In the heat of the greatest pandemic in a century — and soon to be the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s recession — it is important to reflect on the events of the last three months from a social perspective. COVID-19 should not be labeled as a “natural catastrophe” and it is by no means “China’s fault.” These narratives, popular as they might be, are misleading because they obscure the long-term human dynamics that have contributed to the pandemic.
First of all, there is nothing natural about the coronavirus. A virus by itself does not cause a pandemic. A coronavirus in the desert is nothing more than a natural phenomenon; however, the same virus in a large city like New York becomes a risk, which may turn into a pandemic if society does not have mechanisms to respond to the outbreak. Therefore, COVID-19 turning into a pandemic had nothing to do with the virus itself and everything to do with human societies and their choices.
Viruses grow into pandemics when societies are vulnerable and not prepared for containing a disease. When the coronavirus infected the first person in Wuhan, it was introduced to a global society whose interconnected dynamics were the breeding ground for a pandemic. In China, the virus found a partnership with the government’s opacity and lack of communication with the World Health Organization. In Europe, the virus arrived after more than a decade of cutbacks in health care and a lack of consensus between northern and southern territories. In the United States, the virus found a polarized society led by a populist whose narcissism comes before science and facts. In this environment, human societies did nothing but contribute to the spread of the virus worldwide.
The coronavirus has become a pandemic because of the choices we have made regarding globalization. Whether we want to or not, it is impossible to have today’s hyper-globalized and super accessible world crowded by large cities without exposing people to infectious diseases. The current pandemic is one of the many risks individuals implicitly assume when they take advantage of globalization’s interconnectedness through traveling, accessing foreign markets and buying cheap products. Although it is already impossible to decouple from this hyper-globalized world, as a society, we should reevaluate our decisions toward risks in order to adapt to these environmental dynamics.
Despite having increased the movement of people across borders in an unprecedented way, globalization has also prompted Western governments to individualize risk response. Instead of working to decrease them as much as possible, Western countries have accepted risks as inevitable in a globalized world. By recognizing this, governments have transferred the responsibility to each individual, who is now solely responsible for reducing the risks to which they are exposed, as well as the impact of the disaster on their personal lives.
No example comes to mind as clearly as the U.S. and its lack of a welfare system, which has resulted in the greatest number of unemployed people since the 1930s who do not have access to health insurance. This makes each American responsible for paying the full cost of the medical expenses of COVID-19 treatment. Thus, each individual is required to manage their dangerous existence in a hostile world full of risks.
The problem with this individualized approach to risk management is that most of the risks we face throughout our lives are not individual, but collective. In a globalized society, risk prevention represents a collective action problem. Like COVID-19 showed, a disease outbreak in a city in China can easily turn into a pandemic if societies everywhere are not prepared to contain it.
The logic behind international organizations like the World Health Organization is to overcome this collective action problem by promoting international cooperation at the state level. However, for this cooperation to succeed, state members, especially the great powers, must be willing to sacrifice their interests for the common good. Today’s international environment is characterized by the decline of the U.S. as the global leader and the surge of new great powers like China and Russia who question the norms of the international liberal order. This tension and lack of cohesiveness have jeopardized any chances for global cooperation. As a result, when COVID-19 hit, each country participated in a competition to buy the necessary materials to deliver an individualized response, which resulted in a lack of essential masks and other sanitary material in the countries that need them most, which has protracted the crisis.
The current crisis is a unique opportunity to redefine what we want for our societies in the political, social, economic and environmental fields. The most effective solutions will be those built on a long-term vision with an emphasis on reconsidering the values and principles on which our society relies. Some governments have already started to create new spaces in this regard. The French government has announced that it will provide financial assistance to Air France to deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis on the condition that the airline eliminates national flights to reduce pollution.
We have to realize that the grief and suffering we have experienced in the past months are not nature’s fault but human failure. The threats that we will face in the 21st century, such as COVID-19, are problems that we contribute exacerbating. This does not mean that we will have to experience more pandemics like this in the future. Environmental phenomena — including COVID-19 — can constrain human societies, but societies can make decisions to mitigate their catastrophic impact. We created the conditions that aggravated COVID-19, so we, too, can create the social, political and environmental conditions that will allow us to prevent and lessen the catastrophic consequences of future viruses. Contrary to what Trump says, the virus is not an “invisible enemy”: Humanity has no enemies; humanity has problems. And we can solve them by making the right decisions.