woods32_Katherine ChengSOPA ImagesLightRocket via Getty Images_chinawuhancoronavirus Katherine Cheng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

When Viruses Turn Political

As the coronavirus continues to spread, the public must rely on international cooperation among governments to fight the disease effectively. But mounting pressures on political leaders risk pushing them toward more nationalistic short-term measures that are less effective or even counterproductive.

OXFORD – Before the coronavirus exploded into the news, a report by the World Health Organization warned that the world was not prepared for “a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic” that could kill 50-80 million people, cause panic and instability, and seriously affect the global economy and trade. The experience of the last 200-plus years has shown that only governments acting in concert can effectively fight such a pandemic – and even then, only with the trust and compliance of their citizens. This points to three challenges facing political leaders in the fight against the new coronavirus, now known as COVID-19.

The first challenge is that politicians are torn between looking decisive and adopting science-based measures that require careful explanation to a skeptical public. For example, governments in several countries, including India, Nigeria, Japan, and the United States, have recently instituted highly visible temperature checks on all passengers arriving at their airports. But feverish travelers can simply mask their condition by using fever-reducing drugs. Furthermore, Chinese researchers suspect that COVID-19 is contagious for up to 24 days before the person carrying it develops a fever. The,United Kingdom’s government therefore, is focusing on informing all arriving passengers about what to do if they experience symptoms after leaving the airport.

More seriously, on January 31, US President Donald Trump’s administration announced a temporary entry ban on all foreign nationals who had been to China in the past 14 days, unless they were immediate relatives of US citizens or permanent residents. Many other countries have imposed similar measures, but the effect could be exactly the opposite of what was intended.