Mar 12, 2020 - World

Countries meet the coronavirus unprepared and on their own

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The world was not prepared for a pandemic. When one struck, international coordination broke down rather than ramping up.

Why it matters: The lack of preparedness has left countries, including the U.S., scrambling to craft a response once the novel coronavirus had already reached their shores. The dearth of global coordination could both exacerbate the crisis and make it more difficult to recover from.

Driving the news: President Trump's decision to shut down travel from Europe last night blindsided the EU, which responded with a terse statement noting the lack of "consultation."

  • Some Europeans saw politics at play in Trump's exemption of the U.K., which has a significant outbreak.
  • But the Europeans have also struggled to put forward a united front. France and Germany were both criticized by Brussels for limiting exports of medical gear to other countries in the bloc.
  • Countries across the continent are rolling out new and diverging measures — closing schools, canceling public gatherings — to stave off the "Italy scenario."

The U.S., meanwhile, has been slow to adopt best practices from countries like South Korea, particularly around testing.

  • Trump has emphasized that the U.S.' response will be the strongest in the world because it has "the best scientists and doctors."
  • But Lisa Monaco, who served as Barack Obama's former Homeland Security adviser (2013–2017), tells Axios the U.S. squandered the time bought by China's aggressive (if belated) containment efforts and the travel restrictions Trump imposed on China.

"As we saw this coming out of China in December, there should have really been ramping up," says Monaco, who was warning that a pandemic like this one might strike long before it did.

  • “If you’re thinking about a worst-case scenario here, you would be thinking, do we have sufficient testing capacity? How are we going to have surge capacity for hospitals and the health care system? What is going to be the need for personal protective equipment?”
  • What we're now seeing, Monaco says, is "the foreseeable result of neglect of this issue as the top threat that it is.”

Flashback: When Ebola was ravaging West Africa in 2014, the U.S. led a global effort to contain it there and prevent a global pandemic.

  • This virus is far more contagious, but there have thus far been relatively few cases in sub-Saharan Africa and other areas where health infrastructure is weakest.
  • That's likely to change. But when it does, wealthy countries battling their own outbreaks are unlikely to deploy scarce resources to the developing world — particularly in the current nationalist climate.

The big picture: That's particularly concerning given this virus won't truly be contained anywhere until it's contained everywhere, says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • "Every country is going to be at a different phase of this challenge. I just don’t know how much excess capacity or bandwidth anyone will have if they’re facing Italy-like situations."
  • "China, if it is in fact past the worst, might have some excess capacity."

The bottom line: "It’s just shocking that here in this country, we dealt with it so badly that we’re not in a position to help ourselves, and we’re not in a position to help others," Haass says.

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