There are three waves to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The first wave is a public health crisis — a nasty, novel virus infecting a highly mobile global population with presumed zero immunity. This is at once a close-up and wide-angle tragedy. We all worry about ourselves, about a family member, and soon most of us will know someone who has died from this disease. Panning out, the total numbers are staggering — the United States will soon exceed combat casualties in any war in the country’s history.
The death and sickness toll alone would be all-consuming if it weren’t for the second wave: There is an economic tsunami already crashing down on millions of people, and it will swamp everyone. If the first wave is personal, the second is national, in the sense that we all have to figure out how to protect ourselves from the coronavirus, but governments have to save nation-states from the economic contagion.
The looming new problem is the third wave: the rising spiral of infections in the countries that haven’t made the scary charts and the nightly news yet. There are 4 billion people across South Asia, the Middle East, South America, Central America, and the African continent, and the health and economic crises are going to be worse there than they are in Northeast Asia, Europe, and the United States.
Across that broad swath of territory, there are too many countries that exist on the fine line of disaster, and COVID-19 may well push them over the edge. Some are embroiled in or recovering from conflict, such as Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. They have shaky governments at best, people barely getting by or under daily threat, little to no health care infrastructure, and large, crowded camps of displaced people inside and outside their borders.
Other countries have commodity economies — disproportionately dependent on oil or another natural resource sold in the global market — that are weakened by corruption and especially vulnerable to economic downturns. That includes Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, with a violent extremist movement coursing through its northern territories, and Venezuela, already teetering on the edge of collapse before COVID-19 hit. Mexico also falls in this commodity camp, with the distinction of pandemic denial, which is sure to raise their infection rates, and one of the world’s largest megacities (urban nuclei of more than 10 million people).
There are divided societies barely holding together at the national level, dogged by corruption, violence, and crime, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Pakistan, as a nuclear weapons state in pandemic denial, deserves special mention in that category.
Then there are places such as Ethiopia, struggling against the odds to move in the right direction toward stability but riddled with underlying frictions, a huge population, inadequate sanitation, and shortfalls in medical care. India may not be in denial with its total lockdown, but its enormous population of 1.3 billion and the world’s most densely populated cities, along with an inadequate health care system, do not augur well for the putative superpower.
All of these countries are not only positioned for tremendous human suffering, but also for state failure — this is not hypothetical, it is already starting to happen.
Individuals and nations that would ordinarily give aid to help these countries in a disaster situation are understandably focused on their own COVID-19 struggles. Geopolitical distancing will only deepen the suffering in these vulnerable places, but it will also come back to bite everyone else. The oldest human adaptation strategy in the face of danger and privation is to move. Think about how destabilizing it has been to have 60 million global refugees, and imagine orders of magnitude more, restlessly searching for better health care and paying jobs on every continent. Moreover, all of this social isolation, the grinding halt of the global economy in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of the disease, will be for naught. Because many of these places will be unable to vanquish the virus alone — and it will just keep coming back.
Ultimately, there may also be an opportunity to go beyond self-interest in helping other countries through the pandemic. For the United States, this could be another moment — just like the squandered aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — when there is an opportunity to make common cause with adversaries and allies alike to defeat a common threat to our people and prosperity. This includes a chance to avert a new and ruinous great-power conflict and instead try to build mutual confidence. While the Trump administration has used the moment to ratchet up the pressure on Venezuela and Iran, and is reportedly considering military strikes on the latter, it’s not too late to change direction. America could restore the country’s position as a trade partner and geopolitical leader of choice to help unify the world around the global challenge of our time, leaving us all better able to address other metastasizing common challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity collapse.
Basically, we can either find a way to ride this catastrophic wave to a brighter future, or all drown together.
Sharon E. Burke is the director of the Resource Security Program at New America. She was previously an assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration.
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