Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
While our ‘thought leaders’ worried about the elderly in the year 2050, a virus that would kill hundreds of thousands of elderly people this year was spreading like wildfire.
Resentment over how those in charge have responded to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is perfectly understandable. Much might have been done much sooner.
At the first sign of trouble last December, the government of Taiwan went on high alert. It monitored every planeload of passengers from Wuhan. It introduced travel restrictions and quarantines. The result? Seven people have died of COVID-19 in that country. Only 509 have been infected. Out of a population of 24 million.
(Yes, Taiwan is an island, which makes things easier. But being geographically on China’s doorstep makes things more difficult.)
Elsewhere, politicians, intellectuals, and journalists spent months treating the virus as a marginal concern. This includes the geniuses who organized the 2020 Davos gathering – which ran from January 21st to 24th.
These people pride themselves on their forward thinking. They’re convinced their fingers are on the pulse of history. They think they have a special role to play – that their insights will shepherd the rest of us along a shining path to a new, improved future.
Before Davos 2020 had ended, Wuhan health officials had already declared themselves in a “state of war.” They were already taking draconian measures to stop the spread of the virus to other parts of China. They were already uttering grim statements such as: “Homes must be segregated, neighbors must be watched.”
Did the genius organizers of Davos see the coronavirus coming? Did they dramatically rework their programme to focus attention on what would soon become the most serious global challenge of 2020?
Nope. Instead, the politicians, intellectuals, journalists, and celebrities in attendance devoted their attention to other matters. The first Davos 2020 panel discussion listed on the programme was titled Building Resilient Health Systems. Its focus was 30 years from now – about the difficulties of providing health care to aging populations.
How distressingly emblematic. While our ‘thought leaders’ worried about 2050, a coronavirus that would kill hundreds of thousands of today’s elderly was spreading around the world via international flights. Wholly unimpeded.
Another Davos session was titled Forging a Sustainable Path towards a Common Future. The video of that discussion is designated with a blue star because Davos organizers consider it a ‘must-watch.’ Speakers include Greta Thunberg, the troubled teenage climate activist. Plus ‘child journalist’ Natasha Mwansa. Plus 13-year-old Autumn Peltier, who serves as “Chief Water Commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation.”
Day 2 began with a press conference titled Europe – leading response to the climate emergency. The Davos website declares:
A climate emergency is unfolding before our eyes. Disruptive action is needed in the 2020s to drive the fastest economic transformation in history. The new European Commission has kick-started its…continent-wide strategy to transform economies on the scale required by the crisis…this change will require a colossal shift in financial flows and greater investment in pioneering science and innovation. [bold added]
A real emergency/crisis was, in fact, unfolding before our eyes. One that would profoundly impact global economic well-being. But the great and the good at Davos were studiously looking in every direction but. They talked about redesigning democracy, about gun violence, feminism, racial bias, gender parity, migration myths, LGBT issues, and disability issues (see here, here, here, and here). Among the other sessions:
At 3:00 in the afternoon, on the last full day of Davos 2020, a single session was devoted to the virus. Titled Update: Wuhan Coronavirus, the online description is brief:
Hundreds of people have been sickened by a new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) since December. As the situation evolves, what have we learned from previous outbreaks and what are the priorities for response?
A video of that 28-minute session appears here. We’re told the three assembled experts will “help us put in context the unfolding situation.” But most of their allotted time is spent talking about a hypothetical future vaccine. These men are conspicuously unwilling to offer concrete, short term suggestions.
The Singapore-born moderator points out that Chinese New Year is about to begin on January 25th, which means “hundreds of millions of Chinese people around the world will be traveling” so that they can spend time with loved ones.
“We know,” she continues, “that they have already locked down the city of Wuhan, and others as well. Are countries taking enough precautionary measures?” she asks urgently. “What else must we be doing?”
Panelist Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert who was knighted in 2018 for his contributions to global health, admits on the video that this new virus can “clearly spread between humans.” He admits it appears to do so more readily than did SARS, and that infections that spread easily are “very difficult” to bring under control.
Nevertheless, at 8:14 minutes into the video, he rejects travel restrictions:
In many ways this outbreak, as so often happens, couldn’t be happening at a worse time [due to local, regional, and global travel associated with Chinese New Year]…Travel restrictions are very important in the sense that the authorities are doing something. It’s a very important statement to communities that this is serious. The actual impact of travel restrictions, at least in my opinion, are not going to be the answer. Firstly, you can’t stop everybody traveling. If you stop people traveling they often find other ways to travel that may be not so obvious. And in the end if you are, if I were infectious now with no symptoms I could pass it on even though you may not know I was sick. So travel restrictions can buy you a bit of time. And that’s very important to do. It might buy you a day, it might buy you a week, it might buy you two or three weeks. But in the end you have to use that time to put in place the critical public health interventions that you need. Because travel restrictions on their own will not stop this epidemic moving.
His argument seems to be that because travel restrictions aren’t perfect (some people will circumvent them, and some infected people won’t have symptoms and so won’t be identified), they aren’t worth implementing. No politician listening to these remarks would have concluded that the measures taken by Taiwan weeks earlier were in any way warranted.
Thanks Davos – oh, oracle of the future – for nothing. There are moments in history that matter. A million people have perished from this virus in the eight months since. You were no help at all.
By the way, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, was at Davos on January 21st. He was interviewed for 36 minutes. By an actress. The topic: “ending the stigma surrounding mental illness.” That video is here.