The lights go out all over Europe, the United States and increasingly the rest of the world. Closing borders, closing cities and governments imposing export bans. Globalization seems to be one of the first victims of the new corona virus.
The World Bank estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the economic damage from epidemics is usually caused by aversion, not illness, death and the associated loss of production. This time, due to the massive size of the shutdowns, the costs will be much higher.
Maybe not in Sweden. Even the next few hours or days are hard to predict, but it’s interesting that Sweden – the only European country that didn’t want to close its borders, closed schools and banned gatherings of less than 500 people – so far the spread seems better than other countries.
With beautiful exaggeration, Bloomberg News reported that “Swedes are trying the Laissez-Faire model in controversial virus responses.” Sweden did not do this out of libertarian zeal, but because of a tradition of listening to experts and health authorities who thought it would be better to track down individual cases in the country than to shut everything down. When everyone is waiting for the latest epidemiological data to make decisions, there is less room for political grandeur and strong rhetoric.
It should also be said that the culture of personal responsibility and interpersonal confidence makes it easier for the Swedish government to leave the final decisions to the people. If the public health service recommends working from home and avoiding unnecessary gatherings, most Swedes stick to it, even without putting the police on the street and imposing severe penalties. That leaves necessary space for local knowledge and personal needs. In any case, individuals, organizations and companies can continue if their specific situation makes it especially important that they remain open or walk around freely.
And by the way, it may help that Sweden is a country of introverts, famous for distant intergenerational relationships. Swedes took social distance before it was cool.
There are reasons to fear that this near-consensus on the deposition of whole nations will reinforce an already ongoing global reactionary impulse against the cross-border movement of people and goods. If we can’t find our way to an open world after that, our response to COVID-19 will hurt us even more than the virus. After decades of unprecedented progress in the fight against poverty, hunger and disease, these trends would be reversed and we would be even less prepared for the next nasty surprise nature throws at us.
Despite the popular perception, our best hope against pandemic is continued cross-border trade and cooperation. Travel bans are usually “political placebo,” as British health researcher Clare Wenham puts it, and the World Health Organization advises against it for the simple reason that COVID-19 is already everywhere, but essential supplies and medical equipment are not.
In fact, one of the reasons Italy has suffered terribly seems to be that closed borders gave them a false sense of security and underestimated their spread within the country.
It is easy to see the political logic behind bans on the export of essential equipment, which has been implemented at an early stage by countries such as Germany and France. You have to serve your own people first, right? But it is the same logic as toilet paper hoarding, and it has the same result. It forces others to do the same, which means it’s not on the market if you really have to go.
During the 2010-2011 global food price crisis, many governments banned food exports to secure local supplies. But afterwards we found out that those bans were part of the problem. In fact, they accounted for 40 percent of the rise in the world price of wheat and nearly a quarter of the rise in the price of corn.
So even though the world often moves in a nationalistic direction during crises, it is precisely when we most urgently need international agreements to abandon beggar-your-neighbor policy.
Wealth, communication technology and open science have made our response to new diseases faster than ever. In a poorer and more closed world, without mass transport, microorganisms traveled more slowly, but they traveled freely, returning hundreds of years, until they Almost all chose us one by one. Today our response is also global and therefore for the first time humanity has a chance to fight.
Hospitals, researchers, health authorities and pharmaceutical companies around the world can now directly provide each other with information. They can coordinate efforts to analyze and combat the problem. By organizing clinical trials with therapeutics simultaneously in many countries, they can reach a critical mass of patients they would never have found at home.
The pace of the responses was extraordinary. After trying to hide the outbreak for weeks, China announced that it had found a new coronavirus on January 2. Using technologies developed on the other side of the world, Chinese scientists were able to read the entire genome of the virus and publish it in a new global hub for medical research within a week. This information enabled researchers in Berlin to develop a test to detect infections in just six days. This is what we now use to track infected people around the world – except in the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged it to hold out and develop a domestic, faulty test that some of the U.S. efforts delayed weeks.
When someone reveals the mechanism of the virus, researchers and algorithms everywhere can work on ways to attack the vulnerabilities. On March 25, just three months after China admitted that a new virus was on the market, the U.S. National Library of Medicine lists 143 potential drugs and vaccines against the virus, already recruiting (or preparing for, recruiting) patients. ) to participate in clinical trials.
These companies, like our health care systems, are disproportionately dependent on immigrants. According to the Immigration Promotion Nonprofit Partnership for a New American Economy, eight out of ten medical patents issued by leading U.S. universities were invented by someone born outside the country. In other words, immigration bans kill Americans.
That is not all. Globalization can even prevent many pandemics from occurring. A 2019 study by researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Tel Aviv found that traveling between populations causes us to catch a lot of bugs, as well as boost immunity to new species. Thus, apocalyptic outbreaks are less likely. This is why previously isolated populations are most at risk – from Native Americans after 1492 to Swine Flu in 2009, when 24 of the 30 worst affected countries were island nations.
Human mobility is like a “natural vaccination,” says Robin Thompson of Oxford. The researchers speculate that this could help explain the global pandemic that has been just as serious as the Spanish flu in the past 100 years.
That does not help at all if a virus that previously only affects animals, mutates and jumps to humans, such as the new corona virus. Then we have no resistance and it can spread quickly.
But if the researchers are right, the jet engine has saved millions of lives from pandemics in recent decades. And as even the ruling Social Democrats of Sweden are currently emphasizing, the biggest threat to our economy, our jobs and our health is that the planes stop flying and the trucks get stuck at the border.
That is also worth taking into account before we turn off the last lights.