The late U.S. House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill often said that all politics is local — and that’s true.
Regardless of the issue, it always comes down to how things play out where people live their lives. In that spirit, it’s true that impact from a deadly disease spreading mostly overseas can be local, as well. That sounds like a stretch of the imagination regarding the COVID-19, or coronavirus, since most of the cases have been clustered far away in China. But, “far away” is not the type of world we live in anymore.
As I write this, the number of deaths from this coronavirus has climbed above 1,300, beating out the 2002 SARS coronavirus, and the number of people infected worldwide is in the neighborhood of 60,000. As I understand it, coronaviruses include those that cause many routine respiratory illnesses, as well as the common cold. What is different about COVID-19 is that it has mutated and become something we have not encountered before.
Fortunately, for Americans not living abroad, the vast majority of the cases remain in China. Unfortunately, we also live in a world where people travel around the globe in a matter of hours, and their infections travel with them. Also, because it could be days before COVID-19 symptoms show up, people might not know they’re sick when they get on a plane. Of course, one obvious response to all of this is to restrict travel, lock down borders and quarantine anyone who is suspected of having the virus. And so we shall.
But I’m not so sure that’s the only way to protect ourselves. The effects of this outbreak are not just health-related, but economy-and job related. We live in a “just-in-time” economy, which means many manufacturers and distributors order just what they need or can sell in the short term — thus conserving cash and warehouse space. Gone are the days when companies have months of inventory on hand. Given that U.S. firms and consumers purchase an extraordinary amount of goods from China, what happens there could have a huge impact here if this outbreak continues at its current pace much longer.
Whether it’s auto parts, medical equipment or one of a thousand other things, a factory shutdown in cities with names we can’t pronounce can impact our lives in very profound ways. As much as we might like to think of the rest of the world and its problems as far enough away that we don’t have to care what happens to “those people,” our own well-being doesn’t provide that luxury anymore. This matters because it dictates how our own elected leaders will respond, and how they’ll engage with other nations.
One option is to close our eyes, seal our borders, limit travel and hope that we’ve done enough to prevent infected people from circulating among us — while also hoping we have enough critical supplies to ride out the storm. The other option is to fund and invest in epidemiology and preparedness both here and around the globe, so that small outbreaks don’t become major pandemics, no matter where they originate.
A few years ago, the nation was headed in the right direction with a global health security director who was part of the National Security Council, a sort of “czar” able to coordinate a government-wide response over multiple agencies. As important as the czar was, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plays the most critical role in keeping epidemics and pandemics from reaching our shores by working proactively on the front line in nearly 40 countries, on everything from surveillance to detecting drug-resistant bacteria.
Unfortunately, this position is no longer attached to the NSC due to a reorganization by the current administration. Also, federal budget cuts in such key areas as emerging and zoonotic diseases, and preparedness and response leave us more vulnerable than we might otherwise be right now.
Funding cuts aside, let’s hope the experts get a handle on this thing soon because, if they don’t, local impacts will include sick people in our midst, shortages of critical parts and supplies that squeeze employers and jobs, and a widening overall mess in our “just-in-time” economy.
Albert B. Kelly is mayor of Bridgeton. Contact him by phone at 856-455-3230 Ext. 200.
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