By: LaTreshia A. Hamilton, J.D.
In 2005, President George W. Bush warned of a potential global pandemic and its effect on the world order. His warning reflected on his reading of John M. Barry’s book, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.” That work examines the 1918-19 flu pandemic (also known as the Spanish Flu) that killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States.
In the book, Barry projects that global pandemics tend to recur every one hundred years. Coincidentally, in December 2019, one hundred years after the 1918-19 flu pandemic ended, a novel coronavirus (i.e., SARS-CoV-2), which causes the coronavirus disease (i.e., COVID-19), began to upend the world as we know it.
The national response to the 1918-19 flu pandemic was life-changing: hotels were converted into makeshift hospitals, masks were required in public, business hours were shortened, schools were closed, interstate travel was restricted, funerals were limited to fifteen minutes, and fines were assessed for violators of newly enacted ordinances.
Ironically, the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic nearly mirrors its response to the 1918-19 flu pandemic. Due to the unprecedented spread of the novel coronavirus, stay-at-home orders are in effect, the term “social distancing” is now a part of our lexicon, hospitals lack sufficient bed space, childcare centers, K-12 schools, and colleges and universities have either shut their doors or transitioned to virtual classrooms, grocery stores have insisted that customers remain at least six feet apart, restaurants have carryout or delivery options only, and masks are required in public spaces.
Today, there are more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States and over 100,000 deaths. Worldwide, the statistics are staggering. The total number of confirmed cases total more than 5.6 million, and there have been roughly 350,000 deaths.
Over the past century, the world has evolved in terms of technology, healthcare, and access to information. Yet, globally, it seems as if we were unprepared for the “invisible enemy” that has taken the world by storm.
Fifteen years ago, President Bush warned what could happen if we failed to prepare for a global pandemic. In a November 2005 speech at the National Institutes of Health, President Bush opined that “[a] pandemic is a lot like a forest fire. If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow into an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.” We did not listen. Now, we have to reckon with our lack of preparedness.
What lessons should the United States learn from the current pandemic? The answer is three-fold.
First, the United States must accept that the world is interconnected. Due to globalization, we are more connected socially, politically, economically, and environmentally today than we were one hundred years ago. What happens in China, Russia, Syria, or Venezuela does not stay there. It can and will impact the lives of other people miles away. Time and again, we have seen how one failed election, a civil war, an economic crisis, or a natural disaster that takes place in one country, inadvertently affects another country. That is not to say that globalization is a bad thing. In terms of economics, investment and trade, and the labor force, globalization can be quite beneficial. However, it does pose certain risks and threats that should not be ignored.
According to the Business Insider, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market (i.e., a “wet market”) in Wuhan, China, “was found to be the most likely starting point for the outbreak of the new coronavirus.” That begs the question, “How did a virus that originated in Wuhan, China, disrupt an entire world order?” The answer is simple: globalization. People and goods are more transient than ever before, international travel is readily accessible, and social interaction is a way of life. Thus, it is not difficult to fathom how an infectious disease can spread like wildfire across the globe.
The United States cannot afford to become complacent about the world and its potential threats. Globalization is not a fad or trend that will become obsolete in a few years. It is here to stay. Therefore, the United States must accept the interconnectedness of the world and adapt to its ever-changing dynamics.
Second, the United States must develop a comprehensive national strategy to mitigate a second wave of the novel coronavirus and the occurrence of a future pandemic. History has shown that pandemics can recur. However, what happens if one were to recur sooner than expected? The White House—along with national security leaders and public health advisors—must establish a global pandemic task force to develop such a strategy. To this end, the U.S. will be a proactive government and not a reactive government.
Moreover, Congress must allocate funding to cover the necessary expenditures that are associated with a global pandemic. For instance, funding for medical personnel, equipment, hospital beds, ventilators, respirators, masks, vaccinations, and testing centers. To do so, Congress may enact new legislation or apportion the funds within pre-existing laws, for example.
Third, the United States must establish a new foreign policy that prioritizes a unified approach to solving global issues. On the world stage, the United States is a hegemon; other countries look to it for leadership, guidance, and innovation. When the novel coronavirus escaped the confines of Wuhan, China, and entered into our borders, we were not prepared. While other countries scurried to find a solution, many looked to the United States for answers. Yet, we were in the same or similar predicament.
Admittedly, the coronavirus pandemic would have been consequential for even the best of governments. But, when the United States is the guiding light and torchbearer that other countries look to for help, it has to be prepared for crises such as this. A laissez-faire approach is unacceptable.
President Donald J. Trump has championed an “America First” agenda. But, if America is going to be “first,” it must lead by example. The United States has to develop an international strategy to defeat the recurrence of another pandemic. To do so, it must improve its relations with other countries. Now is not the time for the United States to take an isolationist approach. The world needs a global solution to solve a global problem.
If the United States wants to live up to its status as a superpower and an emerging hyperpower, it must lead the way and engage in collaborative efforts with other countries. In doing so, the United States can establish a new foreign policy that is better equipped for the global era and its manifestations.
LaTreshia A. Hamilton, J.D. is a lawyer, writer, and global affairs professional from Houston, Texas. She holds a Juris Doctor from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, a Master of Arts in Global Affairs from Rice University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Texas Tech University. She is based in Washington, D.C.