Sometimes the Disaster Chooses You

Doing a class on the topic of disasters during a global pandemic has certainly been a unique situation. Normally, I ask students to choose a disaster to research for their final paper, but this semester, the disaster has chosen us. We have a unique, unfortunate opportunity to use what we’ve talked about in this class on disasters to try to understand an evolving global pandemic.  So, that’s what we’re going to do.

For the rest of the semester, your assignment is to keep an eye on US and international news. Focus on reputable news sources that have a history of doing good reporting: outlets like the BBC, the Washington Post, The New York Times, the Associated Press, etc. Some newer publications may also be helpful but please be very careful in evaluating where the story in coming from and who is writing it and publishing it. Try your best to keep apprised, on a daily or weekly basis, of what’s going on with the coronavirus in the US, the UK, Europe, China, and any other country where the disaster response is notable for being either particularly extensive or particularly lacking–or interesting in some other way.

The final project assignment asks you to summarize your findings about what the coronavirus pandemic does over the course of the spring (from its first appearance in the US in January to the time you write your final paper) and to compare the disaster responses of different countries and regions. How is this disaster following the “rules” of disasters that we’ve discussed in this course? How is media coverage affecting and influencing real life outcomes of the pandemic? Why do you think different countries responded so differently, with some taking very proactive measures and others seemingly unable to even take basic precautions? 

In addition, the final paper also asks you to make comparisons between the coronavirus outbreak and the disasters you’ve learned about after spring break. What are the differences and similarities between the disaster response to coronavirus in the US and the response of Dow Chemical to Bhopal for instance? What can be learned by comparing and contrasting the response to coronavirus in China with the response of the US government (federal and Missouri) to the residents of Pruitt Igoe? What about comparing the global reaction to the Boeing 737 Max disaster with the reaction to the coronavirus globally?

The paper that you produce should be no more than 6-8 pages, or roughly 3,000-4,000 words. lt is due on our final exam day: Tuesday May 5, at 5pm. You will upload it in a comment to this post. Please remember to LEAVE AN EXTRA LINE of space (hit ‘return’ or ‘enter’ twice) after every paragraph, because this system strips out indents and your paragraphs will run together. Your paper will not show up after you post it because I have to read and approve them. If you would ALSO like to send me a PDF file of your paper via email ( just to be on the safe side, or to make sure that special formatting is preserved, feel free to do so.


  1. The United States found its first cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, on January 20th. This was within days of the first confirmed cases outside of China in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand. The epicenter of the outbreak, Wuhan China, had its population of 11 million quarantined from the rest of China three days later. The next week on January 30th, the WHO declared the outbreak a global emergency, and the next day January 31st the Trump administration suspended entry into the United States from foreign nationals who had been to China within the past 14 days.

    Over the month of February, the outbreak continued to worsen across the globe with major travel restrictions being put into place by many nations. The first death from Covid-19 in Europe was in France on Feb 14th. Iran and Italy became major hotspots in the last weeks of the month. In the last days of February, infections in Europe spiked, the first cases in Latin American and Sub-Saharan Africa were confirmed, and the first known death resulted in the United States. At this point the number of confirmed cases worldwide was up to 87,000. The Trump Administration issued the highest-level travel warning-do not travel to areas in Italy and other hotspots most affected by the virus. The United States puts the Coronavirus Task Force into place, led by Vice President Mike Pence. The CDC lifted all federal restrictions on testing for the virus on March 3. On March 11, the president blocked most travel from continental Europe, and on the 13th he declared a national emergency. This made $50 billion in federal funds available to states to combat the virus. Finally, on March 15th the CDC recommends that no gatherings of more than 50 people occur in the United States for the following 8 weeks. The following day Trump recommended avoiding groups larger than 10, and New York City’s public-school system decides to close. At this point France, Italy, and many Latin American nations closed their boarders, and imposed restriction on citizens travel and ability to gather in public. On March 17th EU leaders closed off at least 26 countries to visitors and non-essential travel. Britain locked down its economy and citizens on March 23rd, followed by India on March 24th. By March 26th the United States led the world in confirmed cases (assuming China is reporting truthfully), and after weeks of debate congress finally passed a $2 Trillion stimulus package. Widespread stay-at-home directives were put into place across the country by March 30th. On April 2nd, more than one million cases across the world had been confirmed, and 51,000 had died. 10 million Americans were out of work, with many applying for unemployment benefits. On April 14th after criticizing his handling of the outbreak, President Trump planned to stop funding the WHO. On the 17th he encouraged right wing protests against state’s restrictions in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio. In the last week in April, against the recommendations of science-based authority, some states have begun to gradually open economies, some have opened completely or never had locked down in the first place, all putting the public at higher risk from the virus.

    We can compare the outbreaks in other countries to our own to evaluate the effectiveness of our disaster response. Of the world’s governments, the Republic of South Korea has shown their response to be one of the most effective. In the first months South Korea had the most cases behind China, but by responding quickly and intelligently it was able to keep the incidence of new cases and mortality to a minimum. As of March 23rd,the CFR, or Crude Fatality Rate, of South Korea was below that of China, Italy, Spain, Iran, France, and the United States.3 South Korea’s efforts in stifling the pandemic were not only effective in this manner, but also achieved this with minimal economic impact when compared to others with the same extent of outbreak. The strategies that were effective in achieving these results included early recognition of the threat that they followed up with rapid diagnostic capabilities, immediate contact tracing, quarantine, and isolation measures, and mobilizing resources for case management. The spread was detected, followed by massive scale up of diagnostic capacity, and tests were deployed across the country all before February 5th. By the end of February, contact tracing, emphasis of the use of PPE, quarantine, isolation measures, and resource mobilization had all been effectively achieved. These decisions were made based on the advice from the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ensuring that a science-based authority was in control of the matters. This was a full month before most states in the country implemented their lockdowns. The first two weeks in March saw Korea’s new cases per day declining, plateauing by the first week in April. This is one of the most successful responses from any nation to the disaster that we have seen, in contrast to our own which seems to be among the worst when compared to other high-income countries.

    The Trump administration cut funding for the CDC pandemic unit in the beginning of his term. He may not have listened to their recommendations either way, but heeding the advice of a science-based authority would have saved countless lives as it did in South Korea. The countries around the world that proactively implemented these tracing, testing, and quarantining methods seemed to have control their outbreaks much more effectively. Those countries who lagged behind based on lack of resources, or political opposition to solutions are the regions that are now most affected. The United States is a resource-rich country, but when there are political barriers disrupting these resources from being utilized a high-income country can do worse than less-developed countries at containing Covid-19. The press in the United States can spread disinformation, and with a politically divided population the resulting conflicts can result in a delayed response to many types of situations. Messages from political leaders and personally trusted media sources has had a huge impact on how citizens of different political alignments view the severity of the pandemic. A study out of Stanford University, Polarization and Public Health: Partisan Differences in Social Distancing during the Coronavirus Pandemic2, used surveys, and GPS data from the participants mobile devices to determine if there is a difference in adherence to social distancing requirements between political affiliations. The study determined that there are large partisan gaps in the belief of severity of Covid-19 and adherence to social distancing behaviors. It concludes that its model showed how society ends up with more transmission at higher economic cost than if citizens had the same belief in the severity on the disease, and that the pattern is consistent with messaging from the media and politicians playing a significant role. Re-opening public spaces and reducing social distancing too soon could result in a second wave of infections which would make another round of distancing and lockdown required. States whose populations see the pandemic as less severe are more likely to reopen and reduce social distancing requirements (or never put any into place like South Dakota) and are risking this second wave of infections not only for their states but for the entire country through transmission across open state boarders.

    Parallels can be drawn between the ongoing Covid-19 crisis and events studied in the second half of this course. One common theme among disasters studied is the disproportionate impact they have on different populations. It is often that the groups most affected by disasters are racial minorities and the poor. It has been shown that Covid-19 is having a disproportionate impact on the African American population, who are economically less fortunate and discriminated against (1,981 African American infected cases versus 658 Whites per million)1. When studying the Pruitt-Igoe housing crisis it was obvious that , like Covid-19, it disproportionately affected African Americans and the poor living in slums, who were driven out by the upper class with the promise of brand-new housing that was affordable and convenient. The Bhopal disaster in India disproportionately affected the poor that were living in slums surrounding the chemical plant that accidently released a large amount of very dangerous MIC gas, killing many in the immediate area. The pesticide production plant was built to have a much larger output capacity than there was demand for the product which caused the plant to struggle to make profit. This made The Union Carbide Company cut down on staff and reduce the amount of safety checks and precautionary measures in an attempt to save the profitability of the plant. This in combination with a number of other factors led to the release of toxic gas and deaths of thousands of the poor in surrounding areas. In Alang, India the industry of shipbreaking, disabling and breaking down giant cruise ships and other vessels for scrap, also disproportionately affects the poor. The industry is extremely hazardous, and the workers expose themselves to risks from unsafe conditions such as working in high places, around machinery, and around the ocean in an uncontrolled environment and without safety equipment. These workers would not be taking these risks if not for their unfortunate economic situation and the lack of other work that pays as well.

    Besides disproportionately affecting the poor, the incidents that we studied this semester shared the theme of the lack of regulations or allowing companies to self-regulate. It is never a good thing to let at industry operate without any government regulations or allow them to regulate and safety check themselves. The Union Carbide Company that ran the plant in Bhopal, India was trusted by the Indian government to self-regulate, assuring the government that there was no significant danger from the production of MIC, and that they were taking appropriate precautions. In the shipbreaking industry, the Indian government was initially not regulating the processes, and the company could increase its profitability by skirting common sense safety measures making the workplace unreasonably dangerous to the poor employees that have no other opportunities for work. As India advanced on the global economic stage the Indian government stepped in to regulate the industry. In response to possible regulation and loss of profit. the companies moved their operations to other, poorer countries without regulations so they can continue to profit from such an environment.

    Very recently, the grounding of the fleet of 737 max planes due to crashes upon take-off was in part due to lack of government regulation, and allowance of Boeing to self-regulate. In an attempt to save money, Boeing needed to design the 737 max in a way that it did not have to be recertified by the Federal Aviation Administration. To compete with the AirBus fleet of similarly sized planes, the original 737 had to be redesigned to be more fuel efficient. This increase in fuel efficiency was accomplished by an upgraded engine, that needed to be built onto a different location on the wing. This changed the flight characteristics of the plane, but to avoid recertification the handling characteristics of the plane must remain the same as the older 737 removing requirements to train pilots for a new vehicle. An automated software system was put in place without the knowledge of pilots to make the planes’ handling characteristics as close as possible to the old models. These systems malfunctioned a number of times, causing fatal accidents on take-off. The entire fleet of vehicles have been grounded since March 2019, Boeing halted production in January of this year. The Federal Aviation Administration removing themselves from the regulatory process allowed Boeing to put these software systems in place in order to maximize profits at the expense of safety.

    In contrast to incidents we studied in this course where regulations were not put into place by governments, the current Covid-19 crisis in the United States has been made worse by the federal government’s response not being efficiently regulated by a science based authority (such as the CDC pandemic unit that was cancelled). If plans and regulations were put into place by an organization like the CDC about how to respond effectively to such an event, it could have saved countless lives by improving our response time. If such a thing were in place, our resource rich country would have been able to echo South Korea’s successful response resulting from their trust in the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead of putting profits over safety of employees or customers like the companies did in the disasters studied in the second half of this course, the federal government put partisanship, politics, and misinformation over the safety of their citizens. In my opinion, comparing the US government response to the Pruitt-Igoe situation to China’s reported response to the Covid-19 pandemic is not valid based on available evidence. Chinese government reports are not trustworthy and after expelling foreign journalists from their country the unsubstantiated evidence they put forth cannot be trusted. Until confirming their validity I believe China’s statistics as they relate to transmission and mortality of the virus should be excluded from the pool of world statistics to avoid tainting it.

    In conclusion, the slow response time of the United States to the coronavirus pandemic has cost thousands of lives. The speed and efficiency of the response from South Korea is a shining example of the correct actions that must be taken by a country and its population to minimize impact both on public health and their economy. The disasters studied in the second half of this course have similarities to the ongoing crisis. The disproportionate affect on the poor and minority populations exists in all of these incidents. The lack of industry regulation, and allowance of self-regulation for companies in the incidents we studied echoes the lack of regulation from a science-based authority on our government response to the epidemic. Lack of regulation of dangerous industries, and the lack of regulation on government response to global pandemics has and continues to cost thousands of lives.

    References (Preprint articles used for latest information)

    1. Abedi, V., Olulana, O., Avula, V., Chaudhary, D., Khan, A., Shahjouei, S., Li, J. and Zand, R., 2020. Racial, Economic and Health Inequality and COVID-19 Infection in the United States. medRxiv.

    2. Allcott, H., Boxell, L., Conway, J., Gentzkow, M., Thaler, M. and Yang, D.Y., 2020. Polarization and public health: Partisan differences in social distancing during the Coronavirus pandemic. NBER Working Paper, (w26946).

    3. Juhwan Oh, Jong-Koo Lee, Dan Schwarz, Hannah L. Ratcliffe, Jeffrey F. Markuns & Lisa R. Hirschhorn (2020) National Response to COVID-19 in the Republic of Korea and Lessons Learned for Other Countries, Health Systems & Reform, 6:1, DOI: 10.1080/23288604.2020.1753464


  2. Over the course of the spring, the coronavirus has spread rapidly across the world, leading to closures of schools, public places, restaurants, etc in countries. A large reason for this rapid spread was a slow response from Federal and state governments in screening efforts, allowing infections to spread without notice. In the wake of the virus’s spread, secrecy and misinformation seem to follow. In China, for example, efforts to silence doctors were noticed. Similarly, in America, information surrounding the virus is filtered at best, as critical information about virus transmission was withheld past the point where it would have been most useful. It also seems the apparent driving reason behind this, at least in America, is due to the administration attempting to raise approval ratings by maintaining the fragile economy. We have also seen that many of the issues we face are outcomes that were foreseen by some, but ignored. For example, it was known from the start that minorities and the vulnerable were most at risk, it was known that we would likely face shortages of masks and ventilators, and it was known that infection rates are high enough that urgent action was needed. Nevertheless, all these things were partially addressed at best by the expected authorities. This neglect happened on all levels, from the officials in charge of pandemic response failing to adequately prepare/weigh the importance of some situations, to regular citizens ignoring the clear urgency of the situations unfolding around them.

    Many countries advised or mandated stay at home orders for non-essential people. Places like Germany seem to be doing great at containment, aiming to test their whole population in the coming weeks. In Africa, on the other hand, the lack of supplies is more dire than just ventilators: soap and oxygen are among the supplies lacking. In the US, response has varied from region to region on the administrative level and on a social level. In some states, individuals have resisted the local shutdowns, as we can see from the growing protests claiming travel restrictions are a violation of individual liberties. Others are adapting to the current situation, seeking new employment that doesn’t involve travel for example. In the legal system as well, we’ve seen governors sued for their attempts to handle the situation.

    According to the rules of what constitutes a disaster, this meets all the criteria: destruction on a massive scale of life and property has occurred, social progress has been halted with the need to socially distance. The danger was evident from the start, before the consequences started arriving. Social inequality has been a staple of this disaster. Minorities are still at a higher risk, those who were unhealthy for various reasons are also at a higher risk for reasons other than just biological. In addition, the provisioning of resources is also clearly not in order, as people face food crises in the same country where food is tossed out because of a failing economy and transport infrastructure.

    Media coverage affects and influences real life outcomes since the framing of a disaster is the first step in responding to it. Unfortunately, the media has been pulling public perception in all sorts of directions. As we’ve seen in the recent years, headlines have become even more important, as people become accustomed to intaking smaller and smaller pieces of news at a time. Furthermore, it’s become clear that misinformation is all around us. In addition, the intersection between news media and social media has muddled people’s perception of what is fact and what is opinion. The value of truth has been cast aside by those presenting information, and disregarded by those consuming information. The mixture of facts, misinformation, misguided opinions, clickbait, and genuine news has totally thrown off people’s ability to assess what is useful information. Though the responsibility to consume true information falls largely on the individual, many people do not realize or try hard enough to verify their sources of information. Furthermore, I don’t think people realize from how many sources their worldview is formed from.

    I think a country’s response to the virus depends on many factors such as economic standing, political stability, public education, and social values. Countries with the resources to deal with a pandemic would be expected to fare better, but the effect of the other factors is clearly large, as economically strong and resourceful countries flounder with their responses, like the US and England. On the other hand, in places where there was more homogenous public support for relief efforts, like Germany, things seem to be progressing a little better.

    Thank you Professor Hicks for a wonderful semester. This class was wildly relevant and truly captivating. I’m very happy to have taken it/been your student. Stay safe!

  3. The coronavirus took the world by force, expected to start near the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. This virus, originally deemed as just another outbreak of the common cold quickly became a global concern, with an average mortality rate of around 3-5%. The United States, Italy, China, and Germany seem to have the biggest stories surrounding the effects that COVID-19, the name given to this strain of the coronavirus, has had on their country.

    COVID-19 has had a worldwide impact, shutting down schools and forcing them to go online, making governments implement stay-at-home orders, and changing our everyday lives as we know it. Italy has had one of the highest “reported” mortality rate of any country, the United States has nearly a third of the world’s cases, China seems to be where the virus originated from yet they seem to be fairing a lot better than other countries, and Germany, a country with a largely senior citizen population, has surpassed standards in regards to the mortality rate, as the virus seems to have a greater effect on the elderly, while Germany’s mortality rate is one of the lowest. Countries have been affected by and dealing with the virus in different ways with varying degrees of success, but there appears to be no immediate solution in the near future.

    The United States, behind the presidency of Donald Trump, originally downplayed the virus, making it seem as if there was nothing to worry about. This may have led to how big of a deal the virus currently is in the States, as no one was prepared and people are/were not taking the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus and to limit the amount of cases. The disregard for the magnitude of the virus has caused stay-at-home orders in all, if not most states, forcing non-essential businesses to shut down during this time, and has even forced the government to provide stimulus checks in order to attempt to keep the economy intact.

    While the stay-at-home order seems to be slowing down the spread of the virus, there is no sign as to when our life will return to what it was before the outbreak. An explanation as to how certain ways to help stop the spread of this virus and how it is required for countries to take this virus seriously can be seen with how different countries are dealing with the virus. This disaster has changed everyone’s lives, and while it may be what is necessary, many people are protesting how this is being dealt with. Recently, many states have had protests, and the most outspoken would be the protestors in Michigan, who stormed the Capitol building while armed. While the protesting the stay-at-home order resonates with people throughout the world, people need to not be selfish and look at what will allow us to safely return to our old lives with the least amount of consequences from this event.

    Deciding now whether or not COVID-19 should be considered a disaster is no longer a question, as the fact that it was declared a pandemic and a national emergency negates previous statements made by the government and by government officials that this virus should not be worried about and that everything is under control. COVID-19 will leave its imprint on the world, and our world as we know it today may be forever different due to the outbreak of this virus.

    Comparing this disaster to those discussed throughout the rest of the class, while the solution/fix to this specific disaster is not evident like those we discussed in class, as well as the original larger problem not being able to be pinpointed, this disaster is running a similar course to those that we previously discussed throughout this course. The “denial” that comes with these disasters, like the denial of what happened at Windscale as well as hiding the disaster of the Quebec bridge, can also be seen in the United States with Donald Trump and many other countries not viewing the virus as as big of a threat as it should be portrayed, forcing the necessary precautions to not be taken, or to be taken to late. As always, the media portrays these events how it wants it to be seen, in this case, almost seeming to racially profile this virus. This can be seen with it sometimes being referred to as the Chinese Virus, the virus seeming to effect African Americans and the poor more, and that the idea of wearing masks rises concern over even more racial profiling.

    COVID-19, this specific coronavirus outbreak, will have impacts on the world well after this current outbreak has happened, leaving the economy in shambles unless appropriate measures are taken, forcing people to change their lifestyles, and hopefully making the world more prepared if a similar event were to happen in the future. With the wide variety of responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, we can see the preparedness of countries when it comes to a pandemic and global emergency, and how important it is to not take lightly to these events that could possibly lead to disasters, like this certain outbreak has. Whether this means more funds for the WHO and the CDC, or whether this will become something we need to do every few years if the coronavirus is to act similarly to the flu, COVID-19 has taken the world over and made everyone change their lives and make sacrifices until this disaster is under control.


  4. COVID-19 And Information Control During A Pandemic

    The coronavirus outbreak that began in 2019 is proving to have a lasting impact on how the public approaches disasters. Despite the World Health Organization public announcements and recommendations of tactics, different countries utilized different tactics to inhibit the spread of the disease, with varying results. While some countries implemented policies that managed to curtail the spread, the countries who’ve experienced the worst death rates and total infections had failed to adapt in time. The success or failure of a country to successfully combat the spread of the coronavirus was largely determined by how that country both acted on information and shared that information with the public.

    As the country where the coronavirus started, China’s government has received heavy criticism as to how and why they weren’t able to quarantine the disease before it spread. Near the end of December, researchers had stated that they were treating an outbreak of pneumonia from unknown sources. On December 30th, 2019, in the social media app WeChat, an ophthalmologist named Li Wenliang warned his fellow medical school classmates about a particular outbreak of SARS that he felt was connected to the outbreak of pneumonia. A few days later on January 3rd, he was contacted by the Public Security Bureau, and was coerced into signing a renouncement of his statement, being criticized for spreading “untrue statements on the internet”. Li Wenliang later caught the coronavirus from a patient and died. It wasn’t until January 20th, six days after Chinese officials privately determined that the coronavirus had reached epidemic proportions (Associated Press) that President Xi Jinping issued a public statement warning of treatment. On January 30th, the WHO declared a public health emergency, reversing a previous decision to hold off on issuing it. During this statement, Xi joked about the coronavirus after coughing and having to drink water. Even then it was too late: on February 2nd, the first coronavirus death outside of China happened, and the global spread continued from there. Just one day later, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus claimed that there should be no reason to implement measures that would “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”, a claim that lied contrary to both China’s own assessment of the disease and decisions to discourage travel to China by the US State Department (Reuters). All of these in combination created a climate where citizens of both China and other nations were largely misinformed as to the severity of the outbreak. While China had doctors researching the epidemic early, China’s government failed to issue a public warning early, punished those who tried to do the contrary, and acted far too late in implementing any sort of policy. Much of the initial failings were due to an incessant need to control the public image in the face of the outbreak. Comparisons can be made how Boeing handled the production of the 737 Max airplane. In that case, employees were aware of the problems in the design of the Max, but either didn’t take the damage seriously, or when attempted to point out design flaws were ignored. China is well-known for their strict social control and censorship, and their decision to target individual critics shows a commitment towards ulterior motives rather than pursuing openness. Researchers in China were making progress on tracking the coronavirus, but that research wasn’t able to be utilized in time. This could be due to mismanagement of time and a desire to show competency without the assistance of external governments.

    China has taken steps to control the outbreak within the country, but it has also caused controversy from other nations. Due to the already existing infrastructure that has a role in tracking movement and activity, China was able to implement much stricter efforts. The app WeChat contains software that allows for movement tracking, as well as creating a stoplight-based mechanism that determines ability to use train stations and travel between checkpoints. This coupled with “aggressive social distancing” and a strict, mandatory quarantine for citizens in the Hubei province put together what Sciencemag writers Kai Kupferschmidt and Jon Cohen described as “Ambitious, agile, and aggressive” (Kupferschmidt and Cohen). These actions, while extreme, might be seen by some as strict, but effective measures to combat the disease, and the numbers seem to bear that out. In a span of two weeks, starting on February tenth, the number of new cases dropped from 2478 to 206. However, these numbers are untrustworthy. In 2003, the Chinese government admitted to underestimating cases of SARS in Beijing while quietly implementing policies that further enacted social control. In this most recent outbreak, China has been suspected of removing academic publications around the coronavirus, adopting a policy to subject papers to “extra vetting before they are submitted for publication” (Kirchgaessner et al). The papers removed have discussed the origins of the covid-19 outbreak, suggesting a wish by the government to control the narrative surrounding the topic. This could be seen as similar to how Dow Chemical attempted to create a narrative surrounding internal sabotage, while simultaneously monitoring journalists and activists who protested the working conditions in Bhopal. Many disasters are linked by internal struggle of narratives contrasted with a tightly controlled external narrative, and China’s actions on controlling the coronavirus spread could be seen in a similar way.

    Similar to China’s usage of informational control, the United States has also failed to create a truthful narrative surrounding the coronavirus, which prompted slow action and chaos amongst its citizens. Donald Trump has repeatedly made false claims in his public announcements addressing the claims. On February 10th, at a campaign rally, Trump claimed that the coronavirus spread is linked to the weather. While there was some early research by Chinese scientists that encouraged further research in the area, an April study released in the European Respiratory Journal found no such correlation. (Yao et. al.) Trump later promoted drugs like Hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin as “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine” which also had some unproven scientific backing before being dismissed. Trump also minimized the outbreak in a matter that didn’t keep up with the WHO’s and other nation’s growing levels of concern. Two days after the WHO recommended that countries start treating coronavirus as a global threat, Trump said in an interview that “We only have basically 12 cases, and most of those people are recovering and some cases fully recovered.” . Once coronavirus cases exploded in the United States, largely due to a lack of consensus as to scale or appropriate response level, Trump told reporters “This is a pandemic… I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic (NPR 2020). Around the same time, Trump began to refer to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”: rhetoric which was picked up by many Americans. The president’s failures to push for substantial change while minimizing the actual scale created a climate of confusion amongst the population as for how seriously to take the outbreak, and his eventual attempt to frame the coronavirus as a sort of foreign agent further abetted the marginalization of Asian Americans. One could view his response as similar to how Missouri responded to the Pruitt Igoe building: initial attempts to minimize the impact of the disaster, before trying to shift blame onto a third party when their official efforts weren’t successful.

    One president’s failure to take action does not fully describe how the US failed to tackle the coronavirus effectively. The issue is that the United States failure to address the spread of misinformation across the public has led to an unorganized response nonsensically split across partisan lines. In a commentary published in the BMC Medicine Journal, authors Areeb Mian and Shujhat Khan describe certain myths spread around the coronavirus that may lead to greater spread, like false miracle remedies and conspiracies about biological warfare by China. These myths generate far more engagements than posts from the WHO or the US Center of Disease Control, and create a climate of fear and panic (Mian and Khan). Their predictions bear out, as hate crimes committed on Asian Americans have risen dramatically since March, rising simultaneously to the rate of deaths from the virus (Campbell and Ellerbeck). Suspicions that the coronavirus had been exaggerated has also seized on the American public amid a growing desire to return to work. Public demonstrations without proper protective equipment have a risk of further spreading coronavirus cases. All of these point to a growing fear and restlessness in response to the stay-at-home order, and show a public that isn’t wholly committed to fixing the virus by quarantining. Part of this could be due to what’s described as American individualism, where things like illnesses and shortcomings are viewed as personal failures to stay safe, and the belief that those who catch the disease were irresponsible. A lot of media coverage of coronavirus protests was displaying protest signs that pushed for the reopening of nonessential businesses, with phrases like “I need a haircut!”, “Let my people go-lf”, and “Give me liberty or give me death” (Rahman). Critics saw these signs as ignorant and selfish in the face of an epidemic, but these signs also point to a sort of oxymoronic unification around the spirit of individualism. If we read America’s failure to respond as being in part due to the lack of strict quarantine enforcement, these protests can be viewed as damning.

    In contrast to America and China, there have been countries that have used clear messaging and a united front against the epidemic, and have been greatly successful in reducing exposure as a result. South Korea’s early action in engineering a test and widely distributing it allowed for coronavirus cases to be quickly found and tested. Using a similar surveillance interface to China, they tracked the spread of cases and made instances publically available so those who were infected could know quickly. (Beaubien) As a result, there has been no need to enforce social distancing policies through quarantines. In Singapore, the same qualities could be found: rapid response through development of detection kits and cooperation between the Ministry of Health and the Singapore police force to track and make public cases and occurrences. These two countries had enough experience with the SARS outbreak to know that early action pays off and had infrastructure that allowed them to take that early action. Other places that had no experience with the disease still managed to adopt beneficial policies. While Germany has had a high infection rate, their fatality rate has remained extremely small. This was also because they had a set-up that managed to inhibit the disease: early testing, many hospitals, and what New York Times writer Katrin Bennhold describes as “a trusted government whose social distancing guidelines are widely observed” (Bennhold). Governmental trust also proves to be an important factor in responding to a pandemic, and lack of faith in public figures can lead to things like the United States’ careless protestors or China’s iron grip on information dissemination.

    The failures of America and China to adapt to the coronavirus speaks to two different extremes on how information is handled. In China’s case, lack of widespread knowledge coupled with a failure to act in time leads to a public that can’t take precautions until it’s too late. In the United States, false cures and causes can lead to a climate in which fear, bigotry, and selfishness triumph. Both of these things are disasters of equal proportion, and speak to how in many disasters the lack of truthful public knowledge means that the public can’t react accordingly to a developing situation, which may lead to catastrophic losses of life. The countries that were best able to deal with the coronavirus took early action and maintained clear communication with the public over what their plans to counter the virus’s spread were, and what the public should or shouldn’t avoid. In preparation for further pandemics, both the United States and China need to approach the disaster in a manner that enables the public to do their best with the information presented.


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