The Perils and Promise of Globalization

I know my bias for internationalism and globalization are obvious. But I genuinely believe this pandemic has made clear that however we feel about global interconnectedness, there is simply no other way to fight something like a pandemic without the world working together.

Global threats like viruses, terrorism, environmental degradation, and the like don’t adhere to borders. They’re too big, spread out, and complicated for even the most powerful countries to handle them on their own. At the very least, countries need to coordinate and keep each other informed, but they also need to pool their resources, know-how, and ideas, too.

Consider this pandemic: On the one hand, globalization did make it easier for it to spread, given the unprecedented amount of travel, migration, and business that occurs across the world. But there’s really no preventing that: Even seven hundred years ago, the world was connected enough for the Black Death to sweep through much of Asia and Europe, wiping out a quarter to half of the societies it struck. Good luck going back to pre-Medieval levels of international engagement.

Plus, on the other hand, globalization is helping us tackle this virus and prevent another Spanish Flu, which claimed 50-100 million lives beginning during World War I, when most nations weren’t working together. (Heck, it’s called Spanish Flu precisely because Spain was the only country to report openly about it; the U.S. and the rest of Europe kept it under wraps so as not to appear weak in the war.)

Notwithstanding its poor initial response, China quickly acted to contain the virus and assist the world (whether for charitable reasons, to save face, or both, is irrelevant). As early as January, Chinese scientists figured out the genetic code of the virus and shared it with the world. Australian researchers quickly found a potential treatment, followed by scientists in Canada, Israel, Germany, the U.S., and elsewhere.

The west African nation of Senegal—all too familiar with pandemics given Ebola’s impact on the region—worked with the U.K. to develop one of the fastest testing rates and a possible treatment.

Thailand, Vietnam, and China have found novel drug combinations that may be effective; the Vietnamese have done well enough that they’re aiding their poorer neighbors and even the West with supplies.

Taiwan has become recognized as a global leader in pandemic response, aiding other countries with both medical supplies and its highly effective strategy (which have been emulated to great success by other countries, such as New Zealand).

Italy found a way to 3-D print lifesaving respiratory valves, while an Irish-based research group is making similar techniques openly available to the world.

For all its flaws, the U.N. World Health Organization has proven beneficial on balance. It’s brought together dozens of top researchers across the world to discuss solutions; has provided supplies to countries around the world (including the U.S.); and is leading a “Solidarity Trial” involving labs across the wold to test the four most promising treatments. (Recall that the W.H.O. led the effort to eradicate smallpox, which has killed hundreds of millions, and helped discover an Ebola vaccine.)

Speaking of global efforts: the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is also leading the charge for a COVID-19 vaccine. Based in Norway, it brings together governments and organizations all over the world to tackle the worst infectious diseases bedeviling humanity.

The “Wuhan Virus” and Human Progress

Believe it or not, the saga of the “Wuhan coronavirus” demonstrates a considerable amount of human progress since the days that diseases would claims tens of millions of lives (which wasn’t that long ago).

First, it was identified and determined to be a new strain of the coronavirus family at record speed. (Coronaviruses are best known for causing the “common cold”.) Just one week after it was discovered, Chinese authorities had already sequenced the virus and shared it with labs around the world; an Australian lab did the same not long after, allowing the whole world to pool its resources together to learn more about this pneumonia-like virus and develop a possible treatment.

“Something that’s remarkable here is that within a week, the RNA sequences of the virus are available on the internet, and many can look at it and begin to understand it,” Richard Martinello, an associate professor of infectious disease at the Yale School of Medicine, told Business Insider. “That’s something that’s never been done before.”

Second, since the discovery of coronaviruses around 60 years ago, medical technology has come a very long way, advancing to the point that we can conduct far more in-depth research into the way these viruses work. For example, while it was known that coronavirus could infect humans, the SARS outbreak marked the first time a coronavirus was traced back to animals. We will likely learn a lot from this experience as well.

And that leads to my third point: Thanks to the advent of institutions like the U.N. World Health Organization, there is unprecedented cooperation, monitoring, and exchanging of data and resources across the world. Just as diseases do not adhere to borders, so too are we humans learning the value of cooperating and coordinating to prevent or contain these pandemics.

To that end, Americans are presently far more likely to catch the seasonal flu than the Wuhan coronavirus. Plus, the preventative measures for both are the same: wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face, and keep away from anyone who is sick.

None of this is to promote complacency, but to prevent unwarranted or possibly counterproductive panic.