By Dylan Walsh
Roughly one-third of the global population is stuck at home these days—waiting for the pandemic to subside, eyeing possibilities for the slow renewal of their routines and their local economies, and asking what comes next.
The question of the next steps in combatting COVID-19 was the topic of a recent conversation hosted by the Global Network for Advanced Management. The online discussion brought together seven experts from across nations and disciplines to discuss what we have learned from the effectiveness of the responses in their respective countries and regions.
Watch the video:
Those responses, Gayle Allard of Madrid’s IE Business School observed, show how “this crisis is putting a lens over our institutions.” In Denmark, where politicians often operate within a consensus and the public trusts its government, the response to combat coronavirus was swift and unified. This was not the case in the U.S. or Spain, where powers are devolved to lower levels of government and political factions disagreed over when and how severely to restrict daily life. These international differences have complicated efforts to transfer lessons on the successful containment of the infection.
Making a consistent response more difficult are vast discrepancies in legal infrastructure. In China, for instance, anybody who tested positive for coronavirus was separated from their family, taken to a fever clinic for further diagnosis, and then quarantined in hospitals or stadiums specifically set up for COVID-19 patients. “But the Japanese constitution strictly forbids putting these kinds of constraints on individuals,” said Yoshinori Fujikawa, from Hitotsubashi ICS in Tokyo. (Fujikawa connected from New Haven, where he is currently a visiting scholar at Yale.) The same is true in most democracies around the world. As Fujikawa put it, “We have an allergic reaction to that.”
Despite these differences, one universally recognized necessity has been fiscal support from governments. “Obviously, this is one event in our history where we need governments to intervene,” said Arturo Bris of IMD in Switzerland. “In the European context, for example, we have estimated that if governments don’t do anything at all, and assuming the pandemic is over in three months, this will cost 20% to 25% of our GDPs.” Most immediately, this means the provision of money directly to citizens and businesses to sustain them during this period of hibernation.
The urgency of fiscal intervention is of particular relevance in emerging economies. Sourav Mukherji of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore described how his country’s sudden announcement of lockdown stranded tens of millions of migrant laborers who work in cities and remit money home to rural families. Protests have erupted and without action soon, huge numbers of people could die from starvation.
Mukherji related the story of one man: “There was this migrant laborer who was given food and he started crying. The people asked him, ‘why are you crying?’ and he said, ‘I can’t imagine that yesterday I was kind of a proud construction worker and today I am destitute’
Mukherkji added, “Imagine the psychological impact that is having on people who have been told overnight that you have nothing, your family, living 500 kilometers away, will have nothing to eat, and you have to fend for yourself.”
As such stories make abundantly clear, orders to shelter in place cannot be sustained indefinitely—and as Yale SOM’s Edward Kaplan explained, they don’t serve to extinguish the pandemic, only to hold it at bay. “These are a delaying tactic,” Kaplan said. If countries simply resume business as usual after weeks of restricted movement, “the whole thing will start up again and reignite.”
Kaplan explained that keeping a lid on the infection in the longer term requires extensive testing protocols. Countries need to be testing everyone with even the mildest symptoms, along with large swaths of the population that are not symptomatic—running mobile test centers at grocery stores and community meeting places, for instance. Kaplan was emphatic that there is no way to safely reopen economies without broad and deep testing in place to capture new cases early in their trajectory.
Vaccines, of course, are what the world ultimately needs to halt the spread of this coronavirus permanently, and more than 80 candidate vaccines are under investigation, “Science is moving at lightning speed to tackle this,” said Akiko Iwasaki of the Yale School of Medicine. But past a certain point, this timeline cannot be safely accelerated. In the race to develop vaccines for the spread of SARS in 2003, researchers found many potential vaccines that ultimately led to worse disease outcomes than the virus itself, said Iwasaki. “Safety and efficacy need to be tested in human populations, and this is not a trivial issue.”
In the meantime, countries are slowly considering how to reopen their economies with targeted and graduated measures. Bris suggested that risk is a necessary part of this equation, and Alberto Trejos of INCAE Business School in Costa Rica refined this point. Services that are essential for survival—food, medicine, security—cannot be shut down, Trejos said. On the other end of the spectrum are things like sporting events, which will likely remain on hold until there is a vaccine. “But there are a lot of things in the middle; there are a lot of things where the question we should be asking is: under what infrastructure can this factory reopen? Under what practices can this factory reopen?” To answer these questions intelligently, and to clearly define the risks under consideration, requires good data and useful models. With those in place, he said, “we can begin to dismantle these lockdowns, little by little, piece by piece, taking a bit more risk, but much more qualified, understood, and controlled risk.”