A war against the virus
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A nurse in England recently posted a video on Facebook showing empty shelves in her local supermarket. She said she could not find any food to buy when she arrived at the store after a 40-hour shift in an intensive care unit. She appealed to the country to stop panic buying because she needed something to eat while resting at home. As the new coronavirus outbreak continues, the world is battling panic buying.
Last week, a YouTube video showed three women fighting over toilet paper at a large supermarket in the United States. Panic buying is spreading like a virus across the world. When other people are hoarding something, you feel like you need it too. It doesn’t matter whether you need toilet paper. When anxiety encounters mob psychology, reason loses its place. Nothing makes humans more abject than anxiety.
About 1 billion people in 35 countries around the globe are practically under house detention. Movements are restricted not only in Italy, where the public medical system is about to collapse, but also in Spain, France, Germany and some regions of the United States. Unless you need to buy food, visit a hospital or pharmacy or must report to a workplace, you cannot leave your house. To go outside your home, you need to show permission to a policeman or a soldier. It is a de facto travel ban.
People have different ways to endure hardships. Italians sing and play music on their balconies at 6 p.m. It is a unique way to spend time and affirm solidarity. Last week, the New York Times proposed a list of books to read in this time of isolation. It was advice for people to spend time usefully reading books while staying at home. Yes24, an online bookseller in Korea, said that sales of children’s books soared by a whopping 96 percent from Feb. 23 till March 15 compared to the same period of last year.
Until now, we believed we had almost overcome the fear of infectious diseases threatening the very survival of mankind. We thought the era of helplessness before infectious diseases had ended. We were arrogant to think that infectious diseases had stopped being natural disasters anymore, but could become man-made disasters, different from the era of the plague when people’s lives and deaths were dependent on God. We believed we were dreaming of immortality and divinity at last, as we no longer fear famine, infectious diseases or wars. But the new coronavirus outbreak showed such beliefs are pure hubris.
Whenever we suffer a deadly outbreak — ranging from the avian influenza to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) to Ebola and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — we say we learned painful lessons, but those were just words. Unless we completely modify and strengthen our disinfection and public health systems, the curse of new infectious diseases will repeat in the age of globalization, urbanization and global warming.
The new coronavirus outbreak won’t be resolved within a couple months. Experts say the battle will continue until the summer or as late as the year’s end. Some even made a gloomy forecast that it will not end until the 70 percent of the entire world population are infected and have immunity en masse. The outbreak will eventually end, but its social and economic costs will be unimaginably huge. Furthermore, the damage will be asymmetric — harsher on the weak than to the rest of our society. Livelihoods of daily wage workers are already threatened. The recession will quickly spread to the self-employed, small store owners and non-salaried workers and then to all players in the economy.
Although China said it has successfully controlled its outbreak, it is too early to tell. Although Korea says it has become a model of disease management through massive and aggressive testing, we need to see the outcome. Until the whole world becomes free of outbreaks, we cannot feel safe.
Korea managed to control the situation thanks to the people’s mature citizenship. There is no panic buying, and the people are standing in long lines to buy face masks. The people are sincerely following hygiene protocols and keeping social distances. The sense of community to support neighbors in times of crisis is the foundation of such actions.
And yet, politicians are acting as they always do: cravenly. Both the ruling and opposition parties are using dirty tricks to win more seats in the April 15 parliamentary elections. The government must put its best efforts into protecting the weak in our society and save the economy, instead of irritating the public with endless self-praise. Unless the government comes up with effective and speedy measures to tackle the unprecedented challenge, the economy may collapse starting with the bottom. Now is not the time to debate who is doing well and who is not. It’s not over until it’s over.