The merciless COVID-19 disease threatens economic misery, with people around the world touched by anxiety and unemployment. In this context, never in recent history has so much hope centered on scientists and the studious brilliance of academic institutions. Media headlines tell the story, with newspapers around the world speaking of beacons of hope in the form of potential cures, vaccines, immune therapies, and clinical trials. Without the solutions of science, nations face long-term disruption to their way of life.
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Sweden is different. The nation of 10 million people has been a model of social democracy for decades. Its approach to government is modes compared to the United States, France of the United Kingdom. In Sweden, only the prime minister has been assigned a chauffeur-driven car. The foreign minister takes the bus or the metro, daily in touch with ordinary citizens. Members of parliament are assigned offices the size of a sparse room in a German refugee camp.
For the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Thursday April 23, 2020, would turn out to be one of those wasted days. President Donald Trump’s approval ratings are declining, the number of unemployed is rising into historic dimensions. White House reporters were needling him about missing ventilators, the lack of protective gear for medical personnel, and almost 60,000 COVID-19 deaths, more than the number of Americans who died on the battlefields of Vietnam.
Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea, disappeared from public view after an appearance at a Workers' Party politburo meeting on April 11. The unpredictable leader did not appear to celebrate the anniversary of his grandfather’s birthday four days later, an important holiday for the nation. Then Mr Kim missed Military Foundation Day, on which he usually honors the military, the foundation of his absolute power. Rumors began to spread. The dictator was gravely ill, possibly dying. Asian news outlets reported that the chain smoking, overweight, leader had heart surgery on April 12.
When in early March, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti declared a lockdown in his nation, and urgently requested help from his European partners—medical equipment for hospital staff, including gloves and protective clothing, and ventilators, and testing kits—it took several days before there was a response.
Imagine you are one of the crew members of the nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut, 1000 meters under the floating ice of the Arctic Ocean. Your three-month secret mission is only in its third week. Suddenly, the sailor above your bunk starts coughing, the neighbor signals he has a fever, and the onboard medical officer alerts his commanding officer that 55 of the 116 crew are showing advanced symptoms of COVID-19. There is no nearby human settlement to go to, just Thule Air Base, 750 miles north to the Arctic Circle. The submarine’s home port, Bremerton in Washington State is much further away. Would the submarine have to be recovered through a complicated rescue operation?
COVID-19 is neither the end of civilization nor the beginning of enlightenment. The virus is revealing something though: the ignorance of some people, who are convinced by ideas of conspiracies and plots—for example that the virus emerged from secret laboratories in Wuhan, China, or Washington D.C. Or that Bill Gates, the billionaire Microsoft and internet pioneer, planted the coronavirus to earn money by selling vaccines. Or that 5G wireless networks are responsible for the deadly pandemic, transporting the virus throughout the world.
In Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice, the character Gustav von Aschenbach is not alarmed when he arrives with his wife in Venice by boat and encounters health inspectors questioning disembarking passengers. He begins to notice that more and more guests at the hotel he is staying are leaving. The hotel barber mentions something about a disease. Strolling through the city, watching the gondolas ahead of him, von Aschenbach smells the scent of germicide in the air and becomes increasingly curious about the medical secret. He finally learns the truth from an Englishman in a travel agency, who explains that Indian cholera, which originated in the “hot swamps of the Ganges delta,” has spread throughout the Mediterranean and has reached Venice, having already killed some people.