By NEHA BHARDWAJ
It would hardly be an overstatement to say that coronavirus has hit the world like a hurricane. Since the first case in December of 2019, the novel coronavirus (otherwise known as COVID-19) has spread like wildfire. Over the past few months, coronavirus has grown from the faint whispers of an issue on the other side of the world to an inescapable source of anxiety and fear impacting every aspect of our lives.
From panic buying to closures of public places to a skyrocketing death rate, reports of coronavirus have seized all forms of media and left an undeniable mark on our lives. In this time of unprecedented stress, many have been quick to malign the government, blaming the missteps of officials and policymakers for the rapid escalation of the coronavirus situation.
However, in their haste to find a scapegoat, many have been reduced to tunnel vision. Although the government has undeniably botched their response to coronavirus, the full truth contains shades of gray. In actuality, government action regarding coronavirus reflects a complex tug-of-war between respecting people’s autonomy and livelihoods and taking control to stop the spread.
An aspect of government policy that has recently come under intense fire in the media is the lack of transparency, especially from China’s government. The severity of this issue is by no means an exaggeration. According to Axios, the Chinese government is believed to have covered up the virus for at least three weeks – and though it may not sound like much, this is no insignificant amount of time.
As a matter of fact, a study from the University of Southampton finds that if the Chinese government had come forth and taken public action three weeks earlier, “the number of coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95% and its geographic spread limited.”
Other governments have not hesitated to point fingers at China and emphasize their irresponsibility. For instance, the UK government has repeatedly expressed concerns that China is whitewashing the severity of its coronavirus situation (Business Insider). The UK government has even gone so far as to claim that China is, “trying to expand its economic power through offering help to other countries” – a theory quickly picked up by Fox News in the United States.
This trend of placing all blame on China should remind many of the highly controversial term coined by President Donald Trump. Such harmful rhetoric and inflammatory statements have done little to actually combat the virus or prevent its spread; rather, they only exacerbate the situation by miring us in useless debate and semantics.
Moreover, it is worth noting that China is not the only nation that has grossly mishandled the situation. As a matter of fact, the United States and European nations repeated many of the same mistakes, which is why we were unable to nip this in the bud – effectively costing thousands of lives.
First of all, most governments did not take the virus seriously in the beginning and were hesitant to implement policy measures to stop the spread, part of a well-known phenomenon called confirmation bias – the tendency to interpret information in a way that favors a preconceived notion or initial position (Harvard Business Review). The actions of government officials exemplify this bias, spewing myopic statements and statistics about the innocuity of coronavirus.
Italian politicians even made a show of publicly shaking each other’s hands to stress the lack of severity of coronavirus (later catching the virus). This accordingly leads into another crucial common mistake: the use of partial, gradual remedies. Many governments have followed a strategy along the lines of: if coronavirus becomes a problem in an area or industry, restrict that area or industry.
There are two key issues with such an approach, the first being its incompatibility with such an exponentially growing virus and the second being its reactive (as opposed to preventative) nature. Governments have recently started realizing that in order for any measure to be effective, it must be swift, strict, and employed in conjunction with a multitude of other actions.
This is especially an issue in the United States, and we need coordinated action to prevent the spread of coronavirus immediately. The development of such policies obviously cannot happen overnight, but the process can be significantly sped up by looking to other nations as precedent.
For instance, a multi-pronged strategy that proved highly effective in Veneto (a region of Italy) included extensive testing of both symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers, proactive tracing of neighborhoods based on confirmed cases, and efforts to protect workers in high-risk industries (Harvard Business Review).
To the government’s credit, they have recently been attempting to ramp up intervention efforts to stop the spread. Most people are presumably familiar with California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Stay at Home Executive Order. We have also all personally felt the effects of quarantine through school closures.
Moreover, most workplaces, restaurants, and stores have been closed to further contain the virus. There has been significant pushback from the public, and understandably so: the economy has tanked, small businesses are suffering, and putting people’s lives on standstill was not all that popular either. However, despite the complaints, the California government has remained firm and unwavering in its resolve – as it should.
Another policy of the federal government has recently also come under fire. About a week ago, the government revealed that they are aggregating location data from millions of citizens in order to collect information about movement and transmission in supposed areas of interest (Wall Street Journal).
Naturally, this policy has come under intense scrutiny by technology and data privacy experts, who are quick to point out that it is impossible to entirely anonymize such data. This again ties into the complex struggle of determining the degree of intervention the government should exercise to combat coronavirus.
Obviously, placing all the blame on the government would be impetuous and unfounded, especially since coronavirus is a largely unprecedented issue that has left policymakers scrambling to keep up. However, we cannot settle for government secrecy, singular reactive measures, and half-baked ideas that potentially violate our rights.
We must recognize the fact that our current system is flawed, and the government must seriously reevaluate its strategies if it wants to eliminate the spread of this deadly virus once and for all.