An early look at the ongoing pandemic

An early look at the ongoing pandemic

At a recent discussion, Christine Loh (Anderson School) and Robert Kim-Farley (Fielding School) examined COVID-19 containment strategies, issues of political leadership and longstanding socioeconomic problems being aggravated by the pandemic.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, April 16, 2020 — The Center for Global Management (CGM) of the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health held a Zoom webinar on the global impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on April 7, 2020. The event was the first in its special COVID-19 “World Today Discussion Series” cosponsored by the two schools and organized by CGM.

Two UCLA faculty spoke at the event — Christine Loh, UCLA Anderson visiting professor and former minister in the Hong Kong SAR Government, and Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, professor in the departments of epidemiology and community health sciences at the Fielding School. Sebastian Edwards, Henry Ford II Professor of International Economics at the Anderson School, moderated the discussion and Antonio Bernardo and Ron Brookmeyer, the respective deans of the Anderson and Fielding Schools, gave introductory remarks.

In a striking reminder of the rapid global spread of the pandemic, Edwards noted that the first discussion in the series had been held six weeks earlier. At the time, he said, his inquiry about whether it was safe to be sitting together was greeted with laughter. The WHO statistic for total reported cases was then less than 100,000, a number that had reached 1.4 million by April 7 and almost 2 million by April 16.

Strategies for fighting the pandemic

“The world didn’t do a good job of a containment — it is a very highly infectious disease,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley. Attempts to contain the spread of the coronavirus (identifying cases, isolating those that test positive, tracking the contacts of sick patients and quarantining them)  have given way to mitigating the community spread of the virus in countries worldwide, he explained.

Given that drugs or a vaccine that can specifically treat or prevent COVID-19 remain a year to 18 months away, Kim-Farley explained that physical distancing, barring large public gatherings, sheltering large populations at home and, increasingly, wearing face coverings to prevent asymptomatic spread of the virus, were in order.

The whole idea of flattening the epidemic curve is to prevent infections from overcoming the capacity of the health system, he said, as occurred in Wuhan and parts of Hubei Province.

Yet Professor Sebastian Edwards pointed out that even with mitigation efforts, “You are not reducing the number of infections, but distributing them across time differently.”

Kim-Farley concurred, saying the principal goal was buying time to avoid overwhelming health systems, reduce the number of fatalities and develop effective medications to treat the disease. This strategy will, he confirmed, extend the timeline of the pandemic.

Only a vaccine will reduce the total number of COVID-19 cases, he said. Exiting from mitigation strategies, moreover, will require both robust testing capability and robust public health systems.

The importance of political leadership

The pandemic is throwing a spotlight on importance of political leadership, governance and accountability, said Visiting Anderson School Professor Christine Loh. Paramount issues of concern are the readiness of countries’ public health systems to handle a pandemic, whether governments use the time before the pandemic hits to effectively prepare for it and how closely they work with public health experts.

“It is quite difficult for politicians when something new is happening,” she remarked. “How do you not over-react? How do you not under-react?” Equally, important, she asked, “How do you not kill the economy while are you’re trying to deal with the virus?”

“Today, we are living in parallel universes. Each country [seems to be] living in each other’s parallel universe,” she remarked. The epicenter of the pandemic started in China and from there, moved on to its closest neighbors in Asia —Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, she recounted.

Because the latter jurisdictions had all experienced the SARS epidemic of 2003, they quickly instituted border checks, closed schools and cancelled events. (Loh headed a Hong Kong public policy think tank during the SARS epidemic, when she led a multidisciplinary project to document the crisis and government response).

In time, the current pandemic reached Iran, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and then Europe. “Now you could say the next major epicenter is New York,” said Loh. “And it appears to have gone backwards into Japan."

Given the circular nature of the pandemic, the question of governance is crucial. “Who is learning what from this experience?” she asked. Many Asian countries, for instance, are now facing the problem of preventing a resurgence of infections as their citizens return from abroad.

One would like to think, she reflected, that latecomers to the pandemic would have learned lessons from what has happened elsewhere and be able to act more precisely. “I think the political accountability issue is very, very important… people are going to judge their leaders as we go along,” she said.

“Experts have been saying to countries and the world at large that a pandemic is around the corner. This is a national security issue, this is a public health issue and now, I think [we are realizing] that it is a big economic issue if you don’t catch it early on,” she remarked.

In addition to holding leaders and governments accountable for learning in real time, Loh argued it was crucial to ensure that the large economic assistance programs being enacted by (mostly western) countries actually deliver aid to the people who most need it.

“[N]ot many governments are doing so well with this [targeting issue] at the moment,” she said, stressing the urgency of identifying “the people who need [assistance] tomorrow, because the day after they may not be able to have their next meal.”

Loh observed that pockets of good leadership could be discerned “here and there” around the globe, citing the examples of Portugal and Macau. In the former, the government quickly decreed that all migrant workers and refugee seekers would have the right to access national health services during the pandemic. In the latter tiny jurisdiction, authorities acted quickly to stop a rise in infections in the “Las Vegas of Asia.”

In other countries, however, leaders have hesitated to take immediate action to close borders, implement social distancing and close schools, she said.

Pandemic lays bare longstanding systemic problems

COVID-19 has flushed out many systemic socioeconomic problems in countries around the world, said Loh, the resolution of which require the kind of reforms that have been resisted to date. Among the contentious issues she cited were the state of public health systems, the role of the government, the importance of supply chains, social inequity, environmental degradation and the illegal wildlife trade.

Noted Kim-Farley, “It is important to realize how much we really have underfunded public health in [the U.S.], and the need to have a robust public health system.” He hoped that one outcome of the pandemic would be access to affordable health care for everyone in the U.S., particularly as the problems of our current health system have the most severe impacts on the most vulnerable.

Loh emphasized that migrant workers, asylum seekers and low-income families worldwide are the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19. In developing countries with great social inequality, such as India, she believed the pandemic would likely to lead to horrific outcomes. Kim Farley believed that a tragic number of deaths could occur in the developing world, although he did not consider the pandemic an existential threat.

Both speakers agreed that global solidarity was essential to address the pandemic in a just manner. Edwards, however, was pessimistic about the prospects for large-scale global cooperation and assistance. “There is no way in the world that 90 percent of emerging and developing countries can issue debt of similar levels close to what they will need,” he commented.

“People are urging something like a Marshall Plan, but I don’t think this will happen,” he continued “The politics of populism are such that the wealthy countries are going to be very stingy.”

Wealthy nations, argued Kim-Farley, should help developing countries for humanitarian reasons as well as reasons of self-interest. “There is no social safety net [in most developing countries] that can begin to handle this pandemic,” he said. “It will be very hard to tell people to stay home when, if they do stay home, they’re not going to eat.”

Loh interjected, “Countries have to say, it’s not me first. Politicians of major countries, especially those with resources, have to come forward and say we don’t want this to happen.

“If you’re a national leader of a developing country and seeing the disaster roll out,” she continued, “it’s not just a public health issue, it’s not just that people are being infected,” she remarked. “It’s that the economy has collapsed and the income earner has perhaps died — [it’s] a social disaster.”

In those circumstances, she said, local leaders will need to start by pulling everyone in their countries together and working with available local resources to put cash in the hands of people who need to eat.

Failure of the EU in particular to develop short- and longer-term plans to address the pandemic will adversely impact developing countries, said Loh, where economic crises could lead to new waves of mass migration.

This article was published April 16, 2020, and updated April 20.