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Op Eds

COVID-19’s Success is Our Collective Failure

By Swati Sharma
Swati Sharma is a Mason Fellow in the 2020 cohort of the Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration Program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“Swati, take care of yourself. You are in the United States these days. I wish you were here right now.”

Did I hear that correctly? That was my younger sister Divya calling from India. Back home, the entire country has been under complete lockdown since March 25. Her warning got me thinking: Am I in the wrong place at the wrong time? To be in the U.S. now is worrisome for my people in India.

Where is the might of the United States, considered a global leader on many fronts? What does this bitter COVID-19 pill tell us about our combined failure to respond in a timely fashion to so many warning signs? Why did we ignore the worst-case scenario?

I tried responding to Divya saying, “I am fine. We are home, following social distancing norms. Schools are closed so even kids are at home. We all exercise daily and take care of our diets.” But, she was not satisfied, worried about me and my two children. She spoke. I listened. She submerged me under a barrage of facts and figures on the number of confirmed cases, number of deaths, preventive steps to be taken. She rattled off the missteps of the U.S. government in not making decisions fast enough and now talking about re-opening the economy too soon. She shared data not only concerning the U.S. but almost every country in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was looking at the “worldometer” data while talking to me.

I did not contradict or argue with her. I was silent. She meant well for me and my family. We hung up but only after I assured her many times that “even” though I was in the U.S., I would take care and be mindful of the medical and advisory guidelines.

She left me wondering and in deep reflection as she always does. Her fear and worry about my presence in the U.S. and not in India gave me much food for thought.

As is my wont, I don’t compare countries’ statistics on COVID-19, and so I restrain myself here. I believe that comparisons don’t help — only causing anxiety and panic. I am certain that each nation has to be well for everyone else to be well.

Deaths anywhere are never happy news.

Divya’s phone call forced me to take a fresh perspective on our long-held beliefs about the “successful” nations and their global status. Our definitions of developed and developing countries are being challenged. Everyone is wide-eyed with surprise at the growing number of confirmed COVID cases in the U.S.

Is this microscopic pathogen teaching us a tough but honest lesson?

I believe we all made COVID-19 successful because as nations, we were overconfident in our individual strengths and capabilities; we put our governments in ruthless competition, and focused more on comparative advantages and progress but less on global cooperation and coordination. How could we fail to recognize that what began in China would cross all man-made boundaries irrespective of our regional affiliations? How could we forget that we are chained together in this globalized world? Any weak link hurts the full chain.

What governments worldwide could not do for so long, COVID-19 did. It very effectively brought the critical agenda of global solidarity to the forefront: the strengthening of worldwide health infrastructure, the global sharing of resources, the combining of medical expertise and data, and the principle of collaboration rather than competition. It highlighted how nations’ bulging defense budgets could not be utilized to protect people from the deadly coronavirus. It showed how we, the proud adults, failed our children.

COVID-19 has changed the world forever. It has written new pages in world history. There will not be any mention of the sufferings of the vulnerable and the poor without a full chapter on leadership failure. Trade rivalry between the two economic powerhouses that captured headlines not long ago is of little consequence when the doors of these nations are closed and their economies are breathing heavily. Leadership will not be understood the way we saw it earlier. Technological and economic prowess could not stand strong before a minuscule virus that revealed our vulnerabilities cruelly and ruthlessly.

It is high time we pause to correct course and join hands in fighting this global menace by leading from the front. We need to rethink the public health measures and prepare ourselves for a long haul by being resilient. It is time we show to our children that true leaders respond and act in unison when tough times call. This unique crisis needs unity of purpose.

Mahatma Gandhi’s emphasis on collective action and a shared common destiny has never been truer than it is today.

The hard fact remains. COVID-19’s success is a testament to our collective failure.

Swati Sharma is a Mason Fellow in the 2020 cohort of the Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration Program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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