Washington Wednesday – Tracking the COVID-19 response

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 13th of May, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up: Washington Wednesday.

The world is nearly six months into its battle with the new coronavirus. Millions of people have been infected. More than a quarter million have died.

Shutdowns and stay-at-home orders designed to stop the virus from spreading have upended the global economy. They have also sparked protests and created a level of financial uncertainty we haven’t seen since the end of World War II.

EICHER: Obviously this is a super-complex, world-wide story, but we’re going to try to bring some context for you today. 

To do that we turn to WORLD senior editor Mindy Belz, using her iPhone now to capture the conversation. Mindy, good morning!

MINDY BELZ, GUEST: Good morning, Nick.

EICHER: The latest issue of WORLD Magazine features a timeline of COVID-19, which you and a small team put together. Let’s start with why you wanted to create the timeline and what you tracked in it.

BELZ: I think at this point where we are months into a global crisis, it seemed important to all of us to look back in order to look forward. It’s just a way of taking stock, a way of checking on ourselves about what happened when. And a few of the things that stood out right away in preparing this, first of all, what we’ve suffered as a world. Just being able to go back and look at the tremendous, you know, everyone talks about the exponential curve, but that jump that every country around the world has taken in terms of the number of cases and the number of deaths, just to absorb that in that way, so important. 

But second, I think one of the things that comes through so clearly is what the delays on the part of China and the World Health Organization early on cost us. If you just look at a couple of the dates early on, the World Health Organization dates the first recorded case of the coronavirus to December 8th. We now know that it probably was sometime in November. And we didn’t have the full DNA sequencing of COVID-19 until mid-January. And contrast that to France, where they had their first three confirmed cases January 25th and five days later they had the full sequencing published to be sure that they were dealing with the same thing. 

So, we see that if this had started in Europe, if it had started other places that were not trying to control and contain the flow of information, we would be looking at a very different story in the world right now. 

EICHER: Obviously you have a ton of experience covering international organizations and the American relationship with those organizations. So, let me ask you this, from your perspective on the U.S. decision to block funding for the WHO, how did China come to have so much influence there? And is cutting funding the right thing to do, in your judgement?

BELZ: It’s complicated and I think I would give the Trump administration two-thumbs down and one-thumbs up for this decision. I mean, let’s be clear that what the United States did was suspend funding for certain programs for 60-days. Not clear if we’re going to get the investigation that President Trump has called for. I think that would be very helpful. 

My two-thumbs down are simply the timing in the midst of a world pandemic, and the effect that it will have on poor countries. I don’t think in the United States we fully appreciate if you are in Syria, if you are in a poor African nation that does not have a well-formed system of hospitals and medical institutions as we have in the West, you are much more dependent on something like the World Health Organization. Syria is completely dependent on the World Health Organization right now for its supply of testing kits and lab structures. And so this is a dramatic hurt to the places that need it most. 

My one-thumb up would be that it got the World Health Organization and the UN’s attention. And the World Health Organization does need reform, but it also does need our engagement.

EICHER: Mindy, let’s talk about the cover story you wrote in the latest issue of WORLD Magazine talking about the plight of refugees in overcrowded camps around the world. Now, obviously the watch word has been “social distancing,” and you don’t get that in overcrowded refugee camps. Tell us about the threat that they face and the efforts of aid groups to try to help them.

BELZ: Yeah, it’s impossible. And what we learned as we began to talk to a number of different aid groups working in some of these camps, numbers are helpful here, I think. If we think about the Diamond Princess—the cruise ship where 712 passengers tested positive for COVID-19 and nine died—it had a population density of 24 people per 1,000 square meters. The camps that we looked at in Bangladesh, 40 people per 1,000 square meters. One of the camps in Greece, the Moria camp that’s been getting a lot of attention where more refugees than it was ever designed to hold are housed there has 204 people per 1,000 square meters. This is just a simple fact of what public health officials and aid workers are dealing with when they try to figure out how to prepare these places for an outbreak.

EICHER: Mindy, one more thing before I let you go, you noted in your most recent column similarities between the world’s post-COVID-19 recovery and what we faced after World War II—the Marshall Plan was the American response to a global need there. And you suggest it as a model going forward for now. 

BELZ: I do and I think for a couple of reasons. I mean, in the midst of all of this and all of the ups and downs that we see with the battle against this coronavirus every day, the American spirit at its best is so much needed in the world right now. And by that I mean the can-do spirit that has so many places doing clinical trials of drugs and vaccines and things right now. You don’t see that anywhere else in the world. And it also is a spirit that says that we are better than just standing by and watching millions die and watching our economies, the things that we’ve all built with our working lives disappear. 

But for the reasons that we’ve already highlighted, I believe our U.S. response needs to be about more than just we Americans. It needs to be about vaccines and rapid testing that will help the world get on its feet, help our churches return to serving the unreached and the underprivileged. And I think that average Americans and our leaders in public health and politics would kind of find it a welcome relief to focus on others. That was kind of the essence of the Marshall Plan that, as you recall, helped to rebuild Europe after World War II. 

But now with the benefit of hindsight, we can look back and say that rebuilding Europe helped to also kickstart the United States, make it one of the leaders in the world that it is today. I think that we can do that again and I think that we aren’t doing as much as we can right now, but I want to be hopeful that we will begin to embrace that vision.

EICHER: Mindy Belz is WORLD’s senior editor. She is chief international correspondent. You can read her latest work in the current issue of WORLD Magazine, available online at WNG.org. Thanks for joining us today, Mindy.

BELZ: Thank you, Nick.

(Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images) A Nicaraguan boy and his father wait to enter the U.S. port of entry in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to change their asylum court dates. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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