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COVID-19's First Wave Impact Review

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The COVID-19 Pandemic should find western societies well-prepared. After all, states have been developing public health infrastructure, complete with universal public immunisation plans.

And the world has certainly seen worse.

The Spanish Influenza of 1918–1919 killed more than 50 million people worldwide. But that was a time in which life was less valued and appreciated. One of the novel aspects of this pandemic has been that although one million people have died worldwide, societies have mobilised to safeguard life, often to the detriment of economic considerations. Of course there have been terrible exceptions to this, such as the United Kingdom government clearing older people from hospitals back to care homes and enforcing an inefficient, and therefore deadly, privatisation of the Covid response, but as a general trend, there has been more emphasis on the protection of life than there was a century ago.

Discussing lessons learned from the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tactics Institute reached out to Athanasios I. Bozinis (AB), an Assistant Professor of Global Political Economy of the University of Macedonia, specialising on Biosecurity.

He was a Technology and Global Affairs Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR) of the University of Oxford and an Associate Fellow of EU Policies for New Technologies and Hybrid Threats at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS Europe) - Johns Hopkins University.

TACTICS: Localised outbreaks and super-spreader events have driven the current evolution of the pandemic in Europe. What are the differences between policy measures in Greece as compared to the rest of Europe?

AB: The Greek government responded quickly and effectively, imposing a national lockdown at the beginning of March, both for substantive and preemptive reasons, to bolster biodefence against the pandemic. Τhe aim was to avoid an Italian scenario, giving the public health system time to prepare, particularly Intensive Care Units.

However, the two-month lockdown impacted not only Greece’s economy severely, but also the consumers’ psychology, which was detrimental to an economy heavily reliant on tourism. The pressure to allow the restart of this labour-intensive industry undermined early Greek policy gains in the fight against Covid-19.

Under the pressure of the tourism-linked business community, borders reopened, eventually staining Greece’s international image. The relaxation of biosecurity measures and lower levels of attention confused the population, to the detriment of the economy. In contrast, some European governments were willing to bear the political cost of the prolonged lockdown, balancing the need to facilitate necessary economic activity and protecting national health systems and staff.

Another difference between Greece and other European states is the relatively underdeveloped digital economy, including e-commerce. In this sense, COVID-19 was an accelerator of economic digitalisation.

Lastly, there are cultural features that undermined the effectiveness of public policy. Pressure on the Greek government will continue to mount as we head towards Christmas 2020.

TACTICS: According to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 70-to-90% of the population must be infected to achieve herd immunity. Is this a realistic objective?

AB: The main objective of every government is the effective confrontation of the pandemic as well as any other biological threat. Immediate biosecurity measures set the stage for normal social functions and uninterrupted economic activity.

National health systems should stay alert and be strengthened, to disrupt the spread of the virus and effectively handle severe cases (Intensive Care). As long as the spread of COVID-19 is under control, universities and research institutions should be mobilised to develop a safe vaccine as soon as possible.

In this case, states with advanced medical research and universities with international repute are particularly favoured (ie. Oxford, Imperial College, Harvard, John Hopkins); other states standing to benefit are those leading biotechnology research, such as Switzerland.

On a global governance level, we also need to review the danger of mutations, monitor regions with environmental conditions conducive to the spread of the virous, and foster multilateral cooperation (World Health Organization).

TACTICS: Governments, corporations and public health service systems are in a global multibillion-dollar race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. Who do you think is most likely to win: the EU, the US, or China?

AB: The COVID-19 pandemic was succeeded by a pandemic of information with regards to the creation, exploitation, storage, promotion, and commercialization of information in the context of global digitalization.

The dissemination of information and misinformation in combination with conspiracy theories about COVID’s origins are the basis of global information and misinformation alongside the race for the production of an effective vaccine for the pandemic.

The global race for vaccine production will be accompanied by global misinformation concerning the clinical trials of the vaccine and its side-effects, as well as a global (vicious?) circle of propaganda. The antagonism, after all, will not be between states and corporations for the production of the vaccine, but for the effectiveness of the vaccine over time and the immunity-protection that will bring to citizens.

TACTICS: Russia has announced a fast-track coronavirus vaccine triggering a global pushback regarding its safety. Could this reaction further damage confidence in vaccines that is now proliferating?

AB: Misinformation is a kind of warfare. When that war unfolds amid a Pandemic, the result is no merely less confidence in a Russian vaccine, as compared to western vaccines, but a global crisis of public confidence evidenced in the proliferation of conspiracy theory regarding the origins and spread of the Pandemic. 

The acceptance of vaccines in the future will rely on the credibility both on behalf of the governments and the corporations that will produce them. Citizens should ensure not only that vaccines are effective but also that they do not produce adverse side effects. In this sense, Public Diplomacy must be mobilised, particularly online, to ensure effective control over misinformation and fake news.

TACTICS: The World Health Organization has failed to act as an umbrella organisation and a global moderator of the effort to produce a vaccine or a facilitator of international cooperation. How vulnerable is the leadership of the organisation?

AB: The World Health Organization (WHO) utterly failed to coordinate global policy responses vis-à-vis the Pandemic. That is a serious failure given that it is the only organisation with the mandate to develop a Global Biodefense Strategy.

Criticism of WHO was pronounced, particularly in the US. The EU also failed to play an effective coordinating role, although it became clear early enough that Europe was heading towards economic and political turbulence.

Personally, two and a half years ago I predicted that terrorist organisations may try to use immigrants as living biological bombs in the context of hybrid threats.

Despite these emerging dangers, the EU has yet to establish a dedicated agency to address biological threats. Warnings have been disregarded.