The world looked the other way. It was the last days of 2019 and the first of 2020 and the reasons for concern abounded. They were real, but not the right ones.
When ordering the execution of the general Qasem Soleimani, strong man of the Iranian regime, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, stoked fears of a new fire in the Middle East, even a global conflict. Fires in Australia launched an alert of another kind: the urgency of climate change. The big economies offered signs of weakness. In Europe, Brexit preparations, added to the strength of the nationalist movements, the fear of immigration and discontent with the ruling elites reflected a deeper crisis of a system under tension.
But the crisis that makes part of humanity tremble at the beginning of the decade came from somewhere else and was something else. Finally, the big one – the great crisis, the great earthquake, the crouching threat that could change everything – did not appear in the form of a massive attack, war or economic recession. He did not have the face of Vladimir Putin or a dark terrorist from the dying Islamic State. It was something different: a tiny agent – about 125 nanometers, that is, 0.000125 millimeters – perhaps located in a market of a populous city in China, although the exact origin is still wrapped in a nebula.
And this virus, technically SARS-Cov-2, causing the disease Covid-19, has put in check governments that were considered invulnerable and powerful; the machine that makes globalization work – commerce, travel, industry – has gone; has placed the economy at the most critical moment since the financial crisis of 2008; he has awakened in many citizens atavistic fears and reminded them that they are mortal; and begins to alter our customs, possibly in a lasting way. The balance exceeds 100,000 cases worldwide and 3,500 dead. And it leaves entire populations in well-off areas of developed countries, with no recent memory of similar situations rather than literary or filmic allusions, in a state of semi-exception. The news, this Saturday, de that the Italian Government prepares to seal the Lombardy region and 11 provinces in the regions of Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Veneto is evidence of both the concern that the plague raises in the authorities and its exceptional character. If the measures are applied, some 16 million people will see their movements restricted until April 3.
Observe how the emergence of the coronavirus has occurred in such a short period – a blink of an eye on the accelerated time scale of information 24 hours and the murky flow of networks – and how it has disrupted from global to personal agendas , has a double utility. First, it is as if a revealing product were spread on the planet: it shows – and amplifies – its weaknesses and its failures. And second, it has the ability to accelerate ongoing processes: from the slowdown in globalization to the tendency to raise borders in Western democracies.
It all starts in December in China, in a market – as far as it has been known – and the origin of the virus is probably in a bat from which the human being was infected, perhaps through another animal. Here, first, two determining elements. One, very visible, resounding, colossal: China. Another, invisible, microscopic: viruses called zoonotic, that is, transmissible from animals to humans, which cause some of the most destructive diseases of recent decades.
China represents 17% of the world economy; 11% of trade, 9% of tourism, 40% of the demand for some raw materials. It is the most populous country: 1,400 million. It is the factory of the planet, an experiment of turbocapitalism governed by an authoritarian regime, the power that is no longer only economic and disputes the US world hegemony, the great winner of the last stage of globalization of goods and services initiated a Thirty years.
Why do some viruses overflow and infect humans?
Quammen from Montana (United States)
The second element is the viruses that pass from animals to humans. The diseases caused by them include since the 1918 flu, which killed 50 million people according to some estimates, to AIDS, of which 32 million people have died, but also Ebola, SARS, bird flu and Covid- 19. They have always existed, but, as David Quammen, author of Spillover explains. Animal infections and the next human pandemic (“Overflow. Animal infections and the next human pandemic”), we live “an era of emerging zoonotic diseases.”
“There are many viruses living in animals, plants and bacteria in ecosystems. Probably millions. Some can infect humans, in addition to the creatures they are in. Why do some viruses overflow and infect humans? ”Quammen says in a telephone conversation from Montana. “It is because we are coming into contact with these animals, plants and creatures. We disturb diverse ecosystems. We destroy the rainforest. We build towns and mines in these places. We cut trees. We eat the animals that live in these forests. We capture wild animals and send them to markets in China. With these actions we expose ourselves to these viruses. ”
It is a puzzle when SARS-Cov-2 began to circulate and when they learned of the first cases. The only safe date, for now, is December 31. That day, the Chinese government confirmed the first cases of pneumonia of unknown origin. Everything was fast since then. On January 7, Chinese researchers identified the new virus. Four days later, the first dead person was declared: a 61-year-old man, a customer of the Wuhan market, a city of 11 million people in central China. And 10 later the first cases were declared in Japan, South Korea and Thailand and the Chinese authorities imposed the isolation of Wuhan. The crisis was no longer Chinese: it became Asian. On January 30, the World Health Organization decreed the “global health emergency.”
Many of the dilemmas that would arise in the following weeks, when daily sick counts had ceased to be a distant affair outside of Asia, were already there. Is it possible to isolate evil and defeat it? Or should we settle for managing it as best we can to mitigate its impact? Do quarantines work? And another fundamental question: to manage an epidemic like this and impose drastic measures on the population, are authoritarian or democratic states better equipped?
The Chinese government was criticized at first for its opacity, and discontent was reflected in the criticism after the death, on February 7, of Dr. Li Wenliang, rebuked for giving the alarm in December and the first martyr of the pandemic. Afterwards, their shock measures to curb the disease sought applause from international health authorities.
“The question is: who are better protected? Dictatorships or democracies? ”Says Professor Anne-Marie Moulin, a doctor and philosopher at the French National Center for Scientific Research. “It is clear that an authoritarian country, with populations accustomed to absolute measures, may seem more favorable to defense against epidemics. But a democracy in which information circulates and in which citizens feel supportive, can also be a more vigilant and better organized country, and in which to call to warn that there is a case does not seem like a complaint. Do you know what should be done? Take two countries with the same epidemic: one authoritarian and that does not respect freedoms and another that respects them, and see what happens. It is an experience that has never happened, so we must settle for speculation. ”
If the two models were clear and transparent as in the Cold War, perhaps it would be simpler. Today the virus circulates on a planet governed by Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, “two great rivals that seem weakened by the epidemic,” says Dominique Moïsi, special advisor to the Institute of Montaigne Institute of Ideas, based in Paris, and author of books such as The geopolitics of emotions. In the US, “the crisis, at the beginning, was also quite badly managed by Trump, who despised it and made makeshift statements,” Moïsi explains. “In China, it has been seen that those who lamented the excessive centralization of power, the return to an imperial mode of management, used the crisis to criticize power,” he adds. “Will Xi Jinping end up weakened? Or could he say that he was surprised at the beginning, that the taste for secrecy slowed down the ability to face the crisis but, after all, the centralization of an authoritarian regime allowed it to be contained?
On February 2, the first dead outside of China was registered in the Philippines, and two weeks later, the first outside of Asia, an 80-year-old Chinese tourist in Paris. Today there are more than 400 dead outside China, with two critical foci, Iran and Italy, and a shock wave that turns upside down what seemed solid four days ago.
International sports competitions and congresses are annulled – the skepticism with which many reacted to the decision to suspend the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – is out of place today, and schools are closed to leave 290 million students at home. In France, the Government recommends stop greeting each other with a handshake and, worse, give up the bise – the two mandatory kisses every time they greet each other – a cultural feature that, if it disappears, will be a considerable change for the art of I will live French. In Miami, a man goes to a medical center to get tested for the coronavirus and, as the Miami Herald newspaper published, comes out with a bill of $ 3,270: the SARS-Cov-2 reveals the risks of a predominantly private healthcare system. Saudi Arabia closes the entrance to the pilgrims who go to Mecca and the sanctuary of Lourdes closes the baths with water from the miraculous grotto. US brands such as McDonald’s and Starbucks close stores in China, airlines temporarily suspend flights to this country and container traffic in the port of Los Angeles – main point of entry of Chinese products to the US and globalization node— They fall by 25%. The fall of between 15% and 40% of production in some key industrial sectors of this country has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter, according to data from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a Finnish organization
The dilemma is that, the more drastic the measures and the greater the fear, the worse the impact will be on both supply – factories and offices stop, stores empty – and demand. In the most optimistic scenario, the OECD contemplates a reduction in world growth in 2020 from 2.9% to 2.4%. It would be the lowest level since the financial crisis of 2008. In the worst case scenario, the global economy would grow 1.5%.
Driven by globalization, which opens borders to the movement of goods, people and viruses, the SARS-Cov-2 threatens to kill it, as if 2020 were to definitively close the open cycle in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. “The epidemic intervenes at a time when we were already putting globalization into cause,” summarizes veteran political scientist Moïsi. “And it potentially accelerates and confirms the idea that happy globalization was a temporary illusion that would last a few years, while we faced unhappy globalization.”
In the hour of nationalism and populism, messages of suspicion from abroad, such as conspiracy theories, find new echo chambers. It is the temptation of withdrawal: from staying at home to telework to close the borders to refugees from Syria. And all this, bathed in the feeling of unreality about the real gravity of something we do not see and that scares more for what it could be than for what it still is. “The coronavirus crisis accelerates and deepens a culture of fear that was already present,” Moïsi notes. And, with a humorous note, he compares it to a meal: “It’s as if we keep the worst for last.”