A fumbled global response to the coronavirus in a leadership void

US President Donald Trump delivering a national address about the coronavirus outbreak from the Oval Office in Washington on March 11, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (NYTIMES) - In Frankfurt, Germany, the president of the European Central Bank warned that the coronavirus could trigger an economic crash as dire as that of 2008. In Berlin, the German Chancellor warned that the virus could infect two-thirds of her country's population. In London, the British Prime Minister rolled out a nearly US$40 billion (S$56 billion) rescue package to cushion his economy from the shock.

As the toll of those afflicted by the virus continues to soar and financial markets from Tokyo to New York continue to swoon, world leaders are finally starting to find their voices about the gravity of what is now officially a pandemic.

Yet it remains less a choir than a cacophony - a dissonant babble of politicians all struggling, in their own way, to cope with the manifold challenges posed by the virus, from its crushing burden on hospitals and health care workers to its economic devastation and rising death toll.

The choir also lacks a conductor, a role played through most of the post-World War II era by the United States.

US President Donald Trump has failed to work with other leaders to fashion a common response, preferring to promote his border wall over the scientific advice of his own medical experts.

In an Oval Office address on Wednesday (March 11) night, he imposed a 30-day ban on travel from Europe to the US, claiming, without evidence, that the European Union's lax initial response had brought more cases of the virus across the Atlantic, with "a large number of new clusters" seeded by travellers from the Continent.

Mr Trump's Secretary of State, Mr Mike Pompeo, has taken to calling the contagion the "Wuhan virus", vilifying the country where it originated and complicating efforts to coordinate a global response.

The same denigration of science and urge to block outsiders has characterised leaders from China to Iran, as well as right-wing populists in Europe, which is sowing cynicism and leaving people uncertain of whom to believe.

Far from trying to stamp out the virus, strongmen like President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia have seized on the upheaval it is causing as cover for steps to consolidate their power.

Simultaneous shocks

Yet it is too simple to lay all this at Mr Trump's door or on world leaders collectively. Part of the problem is simply the fiendish nature of the pathogen.

This coronavirus has resisted the tools that countries have brought to bear against previous global scourges.

Mysterious in its transmission and relentless in its spread, it has led countries to try wildly divergent responses. The lack of common standards on testing, on the cancellation of public gatherings and on quarantines have deepened the anxiety of people and eroded confidence in their leaders.

The simultaneous shocks to supply and demand - shuttered iPhone factories in China; empty gondolas in Venice, Italy; and passengers abandoning cruises, hotels and airlines everywhere else - are a new phenomenon that may not respond to the weapons that governments wielded against the dislocation that followed the September 2001 terrorist attacks and the financial crisis of 2008.

"The nature of this crisis is qualitatively different than the one in 2008 because the traditional tools are not as effective," said Mr Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Even if the US took a leadership role, the traditional playbook would not be all that relevant here."

Britain, for example, won praise for its robust economic response, which, in addition to billions of pounds for hospitals and workers sidelined by illness, included a sharp interest rate cut by the Bank of England.

Yet stocks in London still tumbled, if not as steeply as on Wall Street, where investors brushed off Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's proposal to allow Americans to delay paying their income taxes, which he claimed would pump US$200 billion into the economy.

Mr Trump's other big idea, a cut in the payroll tax, was pronounced a "non-starter" by House Democrats, who scrambled instead to introduce legislation to provide financial help to patients, workers and families affected by the fast-moving epidemic and speed it to a House vote on Thursday.

Hapless efforts

To Mr Haass, the intense focus on limiting the economic blow was understandable, given the carnage in the markets, but premature. He said countries needed to put their energy into slowing and mitigating the spread of the virus before they embarked on fiscal programmes to repair the economic damage.

The trouble is that, with few exceptions, their efforts have been hapless.

In the US, the delay in developing coronavirus test kits and the scarcity of tests have made it impossible for officials, even weeks after the first cases appeared in the country, to get a true picture of the scale of the outbreak.

In hard-hit Italy, quarrels broke out between politicians and medical experts over whether the authorities were testing too many people in Lombardy, inflating the infection figures and furling panic in the public. Italy's response could be weakened further by the anti-vaccination movement that was once embraced by the populist 5-Star Movement, which took power in the last government.

Even comparing one country's case count to another's is almost impossible, given the different testing procedures and diagnostic criteria around the world, said Dr Chris Smith, a specialist in virology at the University of Cambridge.

In the most extreme example, China's case count skyrocketed when it began recording positives based on people's symptoms, rather than a lab test, the method most countries are still using.

But even lab tests might yield different results in different places, depending on the targets labs are using and the ways health workers collect and process specimens.

"Different countries are doing different things," Dr Smith said of the testing programmes. "You're not comparing apples to apples."

The rise of populism has exacerbated the problem by reducing the incentives of countries to cooperate. European leaders, in a three-hour teleconference on Tuesday night, agreed to set up a €25 billion (S$40 billion) investment fund and to relax rules governing airlines to curb the economic fallout.

But they failed to overcome national objections to sharing medical equipment like face masks and respirators, given that health issues are the responsibility of national governments. Germany, the Czech Republic and other countries have tightened export restrictions on this gear to keep it for their own citizens.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's warning that the virus would infect 60 per cent to 70 per cent of people in Germany - a figure she attributed to the "consensus among experts" - was the most forthright admission of the scale of the problem by any world leader. It was fully in character for a physicist-turned-politician, reinforcing her status as the liberal West's foil to Mr Trump.

"We will do whatever is needed," she said. "We won't ask every day, 'What does this mean for our deficit?'"

Yet even Dr Merkel's position has been weakened by the resurgence of the far-right in Germany. Germany rebuffed a request for medical equipment from Italy, only to see China offer the Italians an aid package that includes two million face masks and 100,000 respirators.

Crisis communications

In Britain, which left the European Union in January and was exempted from Mr Trump's travel ban, there are already concerns that the country will not have access to a vaccine or will have to pay more for it than other European countries.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government, which won its recent election on a populist-inflected platform of "Get Brexit Done", is now struggling with how to communicate the risks of the outbreak to its public.

The Johnson government has put a lot of stock in a so-called nudge unit in Downing Street that specialises in behavioural psychology. But in trying to calibrate its response to what it deemed people capable of processing, the government risked condescending to Britons, said Professor John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for the north-west of England.

Britain has only recently started publishing broad breakdowns of where people are contracting the virus. Prof Ashton said they should be giving much more detailed information, as in Hong Kong, which has published building-level maps of patients who have got sick, when they were there and how they contracted the virus.

"I think it's patronising - they need to keep the public fully in the picture," Prof Ashton said.

"You have to treat the public as adults, instead of keeping them in the dark. That's where you get rumour and hysteria. They actually create panic by not being open with people."

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