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The Coronavirus Challenge and an Outlook on the Future

E. Sylvester Vizi 2020.05.18.

In December 2019, a series of pneumonic cases of unknown cause emerged in Wuhan, China, with a clinical presentation resembling viral pneumonia. The number of cases increased rapidly and so far it has appeared in more than 200 countries, infected more than 4.5 million people and has killed more than 300,000. Countries around the world have reacted in different ways and with various measures, but in most places an economic recession and the increase of the unemployment rate as some of the results of the pandemic is certain. The question arises: Will China be the winner of this human catastrophe? Are we at the brink of an economical and political turning point for the western world including America and the EU?

Summary of an analysis by neuroscientist and pharmacologist E. Sylvester Vizi, former president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) and president of the Board of Trustees of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, publisher of Hungary Today. The original article appeared in daily Magyar Nemzet. 

By January 9, 2020, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention succeeded in identifying the virus responsible for the outbreak as a novel coronavirus named COVID-19. Clinical symptoms observed in patients includes fever, dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, muscle aches, runny nose, and pneumonia. Back in February, the China CDC Weekly provided a calculation of the death rate due to the virus infection as 2.3% in mainland China, which is much higher than the 0.1% rate observed for seasonal influenza viruses.

The outbreak continued to spread outside China and on the 30th of January 2020, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Chief, declared the situation a public health emergency of international concern. On March 11th, the WHO alerted governments to a worldwide pandemic. By March, the Chinese government, which had imposed very harsh measures to lock down the epicenter of the coronavirus endemic, proudly proclaimed that they had succeeded in stopping the virus, as there were no new confirmed cases.

It is one of the duties of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to provide assessments of public health threats for EU/EEA countries. In their Executive Summary on the 13th of February, when more than 60,000 cases had already been reported, they summarized the situation by stating that “the risk associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection for the EU/EEA and UK populations is currently low.” Ten days later,  they stated that the risk is “considered to be low to moderate.” At the same time, by mid-March, most member states of the EU started to introduce strict measures of varying degree to cope with a severe pandemic.

In the early stage of the spread of the disease, opinions varied worldwide; it was stated that “the coronavirus is not a big deal,” and someone even called the pandemic “a bloated psychological situation,” whereas other regions began declaring a “state-of-emergency.” Some governments even adopted wartime measures – closing borders and schools, enlisting industries to produce medical equipment and devices, advising and even ordering people to stay at home, closing airports, sending military to help police and local administrations to keep order, seizing medical devices and drugs destined for export, and locking down their cities. So – what really happened?

The official agencies, although belatedly, signaled to the world the visible danger. It became a general feature of coronavirus management in Europe that national governments started to handle the pandemic independently from each other and the EU administration.

The issue of healthcare is a national competence – but the question rightly arises why the states of the ‘borderless’ European Union did not receive some kind of central guidance and help during a pandemic spread by EU citizens and travelers from other countries? The European Union has also failed to promptly help the worst-hit countries (e.g. Italy), although joint efforts would have shown effective solidarity. Finally, on April 8th, the Council of Europe announced a number of important plans and adopted a €540 billion rescue package.

Governments within the EU and around the world have reacted in different ways and introduced various measures to fight the pandemic. They also judged the course of the epidemic in different ways, perhaps because of the sometimes completely different opinions from international experts. In some cases, immoderation and in others, inadequate precaution were typical. Yet we are far from the time when conclusions can be made. The virus is currently raging all over the world, and the peak of the first wave may have been reached in some countries and we can hope for improvement.

In a few countries, governments did not introduce measures promptly because they were advised to allow the virus to spread; young people – who in theory are not affected by severe consequences of the virus – were allowed to move around and mix as usual. In other cases, like Sweden, their confidence in their healthcare systems had been rather high.

By contrast, other governments, for example Hungary and Austria, quickly declared a “state-of-emergency” on all fronts, and decided to fight hard against the virus from the very beginning by using strict measures (such as imposing stay-at-home orders). There has also been a third type of response from national governments in cases where the government initially did not take the virus threat seriously, but then suddenly took the helm firmly in handling the crisis (e.g. Italy, Great Britain, and the USA).

On January 31st, the Hungarian government established the Operative Board responsible for the control of the coronavirus epidemic. Seven days after the first diagnosed patients on March 4th, the government declared a state-of-emergency, which gave the government a special mandate to act. Kindergartens, schools, universities, and shops were closed with the exception of grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks, mass events were banned, and attempts were made to isolate those who came into contact with coronavirus patients.

To reduce the infection rate, contact persons had to be quarantined for 14 days. Particular attention was paid to those at higher risk (healthcare workers, the elderly and others). So far, it has been achieved that front-line doctors, nurses, and medical staff who have made incredible sacrifices have not fallen victim to the epidemic significantly, as in Italy, where more than 150 doctors have died of the virus infection so far. On March 4th, the government launched a website to provide permanent information about the domestic epidemic situation. On March 19th, border traffic for individuals was also stopped, but the country helped the mass return of citizens other countries who suddenly became unemployed in Western Europe, by setting up a so-called humanitarian corridor.

In Hungary, the government requested and received an extraordinary authorization from parliament in accordance with Act XII of 2020 on the protection against the coronavirus, which enables them under the law to govern by decrees until the end of the epidemic. This provoked significant criticism and press attacks at home and abroad. The relevant committee of the European Union has also examined the law, but has not found any violations, but promises to closely monitor its application throughout the process.

The governments concerned also developed a wide range of economic rescue measures – including tax breaks and financial subsidies – to maintain levels of employment, and commercial and industrial activity in support of families. In Hungary, therefore, the family support system in Europe, will receive additional support. In a report issued in April this year, the World Bank forecasted a significant economic downturn around the world. According to this, the national income will decrease by 3.1% in Hungary, while in Austria and Germany by 7%.

A pandemic should certainly not be the time for politicians to fight each other in parliaments and the press. On the contrary, it should be the time for joint efforts. Any political attack thwarting well-planned government action may divert attention from the COVID-19 crisis, which may result in a fatal fallout.

There are several good examples of cooperation among countries of Central Europe, contrary to the Hungarian situation. For example, the efforts of Benny Gantz, who nearly defeated Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, in the recent elections, and who declared his intention to be ready for joint efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.  Another good example is North Rhine-Westphalia, the part of Germany most affected by the virus, where the members of its Parliament (Landestag), independent of their political background, decided to make a joint effort against the pandemic.

Since the first cases in China, COVID-19 appeared in more than two hundred countries, infecting more than 4.5 million people and killing hundreds of thousands. This novel virus is a strain to which humans are immunologically naïve; our immune cells are not prepared to combat this intruder. Our immune system is not yet ready to fight it because it was not taught do to so, and therefore not able to remember how to do it. There are many laboratories around the world working to develop a vaccine against the COVID-19 virus. The essence of this is that a vaccine is made from a weakened or killed version of a micro-organism (virus) that can stimulate the body for an immune response and to produce antibodies that already recognize and kill the invading virus. It is estimated that in the future, the vast majority of citizens, either through vaccination or infection – which in most cases goes unnoticed – could reach immunity to COVID-19, and life could return to normal.

However, people feel anxious because they are fearful of what is to come and what has to come, and we are certain that it will come. When our immune systems have learned to overcome the virus and combat the disease, the virus may still be able to mutate, and a change in the sequence is enough to trigger another epidemi,c or even a future pandemic. One philosophical reading of the events is how an endemic and pandemic, either produced by a virus or bacteria, can result in an ever-lasting fight between humankind and nature.

A final outcome also depends on the adequacy of governments’ scenarios based on projections for the future, and their actions in the present, and whether they succeed in providing for the common good, in the interests of citizens, and in keeping economies running or restarting them. The final numbers of people needing treatment, the number of deaths, and economic loss depend on the efficiency of governments and whether citizens are in compliance with orders.

Nearly a third of the world population is living under coronavirus-related restrictions, resulting in unforeseeable problems and changes in the economy, in the operation of small and medium-sized enterprises, of cultural life, as well as in private and family life. Theaters, concert halls, and stadiums will remain closed until the end of the crisis, and there will certainly be some of them that will not be able to reopen. According to an estimate published by economists, the jobless rate in the EU could reach a high level, as millions of workers are laid off due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The question arises whether China will be the winner of this human catastrophe. Are we at the brink of an economical and political turning point for the western world including America and the EU? It is very difficult to predict anything. After 1945, a “European Union” was the hope of many politicians involved in the rebuilding of the historical continent, whose function was based on Jewish-Christian inheritance, Roman law, and the way of thinking of the European intellectual movement, Enlightenment.

At the University of Zurich on September 19, 1946, Winston Churchill talked about a joint effort of European Nations as the only way to establish a conflict-free new Europe. He said the following to the students: “This noble continent, comprising on the whole the fairest and the most cultivated regions of the earth, is the home of all the great parent races of the western world. It is the fountain of Christian faith and Christian ethics. It is the origin of most of the culture, the arts, philosophy and science both of ancient and modern time. If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity and the glory of its three or four hundred million people.”

One thing is for sure: the world’s current population is the most informed society in history thanks to the information revolution and globalization, and as a result of the exponential development of science and technology, it is almost omnipotent. The man of today, who will face recession instead of development, and restriction instead of freedom, thinks about the years to come, his future, the legislatures, the international organizations that represent him.

It is high time to think about our common future: the future of mankind, the future of Europe, and of the globe where we have been living for hundreds of thousands of years.

featured photo: MTI/EPA/ANSA/Andrea Fasani


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