Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

World Leaders Need to Start Making Tough Decisions

World Leaders Need to Start Making Tough Decisions

Friday, 24 April, 2020 - 04:30
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad.

There are many questions we might feel uncomfortable asking, or even thinking about, yet they persist in our minds no matter how much we try to ignore or dismiss them.

We hope to wake up one day soon to learn that a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine has been developed so that this nightmare can end, we can leave the relative safety of our homes, and return to our normal daily lives. So far, however, this has not happened and even the most optimistic expert analyst cannot promise that we will have a vaccine before the end of the year.

So we must rethink the issue from scratch. Frequent handwashing and isolating ourselves at home are acceptable options for one or two months, maybe even three. But it is, in effect, a form of house arrest that equally restricts the infected and the healthy.

On the positive side, this home quarantine has encouraged us all to develop new healthy habits and precautions, such as improved hygiene and social distancing, which are crucial during a health crisis such as the one we are experiencing. So, if people could continue to adhere to these less restrictive precautionary measures, it might be enough to safeguard their health without the need for people to remain under lockdown in their homes, disrupting their livelihoods.

Non-curative solutions have helped reduce the risk but have failed to end the pandemic. Take the home quarantine, for example. In theory, if everyone adhered to it, the pandemic would have ended. It has certainly contributed to reducing the number of COVID-19 cases, but it has not stopped the pandemic.

Then there is testing. In theory, if the entire population was tested for the virus and those who are infected were isolated, the spread of the virus could be halted. This sounds simple, but there is not enough testing equipment. The US, for example, is carrying out more testing than any other country, yet so far only about 4 million people out of a population of 328 million have been tested.

People all around the world are frustrated and feel helpless in the face of this pandemic, which continues across borders and oceans. It has even reached the French territory of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, which is located off the west coast of Canada. The islands confirmed their first coronavirus case this month.

Many people have already lost their jobs. How many of those who are fortunate enough to still be working will be able to continue earning a living until a vaccine is available, perhaps by the end of the year or maybe months after that?

How will governments, especially in less-wealthy countries, and businesses be able to guarantee salaries for workers when there is little revenue coming in? How will bakeries work, for example? Who will grow the wheat and who will supply the flour? The same question can be asked at every step of the supply chain for every ingredient. If a single link in any of those chains is broken, we have no bread. The same is true of many other everyday foods and products.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for global authorities to extend lockdowns for months on end while scientists work hard to develop a medical solution. In fact, governments will have to start making some hard decisions in the next few weeks. They will have to choose between allowing at least a partial return to normal life, with the awareness that this might cause a public health disaster, and keeping the lockdown in place until the end of the year, with the knowledge that this might result in an economic collapse.

Ending the lockdown means transferring responsibility for public health from the state to individuals, who would have to protect themselves. Currently, the authorities in many countries are using the force of law and their security services to protect people — or, rather, to protect people from themselves. If lockdown orders are removed, it will become the responsibility of every individual to act with the utmost caution if they want to avoid becoming infected, or infecting others. In return, the easing of restrictions would enable them to earn a living. Moreover, it would help to restart the global economy.

While the economic benefits of this suggestion may seem obvious, the billion-dollar question is whether it would be a safe course of action. The available research offers contradictory answers. At one end of the scale, studies warn of the potential for deaths numbering in the tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions, and the collapse of health care systems. A more optimistic view suggests that people are responsible enough to venture out with caution and co-exist with the danger until the pandemic ends naturally, or until scientists develop a medical solution.

When the virus emerged, very little was known about its spread and how it affected people, but researchers have now uncovered information that can help us make the correct decisions to confront it and reduce the risks.

In the beginning, given the lack of knowledge, mistaken or false information prevailed, which led many to underestimate the seriousness of the threat posed by the virus. This helped it to spread.

There were also mistakes in how the emerging outbreak was handled. One of the biggest was that China kept its borders and airports open when the first COVID-19 cases began to emerge. More than 7 million people traveled from China to other parts of the world in those early days, thousands of whom were infected with the virus. Thus an outbreak turned into a pandemic.

It took the world by surprise. There was not enough medical equipment available to cope with the number of infections, and health authorities were forced to isolate the majority of patients in their own homes.

Most governments were also very slow to respond to the danger. This was partly because they believed they were far enough from the outbreak source to be safe from the worst effects. Even worse than this miscalculation, however, many of them dismissed the increasingly urgent warnings of scientists as an overreaction or scaremongering, and took the view that the virus and the disease it causes were no worse than the seasonal flu.

As a result, vital days and weeks were wasted before it became apparent that the coronavirus is like a fire: When it starts, it can be extinguished by a cup of water, but if you ignore it, it will spread, and by then there may not be enough firefighters to extinguish the blaze.

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