Published April 21st, 2020 at 8:30 AM
The challenge facing the U.S. and the world in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic reminds one of the saying, “When you are up to your neck in alligators it is hard to remember you are there to drain the swamp”.
Every move made by governments worldwide has been focused on dealing with the global pandemic. The subsequent economic disaster that has followed has created a truly impossible set of choices. Anything done to block the spread of the virus means a delay in ending the “lockdown recession”. And anything that is done to restart the economy risks extending the viral pandemic and exposing millions more to the disease.
To suggest that governments take this opportunity to learn from one another is likely asking the impossible. But without taking the time to learn there will be no escaping the worst of the pandemic and the economic collapse.
There have been actions taken by some nations that have been more effective than others and could provide guidance to others – now and in the future. At the heart of the issue is a three-tiered approach based on the three Ts – testing, tracking and treating. For the most part, the entire world was unprepared on all three counts but some nations moved in the right direction faster than others.
Testing was the most important task but it was made very challenging by the fact the disease was fundamentally unknown. It was not considered likely that this virus would make the jump from animal to human and thus there were no tests readily available.
Once the tests were created the issue was making them available and having a means by which to evaluate them. The South Koreans mobilized quickly and started testing key sectors of the population. They started with the hospital personnel and the first responders as they would be coming in the closest contact with those who might be infected. They then started to test the most vulnerable – the elderly and those with underlying health issues.
The South Korean system was organized and centralized and the testing was widespread. The country still leads the other nations in terms of how many have been tested. Germany soon emulated the South Korean approach and now leads the other European states in terms of testing.
Other nations have been delayed by arguments over who should be tested and by which entity. Should the private sector be involved or not? By the time these decisions were made there were issues with the supply chain and shortages of key ingredients and materials. As a result, the U.S. has tested far fewer people than has Germany or South Korea or France, though there has been some catching up of late.
A bigger and far more controversial issue has been tracking those that have been infected.
The primary threat from COVID-19 is that it has a 14-day incubation period and that allows people to infect others while they remain unaware they have been affected.
The efforts in Germany, South Korea, Singapore and other nations have centered on tracking people who might have spread the virus. Many governments have used cell phone data and GPS to identify where people have been and who they might have had contact with. This kind of intervention has been aggressively opposed in the U.S. and in the U.K. as well as other nations. The privacy implications are obvious enough and many question what it really accomplishes to know that somebody has been in a crowded shopping mall or on a subway.
The third issue has been treatment. The majority of people are relatively unconcerned about the possibility of getting sick. This is not pleasant but it can be coped with.
The real issue is fatality rates. Thus far, fatality rates vary considerably according to age and underlying health considerations. The older population has a fatality rate of more than 13% and those under 50 have one of 2.1%. If those who contract the virus can find medical solutions that limit the disease to inconvenience, the need to impose strict lockdown procedures would diminish.
Here is where Germany had a great advantage. The nation has an ample supply of hospital beds, workers and support systems that have allowed the country to minimize the fatality rate. The Germans have reported just under 5,000 deaths from the COVID-19 virus, while the U.S. has reported more than 42,000. The primary reason for the disparity is that Germany has been able to treat people faster. Despite assertions to the contrary, the U.S. has the largest number of fatalities. But it has to be acknowledged that data from Russia, China and several other nations has been suspect.
The German experience has also been rooted in political and cultural response. In many nations there continues to be a sharp divide between the political parties as regards a response to the virus. Many continue to place political positioning at the forefront. The leaders of all the German political parties (including the right wing Alternative fur Deutschland and the left wing Die Linke) endorsed all the measures taken to control the spread and the population has largely adhered to the recommendations.
This will play a significant role when the lockdown is lifted. In order for there to be an economic rebound, consumers that have been prohibited from interacting with their economy will have to re-engage. People who have been warned to stay at home and shun contact with others will have to be released from these strictures.
In order for this to occur, the population will have to believe the government when an all-clear message is sent. That is not at all assured in the U.S., Italy or Spain, where there is deep skepticism regarding the message from the leaders. German polls, in contrast, suggest that people have faith in what they have been told and that when they are told they can resume their normal lives they will be willing to do so.
It is too late for countries that have been slow to prepare adequate testing and tracking and treatment – at least for this round of pandemic attack. But this will certainly not be the last such assault and lessons for the next time can be learned.
It is not too late to prepare for the end of the lockdown recession. But the leaders of the world now must focus on gaining credibility with the consumers they will rely on to engage in the post COVID-19 economy.
Chris Kuehl is co-founder and a managing director of Armada Corporate Intelligence.