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COVID-19 Is Currently Winning The Adaptability Race

COVID-19, now officially classified by the World Health Organization as a global pandemic, is testing the resiliency of governments around the world. The chief characteristics of those governments which survive this new litmus test include speed, decisiveness, and, most importantly, adaptability. Charles Darwin remarked that it is not the strongest or most intelligent species who survive, but those most adaptable to change. The COVID-19 crisis is testing both individual nations’ and the world’s ability to adapt quickly, both in the short term and the long term. However, planning and cohesion can help with that adaptation.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay ©2020

The rate of transmission of COVID-19 has caught many global governments flat-footed. Despite earlier, repeated warnings from the World Health Organization and other health-related agencies, curbing global pandemics has never been the top, overarching concern of any individual state. As such, many governments, including those of the U.S., China, and South Korea, have been accused of several initial missteps in the wake of this viral outbreak.

As an example, in the last two years the U.S. has slashed personnel from its CDC office within China.  Last year, the U.S. actually removed health officials responsible for a pandemic response from its National Security Council. Taken together, these two moves severely inhibited the U.S.’ initial response capabilities to COVID-19. Most critically, they drastically decreased the possibility of U.S.-China collaboration on an emerging global health crisis during a time of already-heightened geopolitical tensions between the two states.

Additionally, regional political leadership within China did not inform China’s national leadership of the true scope of COVID-19’s nature in a timely manner, and even this is in the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that the regional leaders egregiously underplayed the severity of the situation due to the fear of political repercussions emanating from Beijing. Both of these scenarios are made even worse by issues of China’s initial transparency, or rather, the lack thereof. Even at this point, the exact truth is not known due the highly-fluid and highly-rapid nature of COVID-19’s actions vis-a-vis the typically slower reactions of global governments as a whole.

When COVID-19 was only labelled as an epidemic by the World Health Organization, several states, including Italy and the U.S., initially underplayed the severity of the crisis to their own domestic audiences, while Brazil is still doing so. With COVID-19’s current pandemic status, Italy is now the European epicenter of the virus, while the U.S. is now the global one. The U.S. currently has the most cases of any nation and, according to its own health experts, is now on track to have between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths, even under its most optimistic projection.

The U.S.’ initial underestimation of COVID-19, labelling it as just another flu which would miraculously wash away by Easter, led to a de-emphasis on three critical initial steps: 1) testing, 2) contact tracing, and 3) mandatory, enforced quarantines. Because of the initial delay in widespread, reliable testing, there is now community spread within several U.S. areas, most notably New York, the current U.S. epicenter. The U.S. is, in effect, now under nationwide lockdown, enforced by the regional governors.

Global Whole-of-Government Approach Critical

COVID-19 battle plans must require unity of purpose at municipal, state, national, and global levels. Most notably, disunity in communication between politicians and medical experts towards the general public, as well as the perceived disunity between national governments and their respective regional governments will be counterproductive. Examples include New York State’s battle with the U.S. federal government over the need for essential equipment, including ventilators. COVID-19 has even highlighted divisions within supranational organizations, like the European Union, given the lack of a unified health policy among its own member states.

Frighteningly, even though individual people are the bedrock of the economy in all countries, most global governments are now performing triage between their own people and their respective economies. Simply put, their choice is between temporarily killing the economy (through lockdown) and potentially saving people or trying to save the economy but potentially putting more people at risk by doing so. The U.S. has gradually shifted from the second option to the first one, like China and India. Luckily, there are other strategies, such as South Korea’s, which do not emphasize economically-damaging lockdowns, but instead emphasize widespread testing through innovative drive-through stations, as well as COVID-19 proximity warning apps for smartphones.

Unfortunately, the problem is that bureaucracies tend to move even more slowly at higher levels. This lethargy is also compounded by the globe’s renewed era of great power competition. Even though extremely difficult, geopolitical gamesmanship must be subordinated to issues which threaten all of humanity, such as climate change and global pandemics. The U.S. and China are currently locked in a soft power media narrative battle over which country’s political and economic model is best suited for tackling COVID-19 and this is made even murkier due to the recent, mutual foreign press expulsions.

From this point on, the goal for global governments is to have the ability to learn from all of these mistakes early on and adapt their COVID-19 responses rapidly. Also, the ability to learn from prior outbreak responses, such as to MERS in South Korea and to SARS in China, will be crucial. Because COVID-19 is causing immense uncertainty on a global level quickly, reportedly already mutating itself to adapt to its new Italian and U.S. hosts, it is paramount for government responses to move just as, if not even more quickly. While uncertainty around a novel virus such as this one can never be entirely eliminated, planning can go a long way towards mitigating that uncertainty.

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Robert Shines

Robert is President of Bright Group Consulting USA, where he provides geopolitical forecasting services regarding U.S.-China relations. He is also an analyst with the Foreign Policy Association and Editor with Global Risk Insights.
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