Asleep at the Wheel: Why Didn’t Western Politicians Act Quicker on COVID-19 Spread?
Western countries are in lockdown due to Covid-19, but if leaders, their advisers, and the political class in general had paid attention to what was going on in China at the turn of the year, the crisis might have been averted.
Imagine you’re a passenger on a ship. You’d expect, wouldn’t you, that the captain and his officers keep a very good look-out for dangers ahead? You’d expect them to have up-to-date weather information. You’d expect them to take corrective action before the ship hit an iceberg.
The sad truth – for Western citizens, the passengers of the ship – is that those whose job it was to watch out for gathering storms have let us down very badly.
The chronology is most important.
According to the South China Morning Post, the first case of someone suffering from what later came to be known as Covid-19 occurred in China on November 17. The number of cases grew in December, (the majority linked to the Huanan Seafood Market), but we didn’t know internationally what was going on until news began to come out that Wuhan had been hit by a new virus in very late December/early January. The Chinese informed the World Health Organization of new pneumonia cases of unknown etiology on December 31.
The Chinese delay in flagging up what was happening in Wuhan absolutely didn’t help, but there was still time – about a two-week window – for other countries to act.
As reported in the BMJ, on January 11 and 12, the Chinese authorities shared the virus’ genetic sequence for countries to use in “developing specific diagnostic kits.” 440 deaths had been confirmed by January 21. By the 22nd, seven cases had been confirmed OUTSIDE China, including one in the US. All were travelers from Wuhan.
That surely should have got alarm bells ringing in Western capitals, especially as Chinese New Year on January 25 was coming up. Western leaders, and their advisers, would surely know that many Chinese workers based in the West would return home to celebrate, greatly increasing the risk that the virus would be brought back to Europe and North America.
On January 22, the UK government announced that health teams would meet the three direct flights a week from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus. At the same time, the risk level was raised from ‘very low’ to ‘low’. But as Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College, London, pointed out, flight screening was no panacea.
“This measure will only identify people who have symptoms as they come off the plane. If someone was infected two days before they travelled, they will arrive without any symptoms at all.” He added, and I emphasize in bold:“It’s essential that the entire health system is alert to the possibility that there will be cases here.”
Lo and behold, the first British case was confirmed nine days later, on January 31, 2020, from Chinese nationals staying at a hotel in York. That very same day, the first cases were also confirmed in Italy. Guess what: they were two Chinese tourists in Rome. Italy is now the world’s number one coronavirus ‘hotspot’. Nearly 3,000 have died there and 60mn people are in quarantine.
Wouldn’t it have been better, if instead of ineffective flight screening, all flights to Western countries from China had been stopped in January – and all travelers who had recently visited China been quarantined? France, by the way, got its first three cases on January 24 (a week before Italy and the UK). All three people had just come back from China. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see the pattern, do you?
In the New Year, the number one priority of Western politicians should have been the new coronavirus and how best to protect their own populations from it. But their minds were clearly on other things.
Trump – egged on by Washington’s Endless War Lobby – was engaged in an utterly reckless escalation of tensions with Iran. While Covid-19 was spreading in China, the New Year began with the assassination of General Soleimani, a man who had been fighting ISIS, but who was now portrayed as the ‘worst terrorist in the world’. The ‘Iran crisis’ dominated the news cycle. Boris Johnson meanwhile began the year on holiday with his girlfriend in Mustique. The opposition Labour Party were focusing on a leadership election which needn’t have taken place for several months. Three of the four candidates declared on television on February 13 – a day after the UN had activated its WHO-led Crisis Management team to deal with a rapidly escalating problem –that their ‘number one priority’ was… tackling ‘anti-Semitism’ in the Labour Party. Yet after all the brouhaha about anti-Semitism being ‘rife’ in Labour, it was reported at the end of February that the police had ended up charging just one person, a former Labour member.
One person, that is, out of a membership of half a million.
It seemed in February that no one in the political class was very interested in Covid-19.
This is despite the publication in the leading medical journal ‘The Lancet’ on January 24 of a report entitled ‘A novel coronavirus outbreak of global concern’.
Covid-19 only began to be taken with the seriousness it warranted when it was already too late to try and stop its entry.
By not acting in time to restrict travel to and from China – and later from other ‘hotspots’ like northern Italy and Madrid, Spain, the governments instead waited and waited, until the measures they did take were far more draconian that might otherwise have been the case. It’s true that Trump did bar foreigners who had recently visited China from entering the US on January 31, but as David Leonhardt pointed out in the New York Times, it was “not the sweeping solution that Trump portrayed it to be.”
The costs to the economies of the various lockdowns are incalculable. People’s livelihoods are going to be destroyed. Entire industries are threatened. Don’t forget lockdowns and ‘social distancing’ can actually cause deaths too. As John Pilger pointed out on Twitter, a 2012 study showed that isolation killed the elderly, but isolate is what they’re now being told to do.
We’re in a right old state at the moment, but how much of this could have been avoided if instead of dozing off, or looking elsewhere, those whose job it was to protect us had acted quickly, at the proper time?
By Neil Clark