The World Should Learn From Previous Pandemics: Truth, Transparency and Science Matter

Apr 2, 2020 by

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. 

Seventeen years ago, again in China, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) swept over China and went on to infect more than 8,000 people and kill almost 800. A lack of transparency and down right lies spread the virus to 28 countries. 

China was criticised by the UN’s global health body for concealing the scale of the outbreak. Sars posed a huge challenge to the Chinese leadership both as a public health crisis and a political one.  Truth, transparency and allowing public health officials make medical and public health choices, not purely political ones were a lesson China’s should have learned from the Sars fiasco. Another should have been closing the wet or  wildlife market which are poorly managed, insanitary” and “a dangerous source of possible new infections”.

The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission pronounced, “Anyone who deliberately delays and hides the reporting of [virus] cases out of his or her own self-interest will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.”

There has been some window dressing to 

show China’s leaders are being more open and transparent. President Xi Jinping has mouthed the words of transparency— but the reality on the ground is anything but open and transparent.

Fast forward nearly two decades and China is in eye of the storm with the coronavirus (COVID-19)causing a health and economic pandemic across the globe. The disease had spread throughout China and to 151 other countries and territories, including the United States.

Global economic markets are tumbling with the the US Stock Market, the Dow sinking like— a boulder!

Business, markets and governments hate uncertainty and this virus, originating in Wuhan China has washed over the globe bringing destruction and a questionable future. Fear and uncertainty are fueling anxiety and panic around the world.  

There is a drum beat of gloom with economic turmoil and near panic infused fear that will get much worse before it gets better. 

All our global as well as domestic efforts are now focused on what is a refrain from the chattering class on cable news pontificating  saying, “we are hoping for the best as we prepare for the worst.”

Owning Mistakes 

Clearly there were mistakes made in China where local leaders initially down played the problem as well as other errors at home and abroad that have shaped the crisis that is unfolding now. Wuhan’s mayor said 5 million people left the city before travel restrictions were imposed ahead of the Lunar New Year.

In the future there will be scientists, health officials and poli-scientists and science fiction writers penning books and dissertations to cash in on what went wrong. 

The US and other nations have made some serious mistakes in preparing for a potential pandemic and in strategic and tactical decisions they have made. As the coronavirus leaped from Wuhan, China across globe, the Business Insider Magazine reports President Trump’s administration has hampered the United States’ response through blunders and cuts to public health.

These mistakes are costly. The number of US coronavirus cases skyrocketed past 210,000 (April 1, 2020) and at least 4,669 have died.

I will leave it it history to sort out how we arrived at this intersection of history. We can not continue to make the same

blunders when the health and economic well being of all humanity is at stake.

As a former state superintendent of public education in Michigan I have begun to reflect on the lessons all of us, as global citizens should learn from the Covid-19 crisis and  the global catastrophe unfolding.

When The Student Is Ready- The Teacher Will Appear

The Coronavirus has bought some truths home: 

  • Science matters. Hope and prays while welcome are not going to solve this problem.
  • Facts matter. There is a time and place for political spin- this is not one of them.
  • Transparency matters. We need our government and health leaders to keep us informed, good, bad and ugly.
  • Truthfulness matters. In a era where the Groucho Marx line, “Who ya gonna believe, me or your lying eyes” has become a standard punchline, we must demand the truth.
  • Preparedness matters. Budget cuts and hiring freezes in federal departments are often hidden from the public view— until they aren’t. There are many key positions in critical public health and homeland security roles that are vacant- and it shows  
  • Trust matters. When at least half of American citizens don’t trust the POTUS in good times, Houston, we have a crisis in tough times. 
  • Leadership matters. At a time when we should be rallying around the flag to protect our nation from this foreign invasion we are splintered and divided. As Abe Lincoln reminded us at a perilous time in our history, a house divided against itself will not stand. 
  • Health matters. My grandma would always tell me, “Without your health, you have nothing.” I now understand grandma.  
  • What happens in China does not stay in China. Going forward, all global issues will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, D.C. How are respective leaders manage and lead these issues will impact the people of China, America and all of humanity as we are witnessing today.
  • Tribalism and nationalism are on a rise- but we need to grasp, we are all in this together as we continue to be reminded, we live in an interconnected world where walls  won’t prevent health oeconomic pandemic. We can’t drill holes in the other side of the boat we are sharing and not expect it to sink us all
  • In an interconnected world, we need to build bridges – not erect walls or dig moats to survive and thrive

Global problems. Problems like the coronavirus, climate change, water scarcity, ignorance, poverty, nuclear proliferation require a collective unified, coordinated collaborative response.

We can avert catastrophes we know are coming our way, if we have the courage to upset the status quo. We cannot survive in the 21st century without casting off the anchors of the past that are holding us in frozen in place. 

We need leaders willing to lead for their nation, and all of humanity.

The COVID-19  has rapidly morphed from being a primarily Chinese worry to a global pandemic. As we have seen in other spheres, what happens in China does not stay in China.

As the old nursery rhyme, Dry Bones ( reminds us, the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone  ….events that are playing out today on the global stage are all interconnected. Trump’s  tariff trade war with China weakened the global economy and— now the coronaviruses is knocking it for a loop.

Survival is a great motivator. We need to join together to fight this “war without bombs”.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Will we learn our lessons?

Tom Watkins is a former Michigan State Superintendent of Schools and State Mental Health Director who has spent nearly four decades working to build cultural, educational and economic ties between the US and China. He is a regular contributor to US/ChinaFocus

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