(This is the second part of a three-part series. If you haven’t read the first installment, click here.)
A few weeks ago, people used the word “unprecedented” to describe the impact of the novel coronavirus. That word is still relevant, but now we hear it less frequently. Everyone knows that we are living in uncharted times. As students continue to make sense of this new world we’re living in, one area has surfaced that is ripe for exploration: how political leaders are responding to the crisis. On the one hand, everyone is forgiven right now, since none of us were prepared for this…but on the other hand, there is a great deal to analyze, and to question.
The second installment of COVID Chronicles is written by Parker and Tovin.
Every night at 11pm, NPR becomes the BBC. Before I go to sleep, I listen. Coronavirus dominates the news cycle. There are always updates on New York City, Great Britain, and the developed world. Rarely, but from time to time, the BBC mentions how developing countries have dealt with this crisis. Two regions have really caught my attention: Africa and Latin America. Compared to the rest of the world Africa has not been hit very hard with this pandemic. As of May 17, there are over 63,000 confirmed cases–a number that is surely far higher. Governments are acting diligently in trying to stop the spread, but it is inevitable that horrors will be seen in Africa. The majority of African Nations are developing. The people in these places rely on informal types of income, such as selling street food–jobs that can’t continue under lockdown. Throughout the world, many places lack necessary medical equipment and struggle with underdeveloped medical systems.
All African nations have reported cases. South Africa has the most confirmed cases with 14,300 as of May 17. In late March, South Africa issued a nationwide, military-patrolled, lockdown. This measure was thought to limit the number of cases and keep people from moving around. The lockdown actually promoted the mass movement of people. In northeastern South Africa, thousands of Mozambicans that work in South Africa traveled across the border back to Mozambique. In Kenya, another lockdown has been implemented. The most affected Kenyans live in the giant slums outside of the major cities like Nairobi and Mombasa, where there is a lack of satiation products and running water. Kenyans living in the slums cannot make money because the economy is effectively shut down. This has a real impact, since people are more worried about starvation than the virus. Both Kenya and South Africa have taken preventative measures, however negative externalities will impact millions of lives.
In Latin America, everyone is struggling with the virus. Brazil, the largest and most populous Latin American country has 235,000 confirmed cases as of May 17. Jair Bolsonaro the right-wing president of Brazil has repeatably called the Coronavirus a “little flu” while undermining many protective measures put into action by governors throughout states in Brazil. State governors and the Minister of Health have told Brazilians to ignore the president. The lack of leadership and neglect has led Brazil to have the fourth most cases in the world and every day case numbers continue to increase. The undocumented transmissions of the disease has taken a huge toll on the speed in which the virus is spreading. It seems clear that the way Bolsonaro has reacted to the crisis definitely led to the problem Brazil has right now.
This moment in history will definitely be a pivot point for many around the world, but it also has the potential to be a time for reflection. As a high schooler in Vermont, I am lucky to have a roof over my head and food whenever I want. I may not be able to go to my favorite sub shop, Union Jacks, but I can experiment at home by putting random pieces of meat between two pieces of bread. But while I don’t have my favorite sandwich, others don’t have bread at all. This is a time that allows us Vermonters to realize the flaws in our society. We need to offer more help to our less fortunate neighbors, people who are struggling. These are dark days, but we need to remember that we can still come out from the end of the tunnel stronger.
One of the most important factors that decides how a country and its people are affected by coronavirus is how a leader responds to the crisis. I decided to look at how two different leaders handled the crisis and how that affected their country’s populace. I also puzzled over the question of whether the culture of a country or the laws of the country’s government do the most to stop the spread of a pandemic.
Some of the world’s strongest responses to the coronavirus have come from Benjamin Netenyahu of Israel. Non-essential workers are confined to an extremely small radius from their homes. The Shin Bet (שב), the Israeli equivalent of the CIA, have tracked citizens’ phones to see who has come too close to people who already have coronavirus. Some complain that he is asserting his authority to avoid scrutiny (he postponed the trial against his own corruption) but many laud his efforts because they have gotten results-only 57 people have died of coronavirus in Israel! The reason why Israelis let him do this is that they don’t distrust the Shin Bet like many Americans distrust the CIA. This is because they don’t have a history of harming Israelis. This highlights how important public trust is for a leader to effectively combat a crisis.
A mixed response has come from U.S. president, Donald Trump. He has issued conflicting and varying statements on what citizens should do. For example, he agreed that citizens should follow the CDC recommendation to wear a facemask in public spaces, but emphasized that it was optional and said that he wouldn’t be wearing one. He also emphasized a local response because he claimed that the local governments know how to best combat their individual crises, but he didn’t help the local governments access the facemasks that they need. He hired a competent person to accompany him in his briefings about the coronavirus but he has been sporadic about actually following his advice.
In general, the countries that enforced stronger laws to stop the spread of coronavirus have had the most success in decreasing the death toll. However, it is worth thinking about how the culture of a place allows leaders to stop the spread of the virus. In Israel, where the people are very trusting of the government and its information agency, the prime minister was able to quarantine people based on tracking whether they met with an infected person. This is much more effective than just asking people because human memory is fickle. Also, Israel has a culture of getting through tragedy because they have been attacked many times by neighboring countries. Also, they have a relatively unified religion and culture because the purpose of Israel is to be the home for a specific religious group.
A leader can only do so much to prevent the spread of the virus. One of the other biggest factors in the spread of the virus is the culture of a place. In America, there is a culture of young people who think that they are invincible. There is also the culture of people wanting as much freedom as possible. There is also the culture of everyone taking care of themselves. All of these are in direct conflict with the quarantine and slowing the spread of coronavirus. This combined with Trump’s mixed messages is probably why the U.S. has the most confirmed cases of Coronavirus. Israeli culture is very different and much more conducive to the somewhat authoritarian response necessary to slow the spread of covid-19. The government influences the culture, which influences the government. This cycle explains why Netenyahu has been much more effective than Trump at protecting his citizens.
To read the full, unabridged version of this essay, click here.