In geopolitics we are accustomed to using the word ‘threat’, more often than not used to describe a military adversary, in the form of nation states. But as we have entered the 21st century other threats have presented themselves; global threats we have been warned of by experts for years but as yet we have done little to prevent. And these threats to our very existence, threats inherently entwined with mother nature and our relationship with it, such as climate change, environmental pollution and infectious diseases are challenges to human progress which cannot be dismissed.
What once seemed a distant news story relating to China is now much closer to home. A viral outbreak which began its life in a wild animal market in Wuhan province has spread to 85 countries and territories and on Wednesday was pronounced by the World Health Organisation a global ‘pandemic’. Coronavirus is taking hold in Europe, already affecting the very heart of governments. The UK Health Minister, Nadine Dorries has been diagnosed with Covid-19, as has the French Culture Minister. Italy is on lockdown with over 10,000 cases and over 600 deaths – it has effectively become a closed country. France looks set to follow the same pattern, as does the UK. The borderless travel of which Europe is so proud, looks set to be temporarily abandoned as countries protect their own. Not for some time has leadership become so important. Nations are on a war-footing; we are at war with a virus.
This is the ultimate test for leadership. Yet so far there has been some reluctance from western governments to acknowledge the extent of the threat. On Wednesday US President Donald Trump closed US borders to European citizens, as the pandemic continued to escalate in Italy and surrounding countries. But he has been criticised for downplaying the severity of the crisis, dismissing it as not being as ‘serious’ as flu and assuring people it would ‘miraculously disappear’.
This laissez-faire approach has caused some concern amongst US health experts. Despite virologists’ warnings for weeks now that the country is unprepared for a pandemic, the Trump administration has been painfully slow to react. When a response was initiated last week, it was only to increase mask and test kit production when a shortage was discovered. In addition, the key individuals Trump has appointed to deal with the coronavirus pandemic are not medics, but come from completely unrelated backgrounds, such as former banker Steven Mnuchin, now the Treasury Secretary. This has fuelled concern that far from addressing the human impact of the outbreak, Trump’s focus is too much centred on the economic effects.
It was reported in POLITICO that the Director of the US Centre for Disease Control, Robert Redfield, said he wasn’t ‘confident that US labs have an adequate stock of the supplies used to extract genetic material from any virus in a patient’s sample’. Epidemiologists and public health officials have also warned that the lack of screening has provided an inaccurate picture of the US outbreak to date, which they fear may explode in coming weeks. According to the Centre for Disease Control, roughly 8,500 samples have been taken since the beginning of the outbreak; a figure that is put to shame by statistics from South Korea, whose systematic testing claims to be covering around 10,000 per day.
The virus appears to be spiralling out of control in both Iran and Italy. The statistics for Iran are particularly concerning, with 429 recorded deaths to date out of 10,075 cases. It is said that the health system there is struggling to cope, with the WHO reporting that the country lacks necessary supplies of ventilators, respirators and oxygen. Italy, with now over 1000 deaths, is on complete lockdown with only essential businesses allowed to operate. Streets are deserted, apart from the queues of people lined up outside pharmacies and grocery stores.
The UK government warned on Thursday of ‘severe disruption for many months’ as the virus could now ‘no longer be contained’. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that it was the ‘worst public health crisis in a generation.’ He said that the British public must prepare to lose loved ones to Covid-19. 590 people were registered as having the virus in Britain, with 10 people already dead.
Johnson advised people who exhibit cold symptoms not to leave the house for 7 days in a bid to stem the flow of the disease. He was criticised by some, however, for not taking more drastic measures, such as that of his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, who announced today that schools and colleges across Ireland would be closed till March 29th. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also pronounced a ban on public gatherings of over 500 people and said that the closure of schools could still be an option as public health officials continue to monitor the outbreak.
Johnson is right in conveying the gravity of the situation. Not since the Second World War has Britain had a crisis of this calibre to deal with. The Prime Minister is a fan of Winston Churchill, and if ever there was time to seek inspiration from an individual, this is it. As the crisis looks set to take hold in Britain in the coming weeks, it will be the ultimate test for Boris Johnson’s leadership. It remains to be seen whether it will be his finest hour.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.