COVID-19: Problems and Possibilities for Progress

10 minute read

  Influenza, plague, cholera, HIV/AIDS. These prominent past pandemics are still encountered today and—during their prime—prompted rapid developments and adaptation to commence globally. The world is currently facing a new pandemic, COVID-19, and is being forced to develop and adapt yet again, in regards to healthcare, economics, and society. Other viruses may be used as comparison for this recent outbreak, however, there is a tendency to group pandemics and epidemics together and not every comparison may be accurate. A pandemic is unique in its wide geographic area and substantial population affected, rapid spread and the unlikelihood of previously acquired immunity, number of deaths caused, and disruption of other facets of life (“Outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics”). All of these characteristics are clear when considering COVID-19 and though experience from prior pandemics can be instrumental in planning present responses, there remains room for error and a variety of successful and unsuccessful methods are identifiable thus far. Every country has taken a different approach to mitigating the effect the virus has on residents’ health—physically, economically, and psychologically—and each approach has provided insight that can be employed in the future.

  Strategies that have been used by individual countries can be linked to the political, social, and economic atmospheres of the region. Sociopolitically, more aggressive lockdowns could be a clear path or a last resort, depending upon the historical presence of governmental oppression versus considerable liberty. Economically, the financial health of a nation establishes boundaries for their healthcare capabilities in terms of testing and treatment, as well as the use of technology to track the spread of the pandemic. The arrival of this pandemic comes at a time of heightened technology that opens the door for more innovative responses while potentially raising expectations for easily obtained control. In the United States, several institutions exist to support the country through this crisis, perhaps the most well-known being the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Even before COVID-19 reached the US, the CDC worked to provide staffing and training, resource monitoring, and published information for the public. It has also acted as an advisor for authorities, businesses, and other institutions (“CDC’s Response”). The existence of the CDC imparts inclusion and confidence to Americans because it is accessible and familiar. In spite of institutions and available technologies, data reporting has been an issue in the United States, to which a change was made on July 15th, when all COVID-19 patient data in the US was required to be sent to “a centralized database in Washington” (Stolberg). This change has raised concerns regarding restricted accessibility to current information, potential politicization of data, and the ability to adjust to the new reporting system quickly and effectively (“The Controversy Around COVID-19 Hospital Data”). Limiting the amount of current data being communicated to researchers and healthcare workers could negatively impact the predictions and judgements being made. Furthermore, if the public is not seeing quickly updated statistics, they may be unaware of the true state of their country and behave in a manner that does not support efforts to decrease the number of cases. Previous questions had been posed regarding the CDC’s handling of COVID-19 data and the potential muddying of information, bringing attention to the possible limits of free, accurate data in the US (Stolberg). Time will tell how this shift in responsibility affects the nation’s perception of the pandemic and subsequent response.

  Clear, accurate data has shown to be a key factor in implementing effective measures to control the pandemic. Taiwan has been successful in monitoring and communicating numbers illustrating the effects of the virus on the country to its citizens. Taiwan’s CDC identified abnormal pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China very early and helped to quickly spread knowledge of these occurrences. Advanced technological systems have proved an essential resource in Taiwan’s response, allowing for at-home data reporting to collect the most current information on the spread and characteristics of the virus, as well as requests for medical assistance or consultations. Contact tracing methods have also been instrumental in controlling the pandemic, allowing suspected carriers to be swiftly quarantined. Telecommunication records have been used to paint a thorough picture of contamination. Such a tactic could be seen as a violation of privacy and security—and may not be feasible in all nations—but was effective for Taiwan. Other vital components of their strategy included border control, an enforced fourteen-day quarantine for travelers, and prepared health care systems. The nation’s prior experience of managing SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009 can be credited for providing insight on and justification for early steps taken to control the virus. Aside from solely striving for unity on the domestic front, the Vice President of Taiwan, Chen Chien-jen, is an advocate for the need to cooperate on a global level to contain the virus where it is currently rampant and support efforts in those regions (Chien-Jen). Such cooperation can be difficult to accomplish, but Taiwan serves as an excellent example of its importance. A culture of inclusivity and voice for citizens has enabled an effective, collaborative response to COVID-19 in the country. Taiwan is a nation home to many cultures and languages, and the Digital Minister of Taiwan, Audrey Tang, credits not social cohesion but the “humbleness of the Ministers” for the low case numbers observed. Daily press conferences dedicated to answering questions from the public are held, emphasizing the need to be open, democratic, and urgent. Tang spoke of a specific conference during which a young student shared his reluctance to wear a mask at school in fear of judgement, because it was pink. At the press conference the following day, all officials present were sporting pink masks (Tang). This level of responsibility observed in Taiwan’s leadership is unique and undoubtedly enhanced the nation’s ability to put on a united front against the pandemic.

  Responsibility can be displayed in a variety of forms. In Taiwan, it was upheld through concern and the establishment of a sense of community. In New Zealand, it was taken on via an assertive, early lockdown. Towards the end of March, New Zealand implemented a four-tiered alert system to keep citizens apprised of the risk of exposure and outbreak within their borders. When the system was first introduced, the nation was placed at level four and businesses and schools closed, accompanying a national stay-at-home order. The country closed borders early and they have remained closed since the government took action. In total, New Zealand has recorded 1,154 COVID-19 cases and 22 deaths from the virus (“New Zealand lifts all Covid restrictions”). A prompt shutdown—such as that seen in New Zealand—is an aggressive, sometimes resisted, but preventative strategy that has kept the numbers of the nations that implemented it effectively noticeably lower. Criticism comes when it is considered that the scope of the virus was and still is unknown, so a complete shutdown may have been unwarranted. Furthermore, many nations that chose this strategy have a small population to begin with, potentially making such an action more feasible than it would be in more populated countries (Bremmer). In the United States, each state has individual authority to address the pandemic within its borders. Travel has not been restricted within the US, which appears to exacerbate the issue of tracing and containing the spread of the virus. New Zealand and Taiwan are just two examples of countries that have been quite successful in their response to COVID-19, but an important note is that these countries are both islands and have populations of approximately 4.9 and 23.8 million (“Population”, “Taiwan Population”). For comparison, California has a population of 39.5 million (“QuickFacts California”). Population and geography are not to be disregarded when considering the pandemic’s spread within the regions mentioned, however, there is also a clear difference in the extent to which those regions have executed border control measures and quarantines. As the pandemic continues, new strategies must be crafted to remedy the consequences of unsuccessful early actions. Bill Gates said in a Ted Talk that contact tracing in the United States would likely be successful to bring down the number of cases, isolating and erasing small pockets of the pandemic, however, it would not be able to bring numbers down to zero (Gates). The course and duration of the pandemic are unclear, as are the long term effects that will undoubtedly ensue.

  The manifold changes that have occurred in the daily lives of humans around the world provoke thoughts of their potential permanence. Considerations such as whether transportation safety standards will remain heightened—reminiscent of changes to air travel following the 9/11 attacks—whether immigration policies will be lastingly impacted, and how social interactions may arrive at a new normal have all been circulated. Among these considerations are some probable developments that were in progress prior to this pandemic; progress which has been hastened due to new, urgent needs. Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal, spoke in a Ted Talk about the acceleration of humanity’s transition from physical to digital reliance. Technologies have been improved to allow for telemedicine, digital payments, remote working, online retail etc., which has allowed for greater functionality during this time of encouraged isolation. These technologies have been vital for many individuals in maintaining as much as possible their mental, physical, and financial health. When considering finances, the recent desire for contactless payment to prevent virus spread has made the idea of reducing cash use more widely-known. Parts of the world were already beginning to move away from cash and towards innovations such as PayPal, Apple Pay, and Venmo. The shift has reached a degree of acceptance that would have been unlikely at this point in time without an event such as the COVID-19 pandemic occurring. Schulman also brings to light the potential for increasing access to digital financing to enable more people to achieve financial health. Bringing ease to digital financing—alongside the ever-increasing accessibility of smartphones and other devices—will lead to time saved, contact reduced, and transaction fees lowered. Digitalizing financial services can cut the cost of transactions by 50% to 75%, according to Schulman. These changes greatly improve financial inclusivity, which will be echoed by the global economy (Schulman). Remote work could also become commonplace, even after the pandemic has been quelled. The technological capabilities that allow for remote work have existed for quite some time, however, it was never a widely accepted practice. Now, even as shutdowns are slowly being lifted, many companies have declared that employees will be able to work from home well into 2021. There are many benefits to embracing a remote work format, including the reduction of commute time and real estate costs, increased worker productivity, and flexible hours. The long-term adoption of remote work would take time and effort to adapt to but it has potential to positively transform the workplace (Rosalsky). Beyond solely transforming the workplace, remote work and a parallel lack of need for office space could increase the ability to provide affordable housing through tax incentives being used to convert older buildings and relieve a segment of rent burden (Chakrabarti). Though the need to restrict many activities and functions has presented an abundance of different challenges for individuals across the world, the coinciding need to adapt has allowed for growth that can be capitalized on in the future.

  Throughout history, there is overwhelming evidence of progress being prompted by crisis. The world is in a state of disaster but, even from the eye of the storm, the opportunities for growth are tangible. This growth will be hindered by noncompliance and obstinate behavior. In order for the world to rise from this pandemic prepared for improvement, individuals must assume their responsibility and contribute to lifting their communities and supporting the steps—however temporarily difficult they may be—towards unification and prosperity.



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