Who gave a damn about pandemics before COVID-19?

Molly Anders, Paolo Morini

Mar 27, 2020

Who gave a damn about pandemics before COVID-19?

As the Coronavirus global caseload surges past half a million infected, many are asking who, if anyone, cared about pandemics before Coronavirus? And perhaps more importantly, would caring have made a difference?

Though it’s still early to ask which, if any country was best prepared for the global spread of the novel Coronavirus, no matter how you look at the data one country stands out from the rest: South Korea.

At first, South Korea’s battle with the Coronavirus looked to become as grim as those in Italy or Spain: On 29 February the country of 500 million reported 909 new cases of Coronavirus in one day. But by mid-March, South Korea had become the only nation to flatten the curve of infections without imposing lockdowns, curfews or other major social or economic restrictions. As the United Kingdom on Tuesday reported its highest daily death toll since the outbreak began, 89, on Wednesday South Korea reported six, having never exceeded eight virus-related deaths in a single day.

There will come a time when those working in the sector can point to this global crisis – to the public outcry for better preparedness and mitigation, for better global cooperation – and say to elected officials: Public concern about aid can impact political will.

What sets South Korea apart? In the early days of the pandemic, the country quickly co-opted its manufacturing sector to begin producing test kits, incentivizing even asymptomatic members of the public to get tested. It implemented tracking and tracing of infected individuals early and aggressively. Perhaps most importantly, the South Korean public was kept informed and involved throughout the government effort, with few reports of hoarding or irresponsible behaviour. But as other publics continue to defy guidelines, for example in the United States and United Kingdom, why, exactly residents of South Korea were so engaged and ready to act? Unlike those countries in Europe and North America, both the government and public in South Korea were primed for an epidemic, having lost 86 people to Covid-19’s cousin, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) only five years earlier in 2015. The only other country to flatten the Coronavirus curve, China, lost 349 people to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in the 2002-2003 outbreak.

“One [hurdle] is political will,” Max Fisher and Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times earlier this month in a piece, ‘How South Korea Flattened the Curve.’ “Many governments have hesitated to impose onerous measures in the absence of a crisis-level outbreak. Another is public will. Social trust is higher in South Korea than in many other countries, particularly Western democracies beset by polarization and populist backlash.”

By comparison, in the run-up to March 2020 and the earliest days of the Covid-19 outbreak, publics surveyed in four countries by the Development Engagement Lab and YouGov – France, Germany, United Kingdom and the United States – ranked pandemics last or near-last when asked to prioritise global issues.

Interestingly, the only country that ranked pandemics higher, Germany, this week reported a slow-down in the number of new cases: a potential precursor to a flattening curve.

A month after the data emerged, in February 2020, as the virus accelerated in Italy and the first cases were discovered in the United Kingdom, unsurprisingly there was a slight uptick in UK public concern over pandemics and global diseases.

Which segments of the British public have been the first to shift priorities?

But who then among the British public has been quickest to reprioritise pandemics? Frankly, the answer surprised us.

‘But what about age?’ is likely the first question that comes to mind when attempting to explain away Conservatives’ rising concern, as the elderly are clinically more susceptible to Coronavirus and older people increasingly vote Conservative. Surprisingly, the 65+ year old group and the youngest segment – 18-24 year-olds – ranked pandemics at the same level, though the 65+ were far more likely to rank pandemics second or third priority, as opposed to not at all. At first flush, at least, age was not a factor in the rise in Conservatives’ concern.

Connecting the dots on public and political will

Yet, that direct experience with a global issue breeds concern for its impacts won’t surprise anyone, least of all those working in campaigning and advocacy for development or humanitarian causes. Though the current UK government administration’s approach to creating ‘herd immunity’ may or may not turn out well, the exposure of large swaths of a complacent or indifferent public to a global crisis may indeed, we can hope, create a kind of ‘herd sensitivity’ to broader global issues.

We offer a look at the data through this slightly more partisan lens for a reason: There will come a time when those working in the sector can point to this global crisis – to the public outcry for better preparedness and mitigation, for better global cooperation – and say to elected officials and those who control the aid purse strings: Public concern about aid can impact political will. Traditionally a ‘low-salience’ issue, having little sway over voting behaviours, we may be watching a watershed moment unfold in the way the public understands aid and development cooperation. In other words, Coronavirus could force a critical juncture for societies that have, in recent years, been inching toward isolationism and away from multilateral cooperation. What does this mean for the sector? For those who can guide the narrative, empower members of the donor public while also elevating aid recipients, the years to come may offer less political wrangling, less spin and a more coherent desire to take part.

Those working in global health, in particular, will hopefully soon find their previously complacent publics on the brink of engagement. But the same ‘enlightenment’ could manifest across other sectors, too. Again, this may be true only for those campaigns and outreach efforts that concisely connect the dots to the many issues that impact pandemic mitigation and preparedness: Water infrastructure, poverty reduction, climate change mitigation, come to mind. Labour rights. Access to education. Support for small-to-medium enterprises. The list goes on.

Written by

Molly Anders

Molly Anders

Research Insights and Engagement Lead at the Development Engagement Lab

Paolo Morini

Paolo Morini

Senior Research Fellow with the Development Engagement Lab, based at University College London

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