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Much to learn about humankind

27th March 2020

The world is still in the early days of the COVID-19 experience but there is already much to learn from the 70-odd days since news of the virus broke in China. There isn’t a lot of hindsight to work with just yet.

The apparent reluctance of Western governments to act on the threat that was readily apparent in the early surge in deaths in China and impose movement restrictions on their populations will cost dearly in death tolls and economic carnage. Western countries such as the UK and US have little or no experience of major epidemics to hone their alert systems and health system readiness. In fact, successive governments have underinvested in social infrastructure and support systems.

The ability of a number of Asian countries to slow the spread and “flatten the curve” was seeded long ago, in the learnings from previous epidemics and a cultural background that prioritises the collective benefit over individual freedoms. Social and cultural norms that enforce self-discipline and obedience to official guidance are key reasons Japan has so far managed to limit the number of infections. Taiwan created a law after the SARS outbreak that took the politics out of medical emergencies and allowed a rapid and proactive response, keeping that country well down the league table of cases and deaths. South Korea built a rapid response and public alert system from its SARS and MERS experiences and also implemented an exhaustive track-and-trace system.

Will there be some positives from this huge disruption to lives and livelihoods? Will there be a new priority given to healthcare, environment and building communities rather than simply measuring GDP and surpluses by the world’s government? Will there be a new appreciation for food and the supply chains that keep supermarket shelves stocked? Will the tendency not to waste food because going to the store is to be avoided carry through when “normalcy” is restored? Will the race for better treatments and ultimately a vaccine reinforce the benefits of global cooperation or will the transmission of the virus through travel harden the emerging nationalistic politics of recent years?

COVID-19 could be an opportunity to reset priorities in many areas of business, policy and community. As we scramble for survival will those lessons be learnt or lost?