In this file photo taken on March 11, 2020 A pedestrian, wearing a protective face mask, walks past the Bank of England in the City of London on March 11, 2020. Picture: AFP/DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS
In this file photo taken on March 11, 2020 A pedestrian, wearing a protective face mask, walks past the Bank of England in the City of London on March 11, 2020. Picture: AFP/DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS

As the coronavirus scare reached its height, like so many others, I wondered how the world could have got the response so wrong. Because of my experience as a diplomat, I have a profound appreciation for the leadership role played by the US in times of crisis, like this. Given that, and the way in which US president Donald Trump bumbled his way through this, one thing was clear — leadership matters. Looking at where we are, I have continued to think about what we did and why we should have done things differently.

Let me start with the obvious, and that is, at some point in the foreseeable future there will be another virus. Viruses have been a fact of life since time immemorial. At some point soon, the coronavirus will be yesterday’s news. The next virus is coming. Can we continue to shut down everything, particularly the world economy, every year or every other year? The obvious, and short, answer is — no.

What should we have done in response to the coronavirus to have avoided the panic that ensued?

Three things come immediately to mind: the G-20 leaders should’ve dispatched their best scientists to help China deal with the crisis and understand what we’re dealing with so the world could’ve done a better job of developing and co-ordinating strategies to deal with the problem; the G-20 leadership should’ve convened in-country experts to determine the best way to respond to the pandemic without causing a panic; and we should have immediately employed already known standard medical and public health practices to mitigate the virus’s impact.

Instead of implementing such measures, the Trump administration politicised the pandemic to isolate China, which was not smart. Making unilateral decisions that have catastrophic consequences without consulting the people whose help you’ll need is not the best way to instil confidence in your decision-making process, not to mention that it undermines co-operation.

There have been (and always will be) pandemics. What has enabled us to fare better during the modern era? Our fund of knowledge is deeper and we have more techniques to deal with such catastrophes. But, our number one defence has been our standard of living. We are healthier, wealthier and cleaner.

We’re healthier because more folks have more access to better food and cleaner water. We’re wealthier because the global economy has resulted in an ever-increasing middle class, which enables folks to afford better food and better medicines.

As South Africans come to grips with measures implemented by President Cyril Ramaphosa to prevent the spread of coronavirus, many are panic buying, filling their trolleys with goods and leaving other citizens with no options. Consumer journalist Wendy Knowler provides insight on the phenomenon.

We are cleaner because we know that good hygiene is critical to maintaining good health. The global economy, is critical to the comparatively healthy existence we enjoy. Shutting down the global economy, as we’ve done in response to the coronavirus, is not in our short- or long-term interests.

The SA government recently declared a national state of disaster, which is consistent with the measures taken by the West and many Asian countries. Rather than falling in lock step with the rest, developing countries such as SA, need to be pushing the rest of the world to consider the profound implications of shutting down the global economy on countries like those across Africa.

When the global economy comes to a standstill, jobs are lost or wages are deferred. Poor families, and, particularly their children, suffer. If poor countries become poorer, they become more susceptible to disease. The more such countries become breeding grounds for viruses, the more vulnerable we all become.

Since the corona-crisis broke much of the discussion has focused on the big picture; that is, the sorts of macro-policies we need to employ to contain and control the outbreak. Obviously, that’s important, but, at the end of the day, what the average person wants to know is what do I need to do to keep from getting the virus? And, what do I need to do after I’ve been bitten by the bug? In either case, the list of things to do are common sense and common knowledge.

The bottom-line is that to fight the coronavirus, or viruses to come, we lose if we blow up the global economy. To beat back pandemics like this, maintaining, and expanding, our standard of living is the key. I’m a businessman, but you don’t have to be to appreciate that we can’t shut down our economy on an annual or biannual basis and expect to maintain the same standard of living.

We are in a crisis situation. I know a little bit about crisis management having had to pick up the pieces after Al-Qaeda blew up my embassy in Tanzania a month before I assumed my post. An old proverb might be a fitting summary, and that is, when the next virus comes and we organise to fight it, don’t throw out the baby with the bath water — let’s just change the water.

• Stith, who served as US Ambassador to Tanzania in the immediate aftermath of the embassy bombing, chairs African investment company pula Group.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.