Pandemic Musings: 1. Personal Musings on the New March Madness

In the Northern Hemisphere, March is a pivotal month for the onslaught of “spring fever”. And for those of us who have been known to embrace the herd mentality of the season-ending collegiate basketball tournament in the US, it is also known as the month of “March Madness”. In this year of 2020, it seems tragically appropriate that, in this turbulent month, we have experienced yet another kind of “March Madness”. And that is the fearsome disease that we have come to know as “Covid-19”. As we come to the end of this crazy month, here are some reflections on why the Covid-19 pandemic will forever be associated in my mind with the madness of this pivotal month of March.

One might infer that this new madness is all about the “stay-in-place” isolation that is challenging us to come up with novel ways to work and entertain ourselves. But the real madness of this month has to do with how long it took us to realize that the novel coronavirus was a new and deadly phenomenon – indeed a pivotal phenomenon because it promises to take so many lives but also to alter dramatically our very way of life. And not just for the duration of this particular pestilence.

The Early Days of March

For us, the month began with our own version of a self-imposed isolation in pursuit of outdoor activities to benefit from the unusually early and warm arrival of springtime weather – a sign of climate change, perhaps? (But that is another story.) There was no “March Madness” here – unless one takes into account our parallel springtime preoccupations with bird-watching (to photograph them) and weed-pulling (without weed-killer here, just the hands)!

It was with a certain tinge of melancholy that we heard about the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament, an American ritual almost as significant as the Super Bowl. We remembered those March days when basketball fever filled large indoor stadiums with cheering crowds and awesome players. The abrupt cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament was, then, an early warning sign that something dreadful was on the horizon.

Of course, there is nothing quite like it in Europe, this March Madness – the 2020 EUFA matches (also cancelled – but not intended for March, in any case) notwithstanding. Our main “March Madness” experience in Europe has been quite a different kind of herd madness, the Geneva Auto Show. But yes, that too was cancelled at the last minute.

Well, the current lockdown has suspended all crowd-gathering attractions – not just those basketball tournaments or auto shows. The ripple effect has seen the cancellation of EUFA football matches, tennis tournaments, electronics trade shows, film festivals and just about everything else – even the Summer Olympics! But these two, the NCAA basketball tournament and the Geneva Auto Show, were the first of the March cancellations to warn us that something drastic was about to happen.

Early Warnings from Dr. Ryan and the WHO

We had, of course, been following the news about the outbreak of a new virus in Wuhan, China, first reported in December 2019 (and therefore the “19” attached to the name it was ultimately given) but only brought to global media attention in the course of the massive shut-down of the Chinese New Year in January of 2020. And through the month of February, media reports started trickling in of outbreaks in South Korea and Iran – and even in a cruise ship or two in oddly disparate places. Well, I thought, let’s hope this is just another SARS or MERS epidemic – alarming indeed as they were, but each in its place far away from home – and never any further than that.

Even so, I was aware that something about this one might be different. I recollected a program in Geneva that our Council for Multilateral Business Diplomacy had organized way back in 2007 to facilitate a dialogue between officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the business community. One of our main segments had been on emerging epidemics.  SARS had been just the most recent one, but one should not forget about HIV/AIDS. In 2007. We were in the midst of the success of a massive mobilization of resources, including through the WHO, because of the AIDS pandemic but also for malaria and tuberculosis. So this additional 21st century matter of NEW global health emergencies like SARS had elevated our interest in the work of the WHO.

I don’t remember his exact words, but I vividly remember the passion in the voice of Dr. Michael Ryan, who was then the WHO’s Director of Global Alert and Response Operations. He spoke about the scientific inevitability of a global epidemic far greater than SARS or AIDS and more like the rampant devastation of the 1918-1919 epidemic that was known (albeit incorrectly) as the Spanish flu. Maybe even as bad as the bubonic plague or other killer disease waves of centuries past. He expressed frustration with the lack of a global consensus to prepare for this likely calamity, even at the WHO. We had listened to Dr. Ryan with a mix of disbelief and anxiety but ultimately went our respective ways without thinking any further about it.

The Return of Dr. Ryan

Of course, Dr. Ryan himself didn’t stop thinking about it even though I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that he had left the WHO and its bureaucratic games. But in the course of this mad month of March, I was looking through the WHO press releases on their assessment of how well the Chinese had handled the initial outbreak when I suddenly saw that he was back at the WHO. Not only that, but he had just been appointed Executive Director for the very programme on health emergencies that included this new Covid-19.

What attracted him to return, I wondered. One might note that this Health Emergencies Programme sounds a lot like the Global Alert and Response Operations that was Dr. Ryan’s responsibility back in 2007. But I had closely followed the tense debates in the WHO Executive Board over the need for major reforms in the aftermath of the Ebola crisis, and this Health Emergencies Programme was a major piece of that reform effort. Without going into any further speculation about how the WHO and its member states are handling this current novel coronavirus crisis, I can only observe here that his reappearance at the WHO certainly heightened my wondering whether this was the big one.

Upward Momentum of the Covid-19 Curve

For me, then, March started with an important shift in my appreciation of Dr. Ryan’s fortune-telling from some 13 years ago. We had been following, with growing shock and alarm, the escalating spread by late February of Covid-19 into neighboring Italy. In fact, the emerging nature of the crisis was brought home to us on the first of March, when a desperate call came in from an old friend in the States, a grandmother whose daughter and grand-daughter had fled their home somewhere near Venice the day before, to avoid being quarantined there. They were driving to Mougins to stay with people they knew there, and the grandmother was worried that they might need some extra help from us in nearby Grasse.

That was when the shock and alarm finally started setting in. We never did see the daughter and grand-daughter, and we eventually learned that they didn’t stay long in Mougins but eventually made it home to the States. But this was the first that we sensed the striking contrast between the approaching closeness of this virus and the safer distance of any of the others of recent vintage (Ebola or MERS or SARS).  Here were a number of small towns in northern Italy suddenly shutting down their MUNICIPAL borders on account of the growing number of Covid-19 cases – and deaths – in their communities.  What we kept on hearing was that the Italian authorities were trying desperately but failing to locate “patient zero” in the midst of spiraling numbers of cases. It was no longer a matter of identifying someone who had returned from travelling in China or South Korea or Iran; the worrisome conclusion was that the contagion was now in the community itself.

Since then, of course, Italy quickly became the “European epicenter” of the virus, and then it became the country with the highest number of cases and deaths – more even than China where it had apparently started.  But the surprise factor of this happening in Italy and not some far-off place unrelated to us made us more attentive to our own circumstances. When the “flight” of our friends occurred, on 29 February, France was reporting a total of 100 Covid-19 cases. One week later, on March 8, there were 1,126 cases!

By then, we also had the alarming news of a concentrated number of Covid-19 deaths in the US state of Washington and another outbreak of cases on a cruise ship off the state of California. As it spread to the rest of Europe and emerged elsewhere in the US – and India and Brazil and South Africa and Australia – we had to conclude that this was, indeed, the global epidemic – or pandemic, as the WHO finally came to call it, that my WHO friend had predicted.

The Madness Takes Hold of Us

With my having typical symptoms of a springtime allergy (a scratchy throat and cough and runny nose) and with both my partner and I being in the 70-and-above age group, we were concerned enough about the similarity of my symptoms to Covid-19 symptoms that we decided early to forego all external gatherings and just stay at home. I cancelled my English class on March 8, just a day before the local association decided to suspend all classes for two weeks. And then, with President Emmanuel Macron making two nation-wide appearances on 12 March and then again on 16 March, France was brought into partial and then more complete lock-down as of 17 March.

A few days later, on 20 March, France was reported to have over 12,000 cases and some 450 deaths. A week later it was 30,000 cases and over 1700 deaths, and then in only two more days it was 40,000 cases and 2600 deaths!  Elsewhere, too, they started with 1 or 10 or 100 and then accelerated exponentially, some countries more dramatically than others. Although the data on cases and deaths may be different from country to country, state to state, and even from community to community, the essential message is the same. The coronavirus experts, like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dorothy Bilx in the US or Dr. Jérôme Salomon in France, started showing the very generic graph of sharply upward incidence curves if one does nothing but more extended and lower, flattened curves if preventive and corrective measures were taken.

The dire projections are being reinforced by the data showing sharply upward curves in the “eipicenters” like the Lombardy region in Italy or Mulhouse in northeastern France or New York City in the US. So the message is sinking in. We need to contain and mitigate the epidemic, to flatten the curve, break the chain of contamination, and deliver proper health care to those in need.

And into April?

We have come to the end of this crazy, mad month of March. I will always associate Covid-19 with March Madness. We have seen panic buying in grocery stores and pharmacies, a shocking fall in the stock market, a record increase in US unemployment claims, public health officials crying out for more and better tests, more protective masks and other personal protective equipment, more ventilators. In France, as well as in the US under Trump, there is a frenzy around the controversial physician from Marseille, Dr. Didier Raoult, who pushes the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and even gets support from the pharmaceutical company Sanofi to ramp up production of the drug – but not from the more skeptical French government’s health experts. They are, nonetheless, endorsing its use under controlled hospital settings.

For the rest of us, we are settling in for the madness to continue in to April – and beyond. We have adapted to a lot more on-line buying and ordering of basic necessities. We are learning to wash our hands more thoroughly and more regularly, trying not to touch our faces, coughing and sneezing into our elbow, discovering how to produce a sanitizer and how to use it, and keeping a safe distance from anyone, whether friend or stranger. In both the US and France, as well as other nearby countries, we know that the next two or three weeks will be the worst.

Sliding into Economic Nationalism

Meanwhile, we know that this is a world-changing crisis. It calls for people to think and act globally, which is not necessarily a new thing. But it has been very disturbing how so much of this has become localized, with countries and communities closing themselves off from each other. I was even disappointed when countries blocked flights from China (even if global health experts accept the necessity of doing so) – recalling the WHO’s recommendations against this during the Ebola crisis. I believe that other surveillance measures could have been less brutal. But then flights were blocked from Iran and South Korea and Italy. President Trump even took the typically unfriendly and unilateral decision to block all flights from Europe (without even warning the EU in advance).

I am disturbed to see so many borders closed here and there and everywhere, and the restrictions on exports of personal protective equipment and ventilators. And yes, I am disturbed when people are specifically encouraged to buy only home-grown or home-produced groceries! The EU itself, it seems, has fallen back into a North/South divide. All of these measures are examples of a slide into economic and social nationalism.

Thinking and Acting Globally

Of course, there are also encouraging signs of the reverse. In fact, this Covid-19 crisis has far greater immediacy in its impact – and therefore in mobilizing a readiness to act – than the comparably alarming but less immediately vivid crisis of climate change. We know that the scientific community is rushing their research and trials and reporting data on how the virus is operating, with more and more aggregated detail. We understand that the major central banks are cooperating to free up additional mechanisms for liquidity and economic stability.  We know that the big servers and content providers in the Internet world are voluntarily working to accommodate the dramatic increase in Internet-driven business and entertainment activity. Fashion houses are converting their machines to produce personal protective equipment and sanitizers, and China is sending extra supplies and medical experts to Italy. So cooperative measures are showing up, at least anecdotally.

And finally, we see some signs of reaching across borders to do something collaboratively. Both the G7 and the G20 have finally convened emergency sessions, their first remote exercises in teleconferencing among heads of state and high-level ministers. The UN and the WHO are both issuing almost daily statements in support of rallying together. We also have a personal interest in following the pronouncements from the International Labor Organization (ILO) on job and income losses (and proposed solutions) and from the Geneva Internet Platform on the many things that are happening to address the pandemic in the digital world.

Some caring experts have proposed a global coordinating mechanism to mobilize resources and action to manage this dreadful pandemic, but so far, the existing formats for making this a reality are not yet ready or suitable. A big gap exists in the loss of responsible US leadership under the Trump presidency, to be sure. The UN has toyed with engaging in a “global health agenda” for some time now, and it has convened health-related summits on both HIV/AIDS and non-communicable diseases. But it has so far concentrated on urging the developed countries of the world to set aside more resources for covid-19 in the developing countries. It is not well suited to operate a coordinating mechanism applicable to both developed and developing countries. But then neither the existing G7 nor the G20 have not yet shown themselves to be well suited to create the consensus for action, either.

In conclusion

So we have a new March Madness to dominate our lives. Overall, though, the end of March is early in the crisis. It is not clear what global summits might be convened in the coming months. It may be that we have to wait until the curves in those charts hit their peak and start a downward curve in at least a few countries besides China. For the time being, then, this is a work in progress. Further reflections in the months ahead will build on the prospects for survival and for pivotal transformations in our daily lifestyles – and for building on our ability to collaborate with each other. But for now we are coping with the immediacy of “staying in place” and watching those numbers go up, at least for the foreseeable future.  We are once again reminded of the warning from Dr. Ryan that this may only be the first of many “Covid-19s”. We know that this is a turning point to remember.

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