/ 16 May 2020

Open letter: Mr Biden, America must lead the next global catastrophe

Biden's campaign pushes back against the argument that he is a political relic
"Sir, your job, should you be elected, is to bring America (and the world) together in common cause if we are to avoid a similar crisis when the next corona-like virus comes," writes Charles R Stith. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

I have repeated on more than one occasion something the late president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, once said to me years ago: “It is unfair that only Americans get to vote for the American president. What he does or doesn’t do impacts on the world.” 

Well, the world doesn’t get to vote, but it does get to have an opinion. That perspective is one the next president of the United States should, at least hear, if not heed. I’m a US citizen, but I have been involved on the African continent for 50 years, in one way or another. I’ve been in Johannesburg since early February and have been living in lockdown since it began.  So, consider this a legitimate word out of Africa to the man many hope will be the next president of the US. So, Mr Biden here it goes:

How you prepare and perform in dealing with the next coronavirus outbreak is going to define your presidency for better or worse, whether you like it or not, or you think it’s fair or not.

Let me suggest a number of things you need to do to demonstrate that you’re up to the task of leading in a time of crisis.

The first thing is, making it unequivocally clear that there will be no lockdown in response to the next novel coronavirus outbreak. Another shutdown is not something America (or the world) can afford to do nor is it something it needs to do. The average American and the stewards of the American economy need this kind of assurance if there is going to be a recovery. Lord knows, that assurance would be a welcome word in Africa.

I get the logic of a lockdown, but the logic and reality don’t line up, pretty much any way you cut it. Given the demographics and social dynamics, there is no way to do social distancing based on a 1918 model. To achieve social distancing by lockdown is a practical impossibility. At the end of the day, this is an arithmetic exercise and not rocket science. In 1918, 40% of Americans lived in cities, today it’s 80%. This is not just an American phenomenon, it’s a global trend as well. By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. 

International travel, which is a defining characteristic of life in the 21st century, also makes clear the futility of lockdowns as a principle containment strategy. Almost nobody routinely travelled internationally in 1918. Today 1.4-billion people travel the world. More specific to this moment, I ran some numbers. From the time the first case was announced until I departed for South Africa via Dubai, this is what the travel picture looked like. Well over 10-million passengers travelled through Dubai during that time. And, more than 3-million travelled through Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which was my point of departure. At the OR Tambo International Airport  in Johannesburg, which was my destination, almost 2.5-million passengers transited through there. 

Dubai has about 90 000 employees, LAX 158 000 and ORT has 18 000, which means all of those employees were exposed to that onslaught of travellers before we started down the road of locking down the planet. As staggering as these figures are, they don’t take into account the tens of millions of people with whom those travellers came into contact once they reached their destinations. The bottom line is, by the time we got to locking down the world, the horse was already out of the barn. 

After I got to South Africa and the lockdown was put into effect, from a practical standpoint things didn’t improve. Forget dissecting every element of the plan. The inefficiency and ineffectiveness of this approach was made perfectly clear as we watched what was going on in the townships on a daily basis. The TV cameras were rolling, so we saw in live colour, everyday, that there was no social distancing taking place at all in the townships. Twenty-five percent of the people in South Africa live in townships, that’s close to 12-million people. 

How we live and how much we travel, should make it clear that the notion of social distancing needs to be rethought as a containment strategy in the 21st century. 

Mr Vice-President, if you accept the basic premise of my argument, let me suggest the following steps going forward. After declaring that you’ll not shut down the economy, you have to give the country the confidence that you have a plan to keep the country going and minimise the effects of any future outbreak. The Trump administration’s bungling of the coronavirus crisis was a textbook case of what not to do. The pivot away from Trump is easy. Make it clear, you’ll look beyond the Trump administration’s corona debacle, and instead look to the Bush and Obama administrations for examples of what to do during a similar crisis.

The step after that is assembling a team of competent folks to look at all of the strategic options and new technologies and techniques that can be employed to better fit the country to fight the next outbreak. 

On the global stage, you want to punctuate the importance of co-operation and co-ordination in dealing with such outbreaks. You need to commit the US to leading the way. Since the Trump crew tried to politicise the outbreak to get a leg up on China, you have to make it clear, even though China and America are economic competitors, when the next outbreak comes you expect them to be a partner, along with everyone else.

I started this “letter” the way I did because of the urgency of the situation. Getting ahead of the curve requires nothing short of the laser-focused measures I’ve outlined here. But, make no mistake about it, dealing effectively with another Covid-19-like challenge only starts here. The ongoing effort to combat future outbreaks comes down to America getting its fundamentals right. 

The infection rate of communicable diseases has fallen by 67% over the past century. The key has been two interrelated factors, a healthy economy and healthier people. The connection between higher incomes and better health outcomes is indisputable. To ensure Americans fare better, as well as dealing with the disparities in infection rates, starts by improving good health options across the board. Some of this is about health education, which is applicable to everyone. 

Relative to the poor, who are disproportionately people of colour, it is about ensuring they have the means to make healthier choices. It means increasing food stamp payments so that they have better diets. It means fixing Obamacare so that they have better healthcare options. Thinking along these lines has implications for how America engages the rest of the world, particularly regions such as Africa. Whatever is done in this regard will be exponentially cheaper than shutting down the global economy. Because viruses respect no boundaries it is in everyone’s interests to make sure the poor are healthier. This is the first line of defence. 

The second line of defence is initiating the right combination of medical and public health interventions.

Sir, your job, should you be elected, is to bring America (and the world) together in common cause if we are to avoid a similar crisis when the next corona-like virus comes. Given the shaky position the country (and world) is in, and the shakier decisions that led us to this point, we need a steady hand at the helm.  Reaching a safe harbour out of the midst of this storm is possible. To get there means you and America must lead.