A few years ago, on a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, Elene and I met a couple we knew from Effingham. As we were laughing, all of us said in unison: “It is really a small world.” And it is.
But nothing can put these words into a clearer and more proper perspective better than what we are now going through with the COVID-19 pandemic. Very few things unite the whole world like a pandemic. The coronavirus has been spreading like a nasty, roaring wildfire across continents, countries, oceans, mountains and lakes – affecting almost every country on this planet. It does not matter if the country is poor or rich, capitalistic or socialistic, religious or non-religious.
From one single infected person at Hunan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China to now infecting close to a million people with more than 40,000 people dead. All this in the span of four short months. Modern technology has helped to spread the virus via transportation that connects every corner of our planet. The availability of instant communications has made the anxiety about the pandemic more intense, since everyone who has a cellphone, which is almost 90% of the world population, can monitor, in real time, the progress of the infection and mortality anywhere in the world.
People have been watching with fear and anxiety as the virus spreads to every part of the world, affecting people young and old, important or not-so-important. From Prince Charles and Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Sophie Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife, to Prince Albert of Monaco to the vice president of Iran, to Tom Hanks and many notable personalities. Everyone is a potential target, and everyone is vulnerable.
The virus is not attacking countries, it is attacking individuals no matter where they are in our world. The world does not remember anything like this in recent history. The latest pandemic with the same intensity was the Spanish Flu in 1918 at the time of World War I. Actually, it spread to almost every country, but the countries that were fighting the war did not want to disclose the rampant infection among their citizens in order to avoid giving this valuable information to their adversaries. Spain, at that time, was not fighting. So the Spanish authorities disclosed the nature of the epidemic. That is why that pandemic was called the Spanish Flu, which before it ended had killed 50 million people.
A collective disaster like this virus infection has the potential of uniting people together against a common enemy. This has created an environment of generosity, understanding and goodwill. This is what we hope for and what we strive for. However, the high level of anxiety has also produced a selfish sentiment among some. We all saw how people were fighting over a roll of toilet tissue.
Governments across the globe fought to keep their population healthy. In many parts of the world, governments imposed certain restrictions on population movements. Most of the American states now have a shelter-at-home orders. Most of European countries have imposed similar restrictions, some harsher than others. Many countries in Southeast Asia have also implemented some form of lockdown.
Some other countries, however, have been complacent. For instance, in Myanmar, street markets are still crowded. The Brazilian president, Bolsonaro, called COVID-19, a “sniffle,” and Tanzania’s president said churches should stay open because coronavirus is “Satanic” and cannot survive on the body of Christ.
You could see the difference between the behavior of democratic vs. non-democratic countries. In democratic countries there is a high level of transparency. That allowed dealing with the pandemic in a more open fashion. Non-democratic countries, however, are dealing with the pandemic with some sort of denial, and a lack of transparency. Even the numbers of their citizens infected with the virus or those who succumbed to the disease are suspect.
Unfortunately, not all world leaders had the welfare of their citizens at heart. For instance, it is difficult to explain why Iran refused American help when it was offered. Iran’s Supreme Leader said: “Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more.” Iran also rejected aid from healthcare providers working with “Doctors Without Borders,” declaring them American spies. Also, two planeloads of equipment sent by International NGO have been left on the tarmac at Tehran airport.
So, for the Iranian leaders, it was more important for them to make political statements than to save their people.
I, for one, was of the opinion that America should temporarily lift some of its sanctions against Iran during the pandemic. But refusing the American aid showed how more rigid the Iranian leadership has become.
I am hopeful that we will gain a tremendous insight in how to prevent, diagnose and treat pandemics like this one in the future. But if this is a once-in-a-century occurrence, we may not be here when the next crisis unfolds. But still, there is more to learn from this tragedy because it is our responsibility to save our beautiful, small world.