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Globalization and Pandemics: Global Problems Require Global Responses

The rapid dispersion of many diseases is one of the inevitable characteristics of globalization. Nationalist approaches are therefore completely counter-productive

By: EBR - Posted: Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The rapid dispersion of many diseases is one inevitable aspect of globalization. It is, in fact, traceable back to the Middle Ages. The transmission of the black plague followed along trade routes, including the silk road.
The rapid dispersion of many diseases is one inevitable aspect of globalization. It is, in fact, traceable back to the Middle Ages. The transmission of the black plague followed along trade routes, including the silk road.

by Arthur E. Appleton*

A comment that is widely attributed to William Gibson “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed” also applies to pandemics.

We currently have Coronavirus hotspots in China, Iran and Italy. We may soon have another in the United States. Nevertheless, many parts of the world remain relatively unaffected. Of course, the future will catch up with them – soon.

Connectedness spreads diseases

The rapid dispersion of many diseases is one inevitable aspect of globalization. It is, in fact, traceable back to the Middle Ages. The transmission of the black plague followed along trade routes, including the silk road.

In modern times, once the “horseman of pestilence” leaves the stable, mass transportation systems aide the spread of disease.

The problem is particularly acute with a disease like COVID-19. With its long incubation period and a large number of asymptomatic carriers, infected travellers spread COVID-19 without realizing they are doing so.

With the horseman of pestilence on the loose, the inevitable questions arise: What should governments do to address present and future pandemics nationally and internationally, and what can the private sector do?

A broad range of national approaches

Until now, we have seen various national government take different forms of responsiveness. They range from acts to punish those who initially discovered the disease and efforts to control statements made by public health officials on the spread of the disease all the way to waiting for a miracle to happen. Finally, there is also the route of surveillance and quarantine.

The first three approaches will speed the spread of COVID-19. The last two approaches — surveillance and quarantine — are much better in that they may reduce its spread. But even this approach will not stop COVID-19 once it escapes quarantine.

And, of course, for all the attention paid to the current pandemic, current approaches do nothing to address the risk of future pandemics.

The private sector is also stumbling

That the private sector is also stumbling is not necessarily a matter of choice, but due to the underlying economics surrounding new and novel diseases. In addition, the constant quest to generate short- to medium-term profits does not exactly facilitate investments in this crucial area of healthcare.

Shareholders and management both know the downside risks. In addition to the high cost of research and development of medicines to treat new diseases, there is always a certain likelihood that new drugs will fail in the testing phase.

The long lead time it takes to bring successful pharmaceutical products to market is also not exactly an inducement to investment. Thus, while substantial returns await the developer of an effective vaccine, bringing a new vaccine to market is a time-consuming, expensive and risk fraught task.

High time for nationalists to rethink their ways

Nationalists ought to take note that, much to their chagrin, any effective approach to managing pandemics will involve renewed international cooperation.

This is certainly true for the scientific community, but also at least for like-minded governments.

It does not help that present economic and political realities are characterized by fainthearted political leadership and shareholder abhorrence to risk.

The proper response is to implement solutions that will “distribute the future,” and its financial risks, more evenly. Global problems require global responses. This is consistent with the ethos of globalization.

Only international cooperation helps

In short, more international cooperation is required to deal with present and future pandemics, first to address present dangers, second to mitigate future risks.

Cooperative measures must be undertaken at the international and regional level, between governments, in public-private partnerships and between private-sector partners.

At the international level, the World Health Organization is already taking a leading role through its Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan. However, stronger regional and national responses are also required to address diseases of zoonotic origin, as well as other pandemic risks.

The cost of inaction is sky-high

To make it all possible, more government financial support is needed. This should take the form of public sector grants and private sector tax credits. If the private sector is to bring new drugs and detection equipment to market more quickly, its risk of failure must be mitigated by government.

It is unrealistic to expect the private sector to bear the full risk of research and development. It is also unrealistic for governments to wait for a miracle to eliminate future pandemics.

Governments must act. They need to cooperate, not just on R&D, but also on risk assessment and management.

Toward a sharing economy

For R&D to be more effective, we need to increase the scientific culture of sharing, so that medical research is pooled more effectively and more quickly internationally among public and private sector actors.

This may be one of the most promising avenues available, and if successful would reach communities in both the developed and developing world.

We should not forget that most of the recent diseases of zoonotic origin have originated in the developing world. Global health risks are simply that – global. The solutions must be as well.

Finally, free market advocates also need to rethink their approach. Dealing with pandemics will involve additional government resources for research and development into novel viruses and early detection tests.

These activities will need to be spread out in government laboratories, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as in private foundations such as the French Institut Pasteur, and at public universities and research facilities.


Delaying appropriate government responses will only bring more illness and death.

Strengthening international cooperation on research and development, as well as risk assessment and management, would be consistent with the ethos of globalization and would do much to reduce risks associated with future pandemics.

*Adjunct Professor of International Law at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS-Europe)
**first published in: theglobalist.com


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