The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic is not just historic in its scope and scale, but will also be remembered as a key marker along the gradual eastward drift of global power, progress, and affluence.
The world just witnessed China and South Korea’s impressive infrastructure, governance, leadership, and financial might. The US on the other hand, unfortunately, seems relegated to the status of has-been.
The contrast is painfully obvious for all to see.
Having ceded all its manufacturing capacity to China, US health systems are scrambling to meet the demand for common consumables like masks and overalls – what to speak of equipment like ventilators and monitors. At no stage of the crisis did China and Korea complain of lack of equipment or staff. The US health system on the other hand, is creaking at the first sign of this pandemic.
Fearing a tsunami of infections that could overwhelm an already inadequate health infrastructure, the buzz word in the US is “flatten the curve”. Instead of curbing the overall number of infections, the effort is to spread it over a longer period of time so as to avoid a rapid spike which the system is not capable of handling.
In stark contrast, China built brand new hospitals at demonic speed and efficiency to meet whatever spike, head-on.
It’s the same situation with governance.
One could argue that China and Korea were caught unaware, but despite the element of surprise, their leadership rose up to the occasion and showcased resolve through swift and decisive action. Learning from their experience with past outbreaks like MERS, they had put protocols in place for quick approval of testing kits, and deployed them instantaneously to test 10,000 people a day.
The US, on the other hand, got plenty of advance notice of what was to come. They still could barely manage a thousand tests during the initial few weeks. In fact, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) that could have followed the Korean model, ceded the responsibility to a Swiss pharmaceutical company, some say, in response to lobbying and commercial interests.
Not just that, its politicians are still wading through bureaucratic and political quicksand, bickering about the size of crowd restrictions, debating whether businesses should be requested or mandated to close, which services to shut down, and most of all, where to shift blame.
The rot is not just at the top. The dumbing down of average Americans could actually be funny, were it not so serious. While the world is scrambling to make sense of this new reality, US citizens are stocking up on guns and toilet paper.
Imagine. Guns … and toilet paper!
I struggle to find common ground between this particular choice of items. Kicking ass, and wiping ass is the best I can manage.
Gone are the days when hordes of US military planes would descend disaster zones, bringing supplies marked with the iconic star-spangled handshake logo of USAid. Instead, we just witnessed Chinese planes and medics delivering relief and supplies to affected countries.
I was particularly struck by another visual – a team of American doctors huddled around in rapt attention, tapping into Chinese public health expertise via video-link.
We, the generation that grew up seeing America at its mightiest, arguably, can read into these seemingly innocuous events, and sense the gradual decline of an empire.
To paraphrase the great Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of history is long. Those living during historic times seldom feel it sliding by. It’s only in hindsight, and with the luxury of time, that we can reconstruct and examine its arc.
We are all passing through a significant inflection point in history. Don’t be caught unaware. Witness it. Live it.
The writer, Waseem Syyed, is a Canadian of Pakistani origin. He has had a long career in international development, working around the world for the United Nations and global NGOs for more than twenty years. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of GVS.