The Western World Failed to Prepare for COVID-19 — Now What?

Red flags pointed to a pandemic long before anyone took action

With the COVID-19 spreading in the United States and Europe, leaping like an Olympic medalist from unwitting carrier to unwitting carrier, we in the Western world seem to have been caught with our pants down and the lights on.

Collectively, it dawned on us in March that we were woefully unprepared on a world stage. Both the EU and the US are frantic, and remain several steps behind in response. Health systems are on the brink of capsizing like a naval vessel astray and the economy continues to spin awry like a lopsided dreidel.

The virus has nearly finished dismembering the Eastern world — China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have all seemed to level out after the chaos of months prior — and throughout it all, everyday masses of Westerners have ignored it, possibly out of ignorance, hubris, or both.

I imagine the line of thinking was as follows (my words but not my sentiment):

“Of course a ‘Chinese’ virus would not move Americans indoors and crash the economy, nor would it rattle Europe into closing borders within the EU in an unprecedented flurry of shutdowns and quarantines — this is a plague for Asia to deal with…The Western world is far too developed, too competent, and too medically advanced to be compromised by a virus of the East.”

(At least this is how I imagined the typical assumption ran through words unspoken, whether or not it was never verbalized publicly).

In January, my family in California sent boxes of face masks to our relatives in Hong Kong, as those overseas were experiencing a shortage of masks, among other sanitation and health goods. I went to grocery stores, hardware stores, and pharmacies to accrue as many useful items as I could to assist my family, who were stuck near the epicenter of the virus.

(I am aware of the conflicting opinions surrounding protective masks regarding their effectiveness. A great deal of their impact is psychological, for it makes the wearer feel they are, at the very least, trying to fight in the right direction).

From January up until late March, my American friends did not understand our sending of the masks; they thought it superfluous, radical, overly cautious, and loosely comical. It irked me, for they knew not the reaction of my relatives on the receiving end in Hong Kong: “You are literally saving our lives.”

Only once April arrived has the World Health Organization reversed their prognosis on face masks — while China and Hong Kong and surrounding countries in Southeast Asia have worn masks since the inception of the outbreak. Before this, they refused to admit that masks were beneficial to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The sirens across Asia have blared loudly since December. China’s attempts at stifling both the virus and the documentation of its severity failed, and it spread to greater Asia promptly.

Yet the West did not react.

The protestors in Hong Kong — who had been organizing anti-extradition political gatherings week after week for the better part of seven months — stopped organizing, and the whole city shut down once COVID-19 hit the city. Work from home became the new normal and the busiest streets in the world fell silent.

And still, the West did not react.

In Asia, schools closed and businesses suffered and the economy fell backwards as if pushed by an invisible bully. In both China and Hong Kong people have remained indoors for nearly three months, and are only just recently beginning to trickle out in small numbers.

And nevertheless: the West did not react.

In December 2019, the late Dr. Li Wenliang in Wuhan, China, who treated patients with Coronavirus, had tried to publicize the outbreak of the Coronavirus but was silenced by the Chinese government for “spreading rumors.”

China had tried to cover the outbreak in blankets of warm, coddling propaganda, characteristic to what they put forth when truths need covering up.

Dr. Li Wenliang was later found deceased, presumably as a result of contracting COVID-19.

Of course, it is public information now that China had missed the mark here (even China has admitted as much); yet at the time, the inaction of the Western world reflected a belief in China’s propaganda — that the doctor in fact was spreading rumors and there was nothing substantial to worry about.

Ask any Westerner today — now in the middle of April 2020 — and they will say the opposite. Nevertheless, examine the actions of any Westerner at the time, and their actions will in fact corroborate the belief that the incident was nothing so much as a foreign news blip.

Videos of citizens in China, Hong Kong, and South Korea panicking and buying large quantities of toilet paper, masks, and hand sanitizer were ridiculed in January and February. And here we are today with countless denizens across Europe and the US hoarding items as if building their own toilet paper fortresses and bathing in hand sanitizer.

Only these past couple months have Americans been reacting to the outbreak as if it has not been at large since last December.

The Western hemisphere — namely America and Europe — had every opportunity to prepare in advanced for the spread of COVID-19.

Signs and patterns were manifest nearly four months ago; and here we are today, scrambling to fight a war against an invisible enemy which we are neither prepared for nor equipped against in infrastructure or scope.

Time will tell how effective the Western worlds’ response has been. History has a way of telling us, in retrospect and in grandiose fashion, who prepared and who was negligent.

Across the globe, things will improve over time undoubtedly. They always do. But things may not have landed so low nor hit so hard in the first place if the West had first paid more attention to the East. There will be consequences to pay for this flagrant oversight.

To sum up with a generalization: Westerners were too caught up in their own happenings and societies to notice how the other side of the world was struggling in the straits of an emergent pandemic.

Moving forward following this global outbreak and monumental blunder, we can heed this as a warning: pay attention. Take stock of things outside your own world.

Beware the hubris that is all too common to the Western upbringing, and remember to look around. We are each the center of our own personal universes, but not the universe.

Phil is a freelance writer and editor. If you want to see more of his ideas, you can visit his website or Instagram.

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Bestselling travel writer. Columnist. Author. USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

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