SFS On Topic: Coronavirus

Since its emergence in Wuhan, China in December 2019, the COVID-19 novel coronavirus disease has spread to 143 countries around the world. With over 150,000 cases and more than 5,500 deaths worldwide as of March 15, the disease has strained public health systems, impacted global markets and made its way into political discourse. As countries and citizens work to combat the spread of the disease, SFS faculty members have been at the forefront of tracking the outbreak, suggesting public policy solutions, keeping the public informed and analyzing its implications in unique political contexts.

China Faces COVID-19

When early reports of a respiratory illness originating in Wuhan, China started to emerge, SFS Global Human Development adjunct instructor Jeremy Konyndyk (MSFS’03) was one of the first experts to warn that the outbreak would continue to spread. On January 22, in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, Chinese officials began a quarantine operation that would encompass multiple cities and impose movement restrictions and other lockdowns, affecting more than 760 million people.

Even as the Chinese government announced the operation, Konyndyk was skeptical of its effectiveness. “Mandatory, involuntary quarantines can be difficult to enforce, and counterproductive,” Konyndyk told Wired MagazineIn a Bloomberg article about Chinese travel restrictions, Konyndyk said that “past precedents suggest it could lead to more hiding of cases and less voluntary compliance with public health measures.”

For those in China, a full lockdown continues in Hubei Province and the government has ordered all residents to remain in their homes. Reuters reports that the ban on movement is taking a toll on the community. Commenting on the movement restrictions, Dr. Rebecca Katz, SFS professor and Director of Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, told Reuters that basic human rights and needs must be taken into account. “You have to address the basic rights and well-being of people: can they get their food and water? What is their mental health status?” she said.

In a separate interview with On Point, Katz said that quarantines, which limit individual rights, will not be easy to enforce everywhere. “I think we have to be really careful when we talk about these types of measures. That we’re not just focused on the spread of disease, but also on the population that’s impacted,” she said.

Disease-Preparedness in West Africa: From Ebola to COVID-19

W. Gyude Moore (MSFS’09), a former Liberian top public official in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration and current SFS Centennial Fellow, played a critical role in supporting the Liberian response to the West Africa Ebola outbreak and helped to shape its post-Ebola outlook. Moore, now a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, talked to Quartz about how Ebola, though devastating, left Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria better prepared for COVID-19 than richer countries with more sophisticated health systems. He reflected on his experience battling Ebola in Liberia, saying, “It’s better to over-prepare than to overreact. In Liberia, we based our preparation on what we knew of outbreaks that had happened in the past and, when the outbreak exceeded anything that had happened before, we were grossly unprepared.”

Moore also emphasized the importance of collaborating with trusted community and national leaders to encourage public compliance with prevention measures. He recalled how the Liberian government worked with the country’s head Imam to inform Liberian Muslims about the risks associated with bathing the bodies of deceased loved ones, a key component of Islamic burial practices.

Konyndyk, who was director of USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance from 2013-2017, led the U.S. government’s humanitarian response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In an article in The Economist, Konyndyk drew on his experience in the response to Ebola, suggesting that ordinary citizens are unlikely to follow quarantine restrictions if they do not feel cared for and respected.

When the quarantine in Wuhan was imposed, many countries chartered airplanes to evacuate their citizens from the region. But for the more than 80,000 African students attending university in China, many African embassies do not have the capabilities to send their citizens home and responsibility for their care has fallen on the Chinese government. In a Today News Africa article, Moore says the scenario is a reflection of the increasingly important relationships between China and African nations that extend beyond the business and economic ties often emphasized when assessing the regions’ relations. “China’s relationship with Africa was not just business-oriented, it’s human,” he said.

Assessing U.S. Efforts to Tackle Coronavirus

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported on January 20, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. In the following weeks, U.S. policymakers and public health officials have mobilized responses to face the crisis. But experts question domestic preparedness levels in the United States.

The Trump administration has convened a special coronavirus task force to direct the U.S. response, but Dr. Rebecca Katz tells TIME that the task force was “missing some major players in the world of global health security.” No one from the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development or the Department of Agriculture was included.

In The New York Times, Katz also fact-checked statements by President Trump, including his assertion that the virus will likely disappear by April. “I think there is a lot we still don’t know about this virus, and I’m not sure we can say definitively that it will dissipate with warmer weather,” said Katz.

Konyndyk also questions the decisions that led to the loss of top experts in pandemic response from key government positions. “These moves make us materially less safe. It’s inexplicable,” Konyndyk told the Washington Post back in 2018, when Rear Adm. Tim Ziemer, National Security Council senior director for global health security and biodefense, and his team left the body. Dismantling the office, Konyndyk added in a comment to TIME in February, meant that “they actively unlearned a key lesson” from the 2014 U.S. efforts to respond to Ebola. “The institutional memory that was there is gone. Now they are behind the eight ball and retrying to reconstitute that,” he told TIME.

The World Responds

As COVID-19 left China and spread across the world, other countries were forced to grapple with the public health implications of the virus. SFS Professor Victor Cha says that the virus poses a unique threat to North Korea, which shares a border with China. “The porous nature of the border with China and frequent travel is a clear vector for the virus’ transmission. If there are reports of the virus inside of North Korea, we should expect that the virus would spread rapidly given the state’s inability to contain a pandemic,” Cha said in an article in CSIS’s Beyond Parallel.

In Xinjiang, China, COVID-19 has the potential to be potentially devastating in China’s secretive internment camps and could compound the suffering of Muslim Uighurs and other minority groups who are being held in them. The close and unsanitary conditions are the breeding ground for the spread of the virus among a population that is already subjected to a myriad of other health risks. SFS Professor James Millward, quoted in Vox, said, “cramped conditions, poor hygiene, cold, stressed immune systems — this could be a massive disaster.”

With its disregard for national borders and rapid international spread, COVID-19 is throwing some international relations tensions into sharp relief. At a time when governments need to share data and coordinate responses, SFS professor Evan Medeiros told NPR’s Jackie Northam that two key players, the U.S. and China, are “suffering from a deep deficit of trust.” While there has been some cooperation between U.S. and Chinese scientists on modeling the virus’s spread and analyzing COVID-19 medical cases, China has restricted access to the country for teams from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Director of the Asian Studies Program at SFS Michael Green similarly urged international cooperation. “Pandemics could foster greater suspicion or cooperation,” he wrote in a Korea JoongAng Daily article. “This time suspicion appears to be winning, and that adds more friction to international relations.” The proliferation of conspiracy theories, ideological competition and early mismanagement of the outbreak could all contribute to weakening bonds of global cooperation, he says.

Many commentators have argued that global reductions in air travel, driving and coal-burning caused by travel restrictions and quarantines may have some positive impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, especially in China where the COVID-19 strain of coronavirus originated. However, Joanna Lewis, an SFS professor and expert on China’s energy sector, told the Washington Post that, overall, the outbreak may not lead to a significant reduction in these important climate metrics. “The [immediate] reductions are substantial, but they are most certainly only temporary, and there will likely be a rebound effect,” she said. “Once people go back to work and factories restart, they may try to make up for lost time. This could result in a surge in emissions.”

This content was initially published by the School of Foreign Service, authored by Sophia Mauro and Mairead MacRae. You can find the full article here.