Some of that is simply down to time — Asia has been dealing with the coronavirus since late last year, so governments have had longer to respond, and waves of infections have risen and fallen. Europe and the US are in the relative early stages of their outbreaks and numbers can be expected to slow there, too, in the coming weeks and months.
But this explanation misses one fact: the West didn’t have to go through the same cycles as Asia, where governments and public health systems had little warning of the virus and scrambled to understand it while reacting to outbreaks.
In Asia, there is a growing sense of astonishment that the long lead time many countries elsewhere had was not better used. This is particularly the case in China, where state-backed media has been pushing a narrative that the country’s response to the virus saved the world from a much worse pandemic, and that sacrifices made by the Chinese people were squandered by the poor handling of governments in the West.
Many of those governments have been keen to lay all blame for the virus at Beijing’s door, but while initial coverups and lack of transparency undoubtedly delayed the international response, by February at the latest, much of what we know about the virus — including its severity and ability to spread quickly — was widely known, and yet countries still failed, or refused, to act.
Someone else’s problem
While it is easy to forget now that the coronavirus has exploded into a global pandemic, at first, the worst of the outbreak did appear to be contained to China, with most deaths seen in Wuhan, at least in part because of the city’s overwhelmed healthcare system.
Sporadic outbreaks beyond mainland China did not see the same levels of fatalities as in Wuhan. And there was not the kind of rapid spread inside China that later came in Europe and the US.
“I think the penny hadn’t dropped that it really was going to keep spreading,” said Benjamin Cowling, a professor at Hong Kong University’s School of Public Health. “In Hong Kong, we picked up all these cases, and then we checked their contacts, and it didn’t seem to be that contagious. There was a view that maybe outside of China infections wouldn’t spread as easily.”
Cowling added that “it was only about a month later, particularly when northern Italy had this surge in cases, that suddenly it was recognized that there could be a lot of transmission under the radar.”
But while authorities and experts were certainly taken unawares by how quickly and widely the virus spread itself, multiple experts agreed there was also a general sense of complacency among governments in the West that the outbreak was a China — or an Asian — problem, and would not necessarily behave the same way inside their borders.
“There’s often a feeling in countries that they might be affected in a different way because their community has a different structure … or that hot weather is going to keep it away, or their community is more spread out” Cowling said. “But I think what we’re discovering is that Covid-19 is affecting everywhere in the world.”
Nadia Abuelezam, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Boston College’s Connell School of Nursing, said that “despite a number of scientists warning (the US) leadership that an epidemic of this scale could happen, little was done to prepare.”
She put this down, in part, to the underfunding of the US healthcare system, but more broadly “there is still a great deal of stigma and xenophobia in society that public health officials and other members of society are trying to fight.”
“Unfortunately, this stigma has caused a slow response and has resulted in a large number of deaths and infections around the world,” she added.
Failure to act
For all the blame laid at China’s door for its failure to act early in the pandemic, officials there did not know what they were dealing with.
By comparison, officials in Europe and the US knew exactly what they were facing once the outbreak reached their borders, but were often slow to react, wasting time as the virus spread through Asia and ignoring lessons learned by other countries.
Despite this, Western governments, particularly the US and UK, were staggeringly slow to act.
This cannot be put down to a lack of information on the part of the UK and US. Taiwan is not a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) and has publicly complained of a lack of data sharing as a result of this (a charge the organization denies). It was nevertheless able to institute a world-class response based on the information publicly available.
New Zealand, another government which has been praised for its handling of the pandemic, was also faster to introduce restrictions and widespread testing than Washington or London.
The last war
It’s a well worn cliche that armies fail when they attempt to fight the last war in the next, but responses to crises are equally shaped by past experience, regardless of how much we try to look beyond them.
From the get-go, the current pandemic was seen as a rerun of SARS, from its emergence in China, to that government’s apparent attempt at a coverup, to how it spread through Asia. The two viruses are related, and have similar symptoms, but the novel coronavirus has long overtaken SARS in terms of death toll and spread.
Taiwan was hard hit by SARS, and its fast response to the current pandemic was led by the National Health Command Center (NHCC), a top-level coordinating body established in 2004.
But while SARS may have led to faster action in one part of the world, the 2003 outbreak may have led officials elsewhere to take the opposite approach.
“I would have expected more rapid response considering we’ve dealt with SARS and MERS and other recent health threats,” Henry F. Raymond, associate professor and epidemiologist at the Rutgers School of Public Health, said of the US handling of the coronavirus. “But based on the same experiences where those outbreaks were relatively slow moving and mostly quickly contained may have contributed to more complacency than warranted.”
That complacency, combined with calls to preserve the economy at all costs, appears to have caused some officials to refuse to see what was staring them in the face, or being shouted in their ears by increasingly desperate scientific advisers.
Even in Hong Kong, Cowling said that he could not quite bring himself to believe that this virus was going to be so much worse that what we had seen previously.
“Scientifically, I knew that it was spreading. But I still didn’t really I didn’t know how to say it,” he said. “I distinctly remember there was one article that I wrote where I changed the word ‘pandemic’ to something like ‘global epidemic’ because it felt like nobody would believe me if I said it was going to be a pandemic.”