helped spread these wild ideas, retweeting and quoting QAnon and other far-right memes. Although such behaviour is by no means confined to the political right, it is most active there. The fake videos and the distracting culture wars coming from the British government are taken from the same toolbox – one that was developed by the architects of Vote Leave, partly with IT expertise now harnessed by start-ups that garner lucrative Covid-19 contracts. For many politicians, misinformation is not a scourge to be combated but a tool to be deployed.

The coronavirus “infodemic”, as the WHO has dubbed it, shows how the future of politics may play out. It does not look like democracy as we have known it.

8. There will be more pandemics, linked to environmental degradation

Covid-19 is a zoonotic virus: it originated in an animal population (almost certainly in bats) before mutating into a form able to infect humans. The reservoir of such viruses has barely been mapped, and is truly terrifying. In bat populations alone it is estimated that there might be 5,000 coronavirus strains globally that could make the fatal leap. There is nothing inevitable about this transmission. It happens when humans come into contact with new ecosystems as populations expand into the wild. “The animals are not the problem,” Linfa Wang, an infectious disease specialist in Singapore, told Scientific American. “The problem arises when we get in contact with them.” It is hard to see how it will not get worse.

The danger of pandemics is bound up with our other global crises: population growth, food management, the destruction of natural habitats and the changing distribution of wildlife caused by environmental degradation and climate change. The problem demands joined-up thinking and serious forward planning. However…

9. We cannot expect preparedness, only crisis management

The coronavirus pandemic was the most well-predicted global health emergency in our times. Scientists and health experts have been saying for decades that such an outbreak, with the potential to hop rapidly between nations and continents in our densely populated and globalised world, is inevitable. No one knew quite what form it would take. Many anticipated that the agent of a crisis like this would be a flu virus, such as the bird flu of the late 1990s and the swine flu of 2009 – and outbreaks of new, virulent strains of flu remain no less likely today. The threat from coronaviruses, too, was known, for example because of the Sars outbreak in 2002-03 and Mers in 2012.

Yet an assessment by the Global Health Security Alliance in 2019 showed that most states were woefully underprepared, and none met the requirements of the International Health Regulations. In the UK, NHS England’s simulation of a flu pandemic, Exercise Cygnus in 2016, identified the paucity of preparedness. But its findings were not released in full, and the political oxygen was soon consumed by the Brexit referendum.

We shouldn’t be surprised by all this. It is not cynical but simply historical to say that this is what democracies (and indeed other forms of government) do, as David Runciman argues in The Confidence Trap (2013): they ignore the portents – as with the 2008 financial crash – and muddle through without learning lessons. There’s no guarantee this “strategy” will keep working.

It is probably futile to lament the short-termism of our politicians, since their very political success depends on it. Hence the call for international bodies not beholden to the electorate – but these are generally powerless to do more than make recommendations and broker precarious treaties that governments feel free to ignore.

This needn’t leave us completely pessimistic and despairing. Science is doing what it can to plan ahead – for example, characterising the lesser-known families of viruses and seeking “platform technologies” for broad spectrum antivirals.

10. Science and technology do not alter old patterns of behaviour and thought, but simply create new vehicles for them

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) has probably had more readers in the past year than in the previous 50. The parallels are clear: lockdowns and restrictions, anguish and fear, the travails of quarantine, suspicions about treatments and promises of bogus cures, the individuals who flout the rules. Plague is no social leveller, said Defoe: it strikes hardest at those who lack money and resources.

All this was familiar even then. The reactions of Europeans and their governments to the Black Death, argues Margaret MacMillan – fear, denial, resignation, hope, blind optimism, experimentation – “are not so different from ours today. Conspiracy theorists preferred to single out minorities… Governments floundered… the rich fled the cities to their country estates while the poor remained where they were, jammed into slums and at the mercy of the disease.”

The germ theory of the late 19th century was sociopolitically charged. It made infection a matter of the individual rather than the location: instead of arising from a regional “miasma” (or “bad air”, mal aria), disease was transmitted from other people, especially those coming from beyond the community. It bred suspicion of the outsider, endorsing centuries of blaming infection on others: from the French pox and the Spanish flu to the “Wuhan virus”. It associated disease not only with poor hygiene but, by implication, with poor morality, lending a scientific veneer to the old notion that illness is divine punishment. By the same token, survivors were deemed to show vigour and robustness, implicitly equated with good and virtuous character – an idea embraced today to cast Johnson and Trump’s Covid-19 survival as a sign of strength.

Now we can read viral genomes overnight, probe the complexities of the immune response, map out a virus’s protein surface to find weak spots, model whole populations on a computer. But when it comes to making sense of our vulnerabilities to death and disease, not much has changed. We still want to rationalise the contingent and unpredictable, and we still use the old stories to do so. 

Philip Ball is a science writer whose books include “Beyond Weird” (Vintage)

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This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic