By Jonathan Power, a Foreign Affairs Columnist

Almost forgotten in the story about the Coronavirus is the story of AIDS. The drive to deal with it, the search to find medicine to cure it, and the self-discipline by homosexuals only began in 1981, when the disease was discovered, and its causes understood.

It was a stroke of luck that AIDS was discovered so quickly. Another five or ten years could have easily passed before it was detected. Then it would have rampaged through societies all over the world. 

Long before AIDS became known, the human immunodeficiency virus HIV was at work. Scientists do not know exactly for how long, but it was probably around for decades. With better warnings and more time, we could have got a grip on the virus before it traveled around the globe. 

I reported about this in 1990. In my column in the International Herald Tribune, I wrote on July 28th after a visit to WHO and talking to its top scientists, “Today some deadly virus, maybe much more dangerous than HIV, could be hidden away in some ecological niche, ready at some future date to break out and sweep the world.” 

I was rather shaken by these interviews and I wrote, “We ought to decide that AIDS is the last global viral epidemic. We need a world virus watch to alert the medical community to something dangerous before it strikes far and wide. We need a system to watch and destroy viruses before they work their destructive course. We live in one world, so we need a one-world monitoring system.” 

H1N1 OutbreakTo its credit the WHO pushed for this, but it never garnered the support that was required. Then in 2003 SARS struck in East Asia and we saw and heard reports of brave doctors and nurses in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore risking their lives to contain it before it decimated their populations and spread to the rest of the world. (For SARS there is still no vaccine.) Seven years ago, in West Africa the deadly Ebola virus struck on a major scale. (Now there is a vaccine). 

We had warning enough about what I had called, “A deadly virus that could be hidden in some ecological niche”. We didn’t pay enough heed to it. Those epidemiologists who were alert to this danger were not listened to then, and even last year in the US of President Donald Trump, they were not listened to. Not only should President Trump have been leading in the right way in the US, should have been setting in motion a preparedness plan, but also using WHO for the next big one which will surely arrive sooner or later. Instead, he was withdrawing the US from WHO.

However, with the change in administration, President Biden is moving in the right direction by reversing some of President Trump’s anti-science policies. Thank goodness, the USA has now rejoined WHO and the International Climatic Change Agreement. Hopefully, the USA will join the rest of the world in monitoring emergent diseases.

We must take our hats off to the handful of countries which have succeeded in countering the Coronavirus’s worst effects: Sweden, first and foremost, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Greece, New Zealand, Thailand, and Uruguay. They form an enlightened core group who should take the lead in WHO for “a preparedness plan”. 

In Europe and America, the Swedish “light touch” model was often misunderstood and ridiculed. Now we can see it was the right one. Its economy is the best performing of large economies in Western Europe, its number of deaths per capita, although more than its Scandinavian neighbours, is less than that of the US, the UK, Spain and Italy and its social well-being (good mental stability, no wife beating etc.) has not been hurt by unnecessary forced confinement.

Besides the need to emulate the Swedish model instead of going for massive lockdowns, universal health care in poor countries is also necessary if the birth and spreading of a new virus is to be averted. The WHO says that half the world does not have access to essential medicines, vaccinations, diagnosis, and preventive care. In this environment a new virus could get up a head of steam before it is noticed. 

The poorer countries must face the fact that they need their better off citizens to subsidize the poor, the young to subsidize the old and the healthy to underwrite the sick.

Universal health care should not be over the longer term a burden. A healthier population stimulates economic growth that benefits everybody. The productivity of healthy people outclasses that of sick people. Healthy people are more likely to want education or to set up their own businesses. 

A health care system need not be too expensive, according to The Economist in an article written two years ago. Chile and Costa Rica which have a good health sector spend about one eighth of what America does per person yet have similar average life expectancies. (In fact, longer than America’s minorities and poor whites.) Thailand spends 220 US dollars per person a year on health and yet has a longevity nearly as good as European countries. Rwanda, which a decade ago was one of the poorest countries of Africa, has introduced ultrabasic health insurance for more than 90% of its people. Infant mortality has fallen from 120 per 1000 live births to under 30. 

Our leaders must say today, “There must never be such a virus wreaking havoc again”, followed by an urgent coordinated worldwide effort to forestall it. A healthy health care system is obviously important to people today but it is also a preventive and prophylactic of viruses to come. Moreover, as distances keep shrinking and people travel and mix more, we can no longer afford to think nationally exclusively about diseases as is demonstrated by the extreme uneven COVID-19 vaccine distribution. When it comes to diseases, for better or worse, whether we are rich or poor, we live in one world.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.