MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 18th of March, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.
BASHAM: The outbreak of COVID-19 that started in Wuhan, China, has now spread almost completely around the world.
And more cases of the disease are now being reported outside China than inside, meaning the epicenter has shifted.
Europe is on the frontlines of this health crisis, and the United States is not far behind.
EICHER: Joining us now to talk about it is WORLD senior editor Mindy Belz. Good morning, Mindy.
MINDY BELZ, REPORTER: Good morning, Nick.
EICHER: Let’s start with Europe because those countries seem to be just a few steps ahead of us in terms of COVID-19’s spread. What’s the situation like in Europe and what are you hearing from sources on the ground there?
BELZ: I think that Europe might be maybe a week to 10 days ahead of us, so there’s a lot we can learn by seeing what’s happening there. And then I spoke to Gaetano Sottile, he’s the president of Italy for Christ and has been at the center of many crises—earthquake recovery and that sort of thing—for more than three decades. He described this one as “a fireball.” You have a country on lockdown with medical shortages—I’m talking severe medical shortages. He described for me doctors working 48-hour shifts in Italy to care for more than 31,000 cases.
EICHER: You did not misspeak there. You said 48-hour shifts. Two days.
BELZ: Exactly. That’s what he said. Round the clock. He described for me the situation with ventilators and other equipment. The kinds of things that we’re just starting to hear about in the United States as potential problems are real problems in Italy right now.
EICHER: OK, talking about Italy, why has the coronavirus hit so hard there? Why in particular Italy?
BELZ: I think this is instructive, too. There was a pharmaceutical executive who traveled from visiting a factory in China to Frankfurt and then went on to Milan and apparently infected a man who subsequently traveled to Spain, the United Kingdom, and to France. This is how we have Covid-19 in Europe and it came from these two people from Europe who had gone back and forth to this factory in China. So, it’s easy to see how we get these ballooning, alarming rates of cases and death rates. Italy now has more than 2,500 people who have died from this. That’s a very high death rate. And Italians for 10 days now been under somewhat of a lockdown and I think this is instructive. They have gone to authorities there are fining people if they are caught out in the streets, if they are caught violating the quarantine, and not only are they fined between $250 and $1,000, but this is something that goes on their permanent criminal record. And I was told by several people that’s really keeping people off the streets. So we had this very surreal picture of an empty St. Peter’s Square, an empty Colosseum, Rome—a city we’re used to seeing teaming with people and tourists and things like that—absolutely deserted and we had the pope this week take a walk through the streets of Rome utterly alone.
EICHER: I was reading your email newsletter Globe Trot and noticed a Spanish official you quoted in one of your stories saying that in his view his country had “sinned through too much confidence” in the country’s ability to handle this pandemic. And you went on to point out, Spain isn’t the only sinner. What’s behind that attitude?
BELZ: He highlighted something that I think is important for all of us to consider. There’s this general assumption in the West that China and other areas first experiencing the outbreak were backward or somehow had inferior medical care or because it is a very oppressive government they weren’t taking proper steps to combat it. And actually it’s not true that Asia has inferior medical care. China, Japan, Korea, some of those early countries were able to mobilize, actually, pretty quickly. And in many ways they have newer infrastructure and better hospitals than many parts of Europe and even the United States. And, also, there’s this attitude that it can’t touch us. We, in America, have this attitude that we simply don’t get sick the way the rest of the world does. And so we’ve been a little slow. And slowness with the Covid-19 pandemic can be deadly.
EICHER: What are you hearing from your sources in the Middle East? Iran was hit hard. What about places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen? Are their fragile healthcare systems prepared in any way for this?
BELZ: Not only are their healthcare systems fragile or, in some areas, non-existent due to war. But there are 12 million refugees across this region that you’re describing. Iraq quickly closed its doors to Iran when the outbreak began there. It closed schools, it took some really harsh measures, but it still has a growing outbreak. And countries in the Middle East are averaging in the hundreds of cases each. Syria is a particular problem. Syria is reporting zero cases and it just defies logic that that could be the case. I’m seeing estimates that there may be at least 2,000 cases in Syria. And what we really worry about there is you have a completely displaced population. Half of the Syrian population is not able to live in their own homes. They’re not able to do even the most basic things that we’re telling each other to do—handwashing in a tent camp that doesn’t have actual running water. Or access to medicine or reporting symptoms to a doctor. These things aren’t possible in these kinds of situations. So, aid groups and medical workers are very concerned that this virus could just get a hold there and then we see it once again spread out to other areas as a result. I also want to mention a unique problem in Israel. Israel actually this week has had a spike in cases—more than 300 cases currently. Primarily due to its Orthodox Jewish community. They have refused to close schools or they have refused to obey limits on crowd sizes unless they are specifically given by an Orthodox rabbi under some very kind of strict religious protocols there—and as a result the government in Israel is nearing a situation where they’re going to impose a total shutdown.
EICHER: Let’s turn now to the U.S. response. Of course the Trump administration has faced a lot of criticism from Democrats and the mainstream media. Is that fair?
BELZ: I guess the better question I would ask at this point is should we care? Yes, we’ve seen some slow responses. Yes, we’ve seen the president communicate things that weren’t actually what the government was trying to order. And a lot of confusion that way. But here we are, if we look at what’s happening in Italy. If we look at what’s happening in other places, I think we should listen to them describing this as a fireball, describing this in terms of combat, of war. And we should be somewhat on war footing. A couple of Italians I’ve talked to say you don’t understand. We have more parties in Italy and they hate each other more than Democrats and Republicans do, yet we’ve stopped the blame game because we have to turn our darkest hour into our finest hour. That’s what I’m hearing. And I think that we should take encouragement from that and do likewise. Another great story that I’m just hearing about is one of the Italian senators—Lucio Malan—who stepped in, intervened with the Ministry of Health to allow Samaritan’s Purse U.S. aid group bring in a mobile hospital. It was just on its way over there this week. It will provide 60 additional beds in the Milan area which is incredibly stressed medically right now. But they had to cut through even more red tape, cross even more political bureaucratic boundaries to get 60 American doctors and nurses in to assist setting up that hospital. This happened in about three days time and it shows you the kind of thing—and keep in mind we’re talking all these party hurdles, we’re talking protestants and Catholics who are often at each other’s throat. We’re talking evangelicals involved in this equation that are not looked upon favorably in political circles sometimes. But they all came together so that they could make a hospital possible. I think that’s what we ought to be doing right now.
EICHER: Mindy Belz is WORLD’s senior editor and chief international reporter. Thanks so much for joining us today.
BELZ: Thank you, Nick.