Uncertainties will mutate for a long time.
Having dawdled for weeks, the WHO has finally declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Given that it is too soon to assess how well global institutions and governments have responded to the emerging public health challenge, that discussion is best left for another day. For the moment, three facets of COVID-19 merit comment.
First, we are witnessing what can be described as an “infodemic.” Thanks to social media platforms and an attention-hungry mainstream media, there is an overflow of (mis)information about COVID-19. For many, it can be hard to determine what is true and what is false since exaggeration is the new normal. The relatively restrained public discourse over HIV when it first made its appearance stands out in sharp contrast.
Second, the COVID-19 outbreak proves again that history tends to repeat itself. This is not the first time a killer virus has traveled along connected networks. Nor is it the first time that travelers have carried a virus. Colonial settlers carried gonorrhea, smallpox, and other diseases to the New World. Ships carried plague-infested rodents to foreign shores. Given China’s central role in the global economy and the outward flow of its tourists and labor through the Belt and Road Initiative, what would have once been a local epidemic, like the 2003 SARS outbreak, is now a global health crisis.
Third, COVID-19 has added a twist to emerging political realities. Will China reconsider its ruler-for-life decision or has Chinese President Xi Jinping demonstrated the benefit of opting for a reliable authoritarian system? Will American elections be altered by the national outbreak response and its seemingly significant economic implications? Will the EU be forced to rethink its immigration policy? As China provides aid to Italy and other affected countries, will we see a red dawn of another hue? These uncertainties will mutate for a long time even after the macabre march of the virus has been contained, if not halted.
This commentary originally appeared in Council of Councils — The Council on Foreign Relations.