Human security in an age of coronavirus: Integration, climate change and the need for collaboration

The coronavirus that swept through parts of China, and it is now spreading to South Korea, Japan, Iran and the world, is leaving a trail of economic and social dislocation in its wake. Since the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan at the beginning of this year, the curtain has been pulled back to reveal the fragile inner workings of an extraordinarily integrated economic system which demands that raw materials be extracted from every corner of the Earth, shipped for processing and fabrication to wherever labor is cheaper, or technology more advanced, and then delivered to yet another location where there is market demand.

The drastic actions taken to stop the contagion in Wuhan, China and now those being taken in Daegu, South Korea, have struck hard at two major manufacturing centers which are tied to the world economy through overlapping circles of supply chains. Few people know what parts of their household appliances originate in, or pass through, Wuhan or Daegu, but they may learn soon.

The resulting panic in East Asia has resulted in a catastrophic drop in production, and in consumption, as factories shut down, or are shut down by a shortage of components. Consumers stay at home and avoid going out to public spaces because of an often irrational fear of contagion.

Interestingly, the impact for the environment of this reduction in manufacturing, and this drop in consumption, has been quite positive. Emissions are down across China and blue skies are back because of the drop in production. The grounding of airplanes has also had a salutary impact. Sadly, however, the entire economic system that supports these logistical chains assumes as an unquestioned principle that consumption and growth are necessary, and that a reduction in the consumption of resources hurts, rather than helps, workers. It seems unlikely that the more essential lesson will be learned anytime soon.

The circulation of iron ore and magnesium, petroleum and uranium around the world is paralleled by the shuffling back and forth of steel plates and memory chips, slabs of plastic and rows of bolts between factories. Above this unfettered flow of things by ISO container ships, made possible by decades of trade negotiations and market liberalization, we find a constant swarm of airplanes that ply the skies, across oceans, to deliver businessmen in search of profit, students in search of degrees that lead to well-paid careers and tourists in search of excitement.

This circulation of raw materials, components and finished goods, businessmen and vacationers, has been assumed to be a necessity, a positive step towards a global modernity, over the last forty years. The media praises this process as an indication of progress, almost without exception. Even as knowledge of the climate catastrophe seeps out in dregs and drags through the otherwise impermeable media, we find only more push for the construction of new airports, for the increase of the shipment of goods in container ships that burn fossil fuel on a massive scale.

It is not merely that investment banks can increase their profits by outsourcing the making of clothes to Bangladesh, or the assembly of I phones to China. This internationalization push is deeply seductive. Rushing around from Delhi to Tokyo to Paris makes businessmen or government officials feel that they are doing something of tremendous significance. They have become, in their minds, the heralds of a new age who bring the world together as one.

For decades is has been held as a moral imperative to raise mankind from the fallen state of farming in local communities, where he followed in the familiar teachings of his ancestors, and to encourage him to live in urban areas and engage in the manufacture of objects for consumption, or in the art of management within interlinked corporations.

But the outbreak of the coronavirus has brought the entire system to a stop. It is not that the coronavirus in itself is so horrific that it will wipe out human civilization like the black plague. Coronavirus is but the latest in a series of serious infectious diseases that we can trace back to the SARS epidemic in Asia (2002–03) and the H1N1 influenza virus in the United States (2009).

The disease can be handled effectively through the coordination between scientists, doctors, policy makers and the branches of central and local governments tasked with responding to epidemics. But only countries who have a functional government that has prepared for such outbreaks is capable of such a response.

The outbreak of coronavirus has revealed to us that this basic infrastructure we had assumed was there in the United States has been whittled away by austerity policies, massive spending on the military, and the privatization of medicine. Most local government in the United States is entirely unprepared to mobilize the population at home, let alone to coordinate with local government in China, South Korea or Japan about best practices.

It is like discovering when a fire catches in your kitchen that your fire extinguisher is empty. The fire itself could be easily controlled if the fire extinguisher worked, but since it does not, the entire house is in danger.

The Trump administration has placed vice president Mike Pence, a religious zealot deeply hostile to the scientific method in charge of the response to the coronavirus. His imperative seems to be to throttle public discussion of the epidemic. His opening prayer meeting suggested that we are back to the dark ages.

Ironically, Trump administration recently ended two working groups set up to respond to pandemics, one within the National Security Council and one in the Department of Homeland Security.

The massive cuts in public funding for scientific research under the Trump administration, and the drive to privatize medicine that goes much further back, could result in a large and uncontrolled outbreak in the United States.

Could the coronavirus outbreak be the straw that may break the globalization camel’s back? The crazed effort to stop economic exchange between China, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and the United States may not have much impact on the spread of disease, but it is certainly bringing us closer to an economic collapse because of the degree to which we rely on imported manufactured goods, food, raw materials and medicine. Massive shortages are in the pipeline already.

What we need is government agencies that can send trained experts out among the citizens, all citizens, to promote sanitary habits, encourage nutritious diets, and provide public education about this disease (and others) while administering tests for the disease and quickly putting together temporary quarantine hospitals when required.

But no such government organizations exist today in the United States. What little we have has been slashed to the bone.

There are no groups of volunteer citizens walking through your neighborhoods to give you advice, suggesting how you can live a healthy life. For that matter, the privatization of medicine means that many will not be able to seek diagnosis for coronavirus even if they know that they have it. The millions who are homeless, or live in conditions of poverty in the United States will be left to fend for themselves.

Sadly, privatized medicine means that advanced research is increasingly focused on the needs of well-heeled patients at the expense of public medical facilities that are accessible to all. But is the least advantaged, not the rich, who are critical to any effort to address such an outbreak.

The current mass incarceration of immigrants in the United States poses a tremendous threat to the health of all citizens. Make-shift camps that are filled with thousands of immigrants offer an ideal breeding ground for future microbes. The minimal health services offered to them so far has only increased the risk. The same can be said of the millions of Americans held in our sprawling prison system. The vast majority should be set free to avoid prisons becoming incubators for pathogens.

We cannot treat this outbreak as an opportunity for profit. Vaccines and basic medical treatment must be fully free so that no infected citizen avoids treatment because of a fear of costs. In the interest of national security, we must move rapidly towards a national health program that assures that the most venerable are protected so as to insure the health of all.

Rather than shutting things down, perhaps we should be increasing the quality of food available for citizens, ridding convenience stores and supermarkets of high sugar, low-nutrient processed foods and teaching citizens how to grow their own healthy vegetables and to cook them in a manner that makes best use of their nutrients. Sending of teams of young people to look after the elderly who live alone and make sure single mothers are able to provide nutritious meals to their children would not only create invaluable job opportunities, but could also assure that we have a healthy population that is resistant to such outbreaks.

There is much to be said for learning from the best practices found in the response of China to the outbreak over the last two months. China’s implementation of restrictions on the movement of people, including implementing a temporary lock-down on twenty cities (including Wuhan), combined with a massive testing of more than 11 million people, often through door-to-door efforts, helped to contain the outbreak and identity and quarantine those who were effected. The result has been a major drop in new cases.

The last few days of panic over the coronavirus in the United States has revealed that there is a severe shortage of basic equipment, especially of the respirator mask that is needed to protect health care workers. There are also practically no testing kits available and the making of testing kits has not been prioritized because of the low profit margins for corporations.

The key to China’s massive campaign was the role of government in medicine and the presence of large number of government officials, and doctors, who could be dispatched by the thousands to the regions that needed help fast.

The United States lacks such a workforce, but could do well to start building up the numbers of public health workers to respond to future emergencies.

Another critical part of the Chinese experience was the efforts of the government to encourage the citizens of Wuhan to work together, and to feel a sense of mission and of unity. The public rallies held had a powerful psychological impact on citizens and kept them from falling into panic or despair.

The Chinese effort contrasts with the sense of foreboding and isolation we have seen in other nations. The rush to grab foodstuffs from supermarkets that took place in New Zealand after the first reported coronavirus case suggests the opposite of community solidarity and does not help the effort to combat the outbreak.

Research and education

We must recognize that viruses have no respect for national borders and we will need to collaborate broadly with China, and other nations to identify such threats in advance and to respond in a global manner. Rather than going forward with a plan for a cut in funding, the United States should increase its support for World Health Organization and other institutions with global reach so as to assure that professionals can respond to new challenges in a rapid manner.

We need to establish a culture of global collaboration more in line with what we saw in the search for a vaccine for polio in a previous generation. But before that can happen, we need to revive the best of the traditions of internationalism that once deeply informed American foreign policy.

The Trump administration decided to terminate the Predict program in October of 2019, ended a largely successful effort of USAID to support scientists around the world who searched out microbes that are potential pathogens. Predict identified over 900 such microbes, working with partners around the world to stop them at their source. If anything the United States needs to expand Predict and make it the core of a truly global response center. Diseases are killing more people than terrorists and should be given even more priority than anti-terrorism collaboration..

The commercialization of the university as an institution for education and for research has also played a major role in the confused response to the coronavirus at home and abroad. The focus in education falls these days on preparing students to obtain specialized jobs, whether accounting degrees, MBAs or medical degrees that assure a high income. The commitment of educators to teaching students to think for themselves and to understand how society and the economy work in order to be a responsible citizen has faded into the background.

The problem also is exacerbated by the changing nature of scientific research. Increasingly, scientific research is driven by the requirements laid down for tenure at universities. The overwhelming focus is on publishing of articles in approved scientific journals, not public service, or even innovative research.

Topics like epidemiology are treated in journal articles, but most such articles are not written by scholars with direct experience. Moreover, those journal articles are hidden away behind pay-walls, out of the reach of citizens, or even of policy makers. Moreover, the academic prose of those reports make them linguistically inaccessible to most people in hospitals who deal with outbreaks of disease.

Problems in the decision making process

The response to coronavirus around the world has been dramatic, including the shutting down of all flights between the nations of East Asia, and with the United States. The cities of Seoul and Tokyo are paralyzed by the closing down of concerts, talks, public meetings and government offices. Citizens are advised to stay at home, alone, and order everything on line. Coffee shops and restaurants are empty. In essence, civil society has been brought to a halt more effectively than the declaration of martial law. In Seoul, after decades of protests like the “candle light revolution” in front of the Blue House, public demonstrations have been made illegal because of the coronavirus without so much as a whimper from progressives.

The Abe administration had closed down all schools in Japan by fiat for at least a month, leaving youth in complete limbo, and isolation. But what is the process by which these decisions with such a profound impact on society are made? In the case of the Abe administration, the declaration to close schools came down on high without any policy discussion. There is no sign that the government engaged in scientific debate involving epidemiology experts, educators, parents or citizens’ groups.

If an open debate had actually taken place, we might have learned that schools and other public meetings can serves as a way for citizens learn how to care for their health, keep safe, enhance their immune systems and engage in an open exchange that would have encouraged citizens to help each other. It seems rather that the shutting down of public events had a negative impact on accurate understanding of the disease.

Such a non-participatory, uninformed, process by which government decisions are made public by a sensationalist profit-driven media increases the authoritarian trend in governance at the same time that it makes citizens more isolated.

One has to wonder whether the coronavirus has become an opportunity for vested interests to engage in what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine,” using a real crisis, like 9.11, as an opportunity to push through radical changes in government policy that could never have been implemented under normal circumstances.

Destoying forests and breeding pathogens

We must also stop the destruction of nature as part of the current culture of extraction and consumption. Those actions are driving the increase in contagions today. As journalist Sonia Shah explains in her recent article in the Nation “Think Exotic Animals Are to Blame for the Coronavirus? Think Again” 60% of pathogens originate in animals, and of those animals, 70% are wild animals. But it is not the fact that the animals are wild that creates these diseases. Rather, our thoughtless destruction of the wilderness, the building houses, farms and factories in what was once the pristine natural homes for wild animals gave previously harmless microbes in wild animals a chance to jump over to domestic animals and to humans.

Wild species are forced to live in close proximity with humans in order to survive. That creates a great risk of the novel crossover of microbes between wild and domestic animals that would not normally ever meet.

The destruction of forests in West Africa forced bats to roost in backyards and farms. The result was a transfer to humans of microbes that would never have been anywhere near humans.

Also, the use of enormous amounts of land to support the animals raised for meat around the world in factory farms serves as tremendous opportunity to breed pathogens. Avian influenza, for example, was able to evolve and grow more virulent because of the limitless chickens available in factory farms it to feast on. Factory farms also produce an enormous volume of animal waste that collects in manure lagoons. These wastelands are a blight for the natural world but a paradise for breeding pathogens.

What should be done?

The promotion of global extraction industries that are destroying forests and oceans, combined with the promotion of the use of fossil fuels that are changing the climate, vastly increases the potential for pandemics. We need to find an entirely different kind of internationalization. Internationalization should mean coordination between researchers and policy makers in different countries so as to come up with solutions that move beyond artificial borders and that allow immediate action to be taken across the world in a coordinated and systematic manner. Only in this manner can we address the health needs of humanity as a whole.

That global approach to research, policy formulation, the exchange of best practices and coordination of implementation must be done outside of a concern for profits. Security in the future, especially in light of climate change, will be a matter of human security.

This outbreak also demands that we revisit the sanctions regime that the United States and other countries have imposed on the world. We only endanger ourselves further if we deny Iran or North Korea access to medical supplies that can be used to avoid a major outbreak. But we are not only talking about medical supplies. Making quality food available to all the citizens of the Earth is essential to assuring that they are resistant to infections and that we can keep such outbreaks under control.

We must rapidly rethink our priorities so as to address these new security realities on a highly interconnected, warming planet. Most of the resources now being dumped into the development of fighter planes, tanks and missiles belongs in research on pathogens and building effective systems to under-gird global responses to such emerging threats.

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store