What Went So Completely Wrong?

Dr John Ng 5 min read

WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.

We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a PANDEMIC.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO

For weeks before COVID-19 became a pandemic, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organisation (WHO),  had sounded the alarm that governments should take drastic steps but many nations were lackadaisical in response. He described it as “alarming levels of inaction”.

So, what went so completely wrong? There are at least five reasons.

1. ‘I Don’t Know’ Perspective

“We are still trying to wrap our heads around

the deficit of cases among those under 20.”

Cecile Viboud, Epidemiologist,

US National Institute of Health’s Fogarty International Centre

Many are still ignorant about the virus or don’t understand how it spreads. There are the many questions being asked by many millions of people around the world, such as the following:

Research has revealed that the virus is more infectious and more deadly than the common flu. There are millions in many countries, especially those in the Majority World—where most of the world’s population resides—who are still ignorant about the virus.

There are still some unknowns like why some are super-spreaders, or why children are less likely to contract the virus and the lack of clarity on how the virus spreads. This has inevitably caused worrisome uncertainty and widespread panic.

Because there’s so much ignorance, it has resulted in the virus spreading faster than we can ever imagine. If you have any uncertainty or questions about Covid-19, check out Coronavirus Resource Centre, which has answers posted by the Harvard Medical School.

2. ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ Posture

“We have a simple message to all countries – test, test, test. All countries should be able to test all suspected cases, they cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Initially, some countries had many undetected and under-detected cases because their leaders felt they should not create a situation where citizens are panicking, especially when they are under-resourced and have large uneducated populations spread over a large land mass.

A drastic rise in the number of cases might crash their healthcare system, which would definitely be inadequate if there was a mass demand.
So, they rather go blind.
Many are still living in denial regarding the seriousness of this threat, and denial is a deadly form of inaction.

Recently, my daughter, Meixi, who lives in the USA, had developed a persistent cough. She had gone to a clinic to request for the coronavirus test, and the doctor told her, “There is no use testing because there is no cure anyway.” Fortunately, her symptoms subsided.

This “I don’t want to know” attitude can be devastating in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19. Ignorance is not bliss but grief.

3. ‘I Don’t Care’ Attitude

In the comic strip The Born-Loser, the question was asked, “What’s the difference between ignorance and indifference?” The Born-Loser answered, “I don’t know” and “I don’t care.”

This is the big challenge in the fight against COVID-19: Indifference.

The bigger challenge is that there are still many who are indifferent about their indifference!

This callous attitude results in socially irresponsible behaviors like:

  • Not seeing a doctor when you have the symptoms
  • Not covering your mouth when coughing
  • Not conscientiously washing your hands or using sanitizers,
  • Not concerned about social distancing
  • Not practicing self-quarantine when you are diagnosed with the virus

The worst example of this lackadaisical attitude was the NBA basketball player, Rudy Gobert of Utah Jazz,  who pulled the prank of touching every microphone and recorder in front of him in jest, as he was leaving a media event on March 9.

He was subsequently tested positive for coronavirus. He then released a public apology on Instagram on Thursday. His redemption was complete- when he donated US$500,000 to help workers affected by the virus.

Indifference is the crucible for social irresponsibility.

4. ‘I Don’t Have The Resolve’ Mindset

“Some countries are struggling with a lack of resources. 

Some countries are struggling with a lack of resolve.”

Tedros Adhanam Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General

In the earlier stage of this virus contagion—either for lack of urgency or lack of gravitas—there were many countries who were unconcerned and were in a stupor. This lack of resolve was most evident when the leaders of these countries continued their business as usual and refused to take any drastic actions, until the number of infected cases and deaths suddenly spiked.

Only then did we see countries taking sweeping, far-reaching and desperate actions, and draconian steps. Some, like Italy, have resorted to locking down the entire country. Others, like Korea and France, have declared war against the virus, and Spain has declared a state of emergency.

Still others, like USA and Malaysia have banned travels, shut down schools, restaurants, malls, and restricted gatherings of over 50 people. Citizens are urged to sacrifice their personal rights and comforts for the greater good of our society.

Although some have criticized this as ‘Johnny come lately’, being too slow and too late, I believe that with such resolve, we are going to win the war against COVID-19!

Individually, many in these countries have the perception that this virus will go away.

Many have propounded:

‘This is a China problem.’
‘It’s just another flu’
‘By summer, it will be over.”

Some social media platforms have not helped the cause by spreading pranks, half-truths, myths and deceptions. There is also a lack of trust in – governments. Some leaders were sending out mixed signals which confused the populace. Mistrust breeds inaction.

But, now the message is lucid and clear: Everyone must do their part to change the course of action.

5. ‘I Don’t Have The Resources’ Situation

“As we mourn all those who have lost their lives and the many families who are suffering, we must show solidarity with the most vulnerable – the elderly, the sick, those without reliable healthcare, and those on the edge of poverty.”

Antonio Gutteres, UN Chief

The group that I agonized for the most is the poorer and under-resourced countries and its people. Deaths are most imminent when they contract the virus, especially the elderly and the poor, because they lack a robust healthcare system.

These countries are most vulnerable.

I was deeply troubled when I spoke with my friend Tajen in the Philippines. He told me that many of his friends did not consult their doctors, even though they had developed symptoms.

The reason: They cannot stop working. They live from hand-to-mouth. Each day without work is a day of lost wages. They fear falling sick. They fear losing their job. They fear being stigmatized. They have to keep working to feed their families. There’s no luxury of having any reserves to fall back on.

I realized then that it is so easy for me to be critical and judgmental for their lack of social responsibility. They have more constraints than many of us. The reality is that they are too poor not to work and they have to feed their families whom they care deeply for.

There is HOPE!

Despite of all these human inadequacies and leadership failures, I see HOPE. I see that many countries are reversing their policies and changing their attitudes. Many leaders are now stepping up their efforts and making drastic changes to fight this pandemic.

When countries, communities and individuals come together to fight a common enemy like the COVID-19, there is HOPE.

For example, despite their predicament, China is now sending medical supplies and experts to the Philippines and Italy to stem the tide of COVID-19 pandemic.

WHO’s Dr Tedros has been encouraged that “the global research community has come together to identify and accelerate the most urgent research needs for diagnostics, treatments and vaccines”, and that a team of international experts is now on the ground in China, working closely with Chinese counterparts to understand the outbreak, and to inform the next steps in the global response.” 

When he addressed the Munich Security Conference, a gathering of security experts and government leaders, Dr Tedros, was absolutely right when he asked, “We have a choice. Can we come together to face a common and dangerous enemy? Or will we allow fear, suspicion and irrationality to distract and divide us?”

He said that in our fractured and divided world, health was one of the few areas in which international cooperation offered the opportunity for countries to work together for a common cause.

Yes, there may be many instances of opportunists, driven by greed, who jacked up the price of medical supplies or rewashed used masks to resell them for profit, without any concern for the welfare of others.

But there are also many health workers in our midst who have made untold sacrifices to fight the virus: They have been compassionate, going beyond their call of duty, and for some, giving up their lives to save others.

Kindness is seen in many places and people. These are everyday heroes:

  • People who offer babysitting services to parents and caregivers they know who are still working,
  • Others are donating senitisers, masks, and essential suppliers to the homeless and the poor.
  • College students and stay-at-home parents who offer their own services and schedules if they can handle additional children
  • Executives are cutting their pays, saving as many jobs as they can, allowing staff to take no-pay leave to keep their jobs as long as they can afford.

One of these moments of light is the triumphant spirit of Italians singing the Italian National anthem from their balconies. This truly inspires hope!

Dr Tedros sums up the situation well:

“The rule of the game is: Never give up.”
“We are not at the mercy of this virus.
All countries must aim to stop transmission and prevent the spread of COVID-19, whether they face no cases, sporadic cases, clusters or community transmission.
“Let hope be the antidote to fear.
Let solidarity be the antidote to blame.
Let our shared humanity be the antidote to our shared threat”

In the midst of some of the darkest hours of humanity, there is HOPE!

Dr John Ng
Chief Passionary Officer,
Meta Consulting

Be Further Inspired