COVID-19: How the West was Closed
The biggest mistake Western countries have made is not treating COVID-19 as eradicable. As soon as East Asian countries’ suspicions were raised, they immediately implemented containment and eradication strategies, avoiding lengthy shutdowns and leading to greater outbreak management. Until Western countries begin seriously adopting eradication strategies, they’ll find themselves barred from international travel or at least seriously impeded until a vaccine or successful anti-viral therapy is available, neither of which is guaranteed.
On March 18th, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a rare televised speech, hailed globally as a necessary and blunt admission of reality. It was also a blunt admission of defeat. No sooner than the corona virus came to Europe’s borders did Europe accept that there was nothing to do but ‘bend the curve’ and wait for a vaccine or work towards herd immunity. American countries did the same but worse with the United States, Mexico and Brazil all but ignoring the virus’s existence until it was too late.
Contrast this with some East Asian countries who had even less warning, but armed with epidemic experience and a healthy skepticism of China immediately deployed policy tools meant to contain and eliminate the virus rather than mitigate it. The outcome is that those East Asian and Oceanic countries are near to eliminating the spread of the virus while mostly avoiding lengthy lockdown measures and the high case and mortality counts of Western countries.
The most common measures implemented for eradication have been rapid testing and tracing (South Korea and Vietnam), central quarantine (separating the infected into government run facilities or hotels which reduces in home virus transmission), constant virus surveillance via tracking apps, intrusive traveler screenings to eliminate imported cases, and transparent government communication. Western countries all but avoided some or most of these tactics at the beginning, effectively condemning themselves to long struggles with the virus.
Western countries still show little willingness to adopt eradication strategies. France has recently asked its citizens to get used to living with the virus, while a symposium of German scientists have proposed a two-phased adaptive strategy meant to manage a long term low case load with the possibility to eliminate the virus. Sweden is letting the virus run its course with minimal restrictions while the United States begins partially reopening its economy despite no improvement in its handling of the virus.
If the virus becomes endemic in E.U. and American countries, many of whom are central to global tourism, finance, and business, then travelers both going to and from those countries will be subject to intrusive controls going or returning to states which have eradicated the spread of the virus. Tourism makes up a substantial chunk of many Western economies, comprising an estimated 3.9% of the European Union’s GDP and almost 3% of the United States’ GDP. Yet if they remain endemic, they’ll be hit hard by high risk travel alerts or bans from virus-free countries. Economies more heavily reliant on tourism, like France or Spain, could suffer the most.
If countries like Germany or Austria—among the more successful E.U. countries in the COVID-19 fight—do eradicate the spread of the virus, they will need to make the difficult choice to tightly control borders with neighbors and strictly monitor airport travelers stifling free movement and prolonging its migrant labor shortages in order to preserve virus-free status.
Controls that Western countries could face are likely to include mandatory testing and two week quarantines upon arrival. Citizens and residents of countries like the United States or Brazil, who lack coordinated government strategies and are likely to see extended and more extensive outbreaks, may face strict tourist bans both to and from their countries. Further, universities which receive substantial income from international student enrollment will be hit when students from virus-free countries are steered away or barred from enrolling.
The political ramifications will be significant as well. Countries like the United States or United Kingdom will resent being relegated by China or smaller allies like South Korea, Taiwan, or Australia. The United States might attempt strong-arming countries to lower risk warnings or remove traveler bans, especially when it’s among the last countries to remain endemic. News of its mishandling the virus, however, will keep tourists away. Mini travel-blocs, already forming in and around the European Union, could threaten the integrity of existing borderless areas like the Schengen Zone despite efforts to keep the zone relevant.
Meanwhile, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and possibly others, will become the first post-COVID-19 open travel bloc, as a form this is already beginning to emerge. In the post-COVID-19 world, the reemergence of global travel will begin with East Asia. Western countries need to adapt now because waiting out the virus won’t just be costly. It will be isolating.