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Since the first news of a mysterious illness began to appear out of Wuhan, Hubei province, China — when a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown origin were first reported in December of 2019 — the coronavirus has wreaked havoc with the economies and social fabric of most countries around the world.

The differences in its evolution throughout the world permits us to draw some lessons on how best to deal with the pandemic, and by studying failed policies, we will be able to better confront future challenges.

Wrong and right approach

The Trump administration’s pandemic policies can be best described as a tragedy of errors. From denying its existence, minimizing its seriousness, delaying the delivery of personal-protective equipment and by placing inexperienced people in charge of managing the administration’s response, the former president’s approach needlessly caused the loss of many lives.

In addition, the president’s messages were often unclear and at odds with information from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

While China has successfully controlled the pandemic, other countries — including the United States — still suffer its consequences. Authorities in China were able to implement, from the beginning, draconian measures to prevent the rapid spread of the virus.

From Jan. 3, 2020, to May 17, 2021, there were 104,428 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China, with 4,858 deaths reported to the World Health Organization. A note of caution: Many experts consider this a gross underreporting by the Chinese authorities, although China’s success in controlling the pandemic cannot be denied. In contrast, during the same time period, there were 32,605,236 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and 580,166 deaths reported to the WHO.

A report commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on improving the preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic concluded that China’s compliance with its reporting and information-sharing under the International Health Regulations agreement was “at best flawed, particularly in the early days of the outbreak, when transparency was most important.”

In the United States, the pandemic was treated as a political rather than a public health issue, and leading scientists were contradicted and their opinions disregarded. The American TV viewer watched in disbelief as the former president ignored the advice given by the country’s top scientists and persistently promoted false cures for the disease.

National vs. local policies

While China’s response to the pandemic was centralized and controlled by the central government, each state in the United States was left to fend for itself, frequently competing for vital supplies. Also, while China was able to quickly speed up the production of clinical gowns and surgical masks, a shortage of these items in the United States lasted for several months.

In China and other Asian countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, some of the key factors behind their successes early on were the carrying out of widespread testing, quarantining the infected and promoting the widespread use of masks. These measures were complemented by the banning of mass gatherings and social events.

The speed of China’s response was critical for its success, as was explained to The Lancet by Gregory Poland, director of the Vaccine Research group at the Mayo Clinic. In China, some 1,000 hospital beds for coronavirus patients were built in just 10 days, while in the United States, many hospitals were unable to respond to the increasing demand for such beds.

A report commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations also said that the pandemic exposed the United States for its inadequate investment in public health and its failure to maintain an adequate strategic national stockpile of needed equipment and medical supplies for such an emergency.

Super spreader events

Avoiding super-spreader events is also an important way to mitigate the number of infections. Two situations should be noted here. Trump, through his reckless actions, exacerbated the spread of the pandemic by conducting political rallies and other social events in total disregard for his own administration’s scientists and CDC directives. And more recently, American peace activist Dr. Alice Rothchild denounced the Israeli military’s attacks on Gaza, calling it a super spreader event. She also has asked that COVID-19 vaccines be distributed among the residents of Gaza, who are the victims of their own and Israel’s leadership.

Game-changers

The United States, other governments, multilateral organizations and private firms have provided substantial financial resources for developing new vaccines against the coronavirus. While in the past it took anywhere from four to 20 years to create conventional vaccines, the new messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were developed in a record time of 11 months.

Now there are various vaccines approved for general or emergency use, and more than a billion doses have been administered worldwide. Some barriers and obstacles remain, however.

Such challenges that are hampering the efforts to stop the spread of the virus include a reluctance by many to be vaccinated and the still limited supply of vaccines. The emergence of new variants of the virus, some of which are more infectious than the original, also may prove a challenge for the existing vaccines. This new development may also require regularly timed vaccinations to protect people in the future.

The CFR-sponsored task force has stated that the United States should treat pandemics as a serious national security issue and translate its rhetoric into concrete action, revamping its current approach. One of the most important lessons from this pandemic is that the world needs to be better prepared to confront future challenges.

China has successfully controlled the pandemic. In the United States, as the Biden administration continues to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, the end of the pandemic seems to be within reach. Most other countries, however, are lagging far behind and new, concerted and more generous efforts by the richest nations are needed to control the pandemic at a global level.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant.

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