Fatal complacency

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Fatal complacency


Bae Myung-bok
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The United States has become the epicenter for the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak with 395,000 people tested positive. That means Americans account for one-third of all infections. Deaths in the United States have exceeded 12,000, the biggest toll after Italy and Spain. European states are all struggling to contain the spread. In France, 11,000 were added to the confirmed list in just a day. From 3,000 to 5,000 are newly confirmed each day in Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain. Western hemisphere nations are being ravaged by the disease.

The mayhem we witness across the United States and Europe cannot be associated with developed societies. Medical staff tend to patients without decent protective equipment or even masks. They can no longer change face masks when they would like to, and critical patients must share ventilators.

Funeral homes have run out of space in the state of New York. Corpses are being temporarily placed in freezer trucks and public parks. Doctors are put to challenging moral tests as they must select patients to save due to a critical lack of space in intensive care units. The United States has invoked an obscure wartime law, the Defense Production Act, to force companies like GM to use some of their production lines to turn out medical equipment. But output has been slow due to a lack of coordination between the federal and state governments and the private and public sectors. Governments are fighting over masks and quarantine supplies. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the failings of western civilization.


Police officers check people’s documents as they patrol the streets to enforce nationwide confinement measures in Sceaux, south of Paris, on Wednesday. [EPA/YONHAP]

U.S. and European nations have brought upon themselves catastrophe by their casual response in the initial stages of the pandemic. China and the World Health Organization (WHO) are blamed for hiding the dangers at the onset of the outbreak. But that does not excuse dysfunctional leadership or inefficient systems in developed nations. The West’s innate prejudice against China and Asians has also been a factor. They contemptuously assumed that the zoonotic virus, which transmits from an animal to a human, stems from the “bizarre” diet of Chinese and Southeast Asians and their poor hygiene, and that their civilized life is safe from such contagions. They believed they could block the “Asian” disease if they keep Chinese away from their territories. Americans and Europeans are now paying a heavy price for those poor judgments.

You can hardly deny that China, which was first country to battle the epidemic, bought some time for others. If the United States and European nations had used that period to build resilience, they could have avoided today’s predicament. Yet they wasted the so-called golden time to ready diagnostic kits, clinics, sterilization and quarantine measures and stock up on medical supplies. When things went out of control, they looked for scapegoats and didn’t learn the lessons of what China and Korea were doing right, which caused disastrous human and economic losses.

Public health care systems are a critical measure of a developed society. The Covid-19 outbreak has exposed inept conditions of health care systems in developed nations. European nations have been cutting budgets for public health care to reduce fiscal deficits and the United States also has been scaling back to reduce the federal government’s role. Public medical facilities were sustained with minimum supplies and equipment, relying on “just-in-time” servicing from a global supply chain. It was like running a fire station without fire trucks or ventilation equipment. When factories in China ground to a halt because of the virus, the medical supply system for developed nations was wrecked.


A person walks through a nearly empty Times Square in New York on March 25. [EPA/YONHAP]

It is not just the governments whose faults became apparent. Western civility was nowhere to be found. Consumers fought over toilet paper in grocery stores and shelves were emptied out due to hoarding. If people had followed social distancing, the governments would not have had to force lockouts. Because many went on with their lives — and their partying — everyone is now forced to stay at home.

U.S. President Donald Trump was shamed after he declared the situation was completely under control. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who argued the virus could be combated just like the flu, ended up in intensive care. While western societies grapple with the raging pandemic, China has started portraying itself as the generous benefactor, offering supplies and know-how to states in distress. Beijing used the tragedy to score points in global leadership.

The world after Covid-19 will be a different place. Can the United States hold its global predominance in the wake of the pandemic? Can China continue with its ambition when the global supply chain has been wrecked? Will China replace the United States as the world’s only superpower? Will the European Union stay intact? Will emerging countries in Asia like Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, which stood out in the battle with the virus, join the ranks of developed countries?

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global war engaging everyone on the planet. The war will not end unless the virus is defeated in every nation. Every nation must join forces and help one another. There is no meaning in finding blame or envying others. Still the wounds of the countries in the western hemisphere may last for a long time.
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