Travel in a time of epidemics

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Travel in a time of epidemics

Kathleen Stephens
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C.

I’m just back in Washington after spending a week in Korea. On the outward journey to Seoul from New York, the plane was far from full, and the airports strangely hushed. I was constantly asked in both places whether I was worried about making the trip in the midst of the still spreading novel coronavirus. I replied that I had done my due diligence and considered the risk manageable, notwithstanding the uncertainty surrounding the virus’ spread. Korean authorities had announced clear measures to deal with the virus, and it was equally clear the public was paying attention and serious about implementing them.

My confidence in the Korean public health system was derived in part from knowing Korea had earlier, hard experiences in this area. I was American Ambassador in Korea in 2009 when Korea was hard-hit by the devastating A(H1N1) flu epidemic, and I knew of the concerted research and other efforts that had gone into learning and acting on the lessons of such earlier experiences. I found my confidence justified in what I experienced in my week in Seoul. I, of course, tried to do my part to follow all the guidelines on hand-washing and the like. While the danger of an expanded outbreak is by no means over, Korean authorities’ transparency and fact-based, effective communications about the virus, and the informed cooperation of the Korean public provide a positive example for other countries, including the United States.

China also has much to learn from this experience. Chinese authorities reportedly waited for a month after the first case to notify the World Health Organization about the new coronavirus. This delayed international efforts to identify and address it. In early January, from Jan. 2 to Jan. 28, China did not report any new cases. It was only after new cases were reported outside of Hubei Province that Chinese authorities acted with a massive quarantine, a drastic step that came too late.

Japan and the United States have also struggled to find the right responses. In Japan, the quarantine of the cruise ship Diamond Princess failed to isolate the virus and instead seemed to turn it into an incubator for its spread. In the United States, authorities from U.S. President Donald Trump down have delivered contradictory messages and policies, and public fear of the virus has fed disturbing instances of backlash against Chinese or other Asian-looking citizens.

Of course we still don’t know the future course of the novel coronavirus and how profound its impact will be not only on public health but on politics and economics, in China and elsewhere. This is not a time for scorecards, and that is not my intent here. But it is not too early to recognize one key lesson of this terrible experience — whether it is severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Covid-19 (coronavirus), or whatever comes next, global health crises do not know national or political borders. They require international cooperation. This cooperation works best when it is not ad hoc, but rather based on longstanding relationships and institutions. Among the most disturbing things about the response to Covid-19 is that it is precisely those global institutions and ties that have been found wanting.

Out of this crisis must come a recommitment to ensuring that organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) have the funding, staffing, and political back-up to do their job. The health experts in leading countries such as the United States, China, Japan and Korea, must have the support they need, both financial and political, to build ties of collaboration, transparency and cooperation before the next crisis. Because there will be another one, and it will be even more challenging.

Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz described diplomacy as akin to gardening. Most of the time, it isn’t attention-getting or glamorous. It is tilling the soil, planting the seeds, nourishing and watering the soil, and pulling the weeds day by day. It literally requires “getting your hands dirty” and being “in the weeds” to empower local leaders and communities, and at the same time, building relationships to enable global statesmanship of the highest order. This is all the more true of international cooperation to address the biggest challenges of this century, all of them global in reach and requiring global responses — climate change, sustainable energy, and yes, public health, to name a few.

In the meantime, let’s all look out for each other, and keep up the hand-washing.

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