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Are More Pandemics Inevitable? What the Coronavirus Can Tell Us

An Altamar podcast interview with

Since the word “coronavirus” entered the global lexicon a few weeks ago, its reach has been staggering. 

Tens of thousands have contracted the new virus, more than a thousand have died, and dozens of countries report infected patients within their borders — prompting quarantines, travel restrictions and curfews worldwide. Face masks are flying off the shelves as fears swirl around the newly christened “COVID-19.” Supply chains and tourism are taking equal hits, while China’s central bank has pumped $243 billion into China’s financial system to prop up weakening growth. 

National Public Radio’s correspondent for global health and development, Nurith Aizenman, joins the Altamar podcast team of Peter Schechter and Muni Jensen to dive into the geopolitical implications of coronavirus and discuss what can be done to prevent future pandemics. Aizenman, who has been covering the virus daily since the outbreak began, is also a former writer at The Washington Post and an editor for The New Republic.

The situation on the ground is changing rapidly, but Aizenman points out that, for now, the virus remains primarily located in China: “Pretty much all of the cases are in China. It’s true that there are several hundred outside of China, but that is a tiny number compared to the tens of thousands in China.” 

Yet questions remain unanswered regarding the severity and scope of the disease in China, especially given concerns that the government “might have been possibly more communicative to the outside world than they were to people in Wuhan about the risk at the very earliest stage, which has sowed a lot of questioning and doubt about what’s currently being reported.” 

Aizenman explains why communication about the coronavirus from Chinese authorities has been questioned. 

There is much speculation as to why this disease began in China. 

Many scientists have pointed to China’s markets, where food and wild animals mingle closely. Indeed, China’s large bat population, a carrier for coronavirus and other diseases, seems to have made Wuhan a location perfectly primed for the virus to spread.  

The relatively limited spread of coronavirus beyond China is undeniably a good thing — but Aizenman argues that the disease could spiral out of control if it spreads to a country without sufficient health care infrastructure and resources: “A concern is that if it does spread to countries in Africa that have less access to sophisticated health care, the lethality might actually go up, because a lot of the cases that are surviving are surviving due to really intensive care and hospitals. That could be a real problem if it starts to spread to low-resource countries.”

Aizenman explains that we could see increased lethality from coronavirus in countries without intensive health care. 

The extent of the disease’s economic impact remains to be seen. 

Though coronavirus has dominated international headlines since reports of it first emerged, financial markets have not registered a major hit — yet. But supply chains have been affected, air travel has been cut off and tourism has been impacted. Aizenman says that it’s too soon to make any sort of economic prognosis: “It’s just hard to know. … We’re now starting to see the ramp-up, the whole country was kind of more on a holiday footing with the Lunar New Year, but that’s over now. It’s just kind of ramping up more fully.”

Aizenman explains that it’s too soon to forecast coronavirus’s economic impact.

One lesson to draw from the coronavirus outbreak is that countries should do more to proactively identify and prepare for animal viruses that could make the jump to humans: “Perhaps more is warranted in trying to proactively identify what viruses are out there in the animal reservoir that could be a problem, such that we can quickly respond to them and even have some amount of setup of precursor vaccines that might work so we don’t have to invent the wheel.”

Indeed, Aizenman notes that other countries should see the coronavirus as a warning to prepare for a similar outbreak: “It seems like the most important thing is to just recognize that these are not fluke events, this is entirely predictable that this sort of thing should happen. … To the extent that we can just sort of accept that that’s how it is, and then we can really look for what are the potential viruses out there, what’s the architecture of things that we can prepare, what kind of almost-complete vaccines and almost-complete therapies are out there that we can kind of fit to whatever emerges?” If countries around the world beef up their pandemic responses, we could outpace the next coronavirus — or at least, “we’ll be in better shape.” 

Altamar is a global politics podcast hosted by former Atlantic Council SVP Peter Schechter and award-winning journalist Muni Jensen. To hear the full episode with Nurith Aizenmann, click here.

Nurith Aizenman

Global Health and Development Correspondent at NPR

Nurith Aizenman is NPR’s correspondent for Global Health and Development. Based in Washington D.C., she regularly travels to low-income countries across the globe to report on disease outbreaks, social and economic challenges, and innovative efforts to overcome them. Aizenman won a George Foster Peabody Award for her role in NPR’s award-winning coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. She reported on the ground from Liberia as the epidemic reached its peak there in August 2014, and from Sierra Leone as the caseload began breaking records in the following months. 

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