The Warning of SARS

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As the US enters the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic there are multiple levels of failure we are collectively having to confront. The most obvious stem from leadership at the top, the costs of a President who has run the country as a plaything for his own uses and sees the unfolding catastrophe through the prism of his own needs. Just today we see a new report about how the federal response at all levels has been marred by inexperienced and unqualified appointees and numerous positions that remain unfilled. The NSC devised a literal ‘playbook’ for how to handle just this sort of event in 2016. You can read it here. But the administration simply ignored it and has made many of the mistakes that manual sought to avert.

But it is also clear that certain levels of unpreparedness predate anything tied to the Trump administration. Relatedly, why is it that a series of country’s on China’s borders or nearby over the sea have managed it so much better?

Some of the reasons seem tied to political culture, in some cases literally insular societies, ones with unitary rather than federal government structures. Unitary states can in some cases act in a more coherent and organized way than more federalized or decentralized ones. TPM Reader JT expanded on these issues in his update from March 10th.

But one clear reason seems to be SARS, the contained epidemic that broke out in China in 2003. SARS was another coronavirus that was far more deadly but also far less contagious. It was eventually snuffed out and eradicated from human populations altogether. Countries like South Korea, Singapore, Japan and others weren’t hit that hard by SARS. The great majority of the 813 deaths happened in Mainland China and Hong Kong. But 84 died in Taiwan, 32 in Singapore; none in South Korea or Japan. But they were very close to it and in a way got lucky.

They were on notice that SARS had happened, could happen again in some permutation and that being ready was critical. Some of this was literal preparedness. Another seems likely to have been psychological preparedness. In retrospect it seems crazy that many Americans through January and February simply didn’t think this would become a big thing in the United States. Sure, President Trump ignored and lied about it. But at a basic level many Americans, even serious people in important positions of leadership, didn’t quite get it. It seems clear that these countries – both physically closer and with denser travel links – knew immediately that what was happening in Wuhan would soon unfold for them. And they acted accordingly. None of these countries are out of the woods yet. There appear to be new, though comparatively small, surges in Singapore and Hong Kong – mainly driven by arrivals from abroad and perhaps a level of lock down fatigue. But the pattern is hard to miss. The countries on China’s periphery had already had a near miss. They were psychologically prepared.

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