Expat Generation: COVID-19 is a call to work together

A global pandemic has struck. 

(Wait, what? I had no idea. I know, right? Utter shock. Also nice opening sentence; can we get it in 

“Star Wars” scroll font?) It’s not like any of our lives have been entirely upended — from online classes taken at home, to a mass-hysteria-toilet-paper-buying spree that puts the most fanatical Black Friday shopping rages to shame (seriously, what is everyone using to wipe themselves these days? Any and all recommendations are welcome.)

If my international relations classes have taught me one thing — that is, besides drilling sovereignty into the deepest recesses of my brain — it is that we must define a problem appropriately before we attempt to find a solution for it. So, in that enlightened spirit of academia, let’s switch from mockery to seriousness, as we try to accomplish what might seem rather obvious but has all but escaped our leaders’ minds.

We are facing an invisible, lethal enemy that lays hidden within our body for up to 14 days. We are facing a force that might shut down the entire economy and a challenge we are vastly unprepared to deal with. The availability of medical supplies is waning, with gloves and face masks being the only protection available to our courageous medical workers who save strangers’ lives while putting their own at risk. We are facing a once-in-a-century disaster. 

The problem we face can be defined so simply. But the solution remains much more elusive, its definition still missing one of two fundamental components. The paradox lies here: Why are we seeking national solutions to a global crisis?

Yes, perhaps it rings true to the reigning sociopolitical attitudes of the past half-decade of “me before you” and “us before the other.” Under such a political climate, it is perhaps no wonder that France and Germany have blocked face mask exports even as neighboring Italy struggles to contain the virus, or that Washington D.C. and Beijing view developing a vaccine as a competition rather than the superordinate goal both nations’ citizens need equally, regardless of what pharmaceutical giant is behind its production.

After all, aren’t we seeing a microcosm of such attitudes on a local level? What about everyday American civilians’ hoarding of guns, toilet paper, antiseptics, and the protective masks that doctors desperately need?

In such times of calamity, perhaps the most chilling of all symptoms is the utter lack of solidarity we’ve seen. China has been blamed for inciting the “Chinese virus,” as President Donald Trump put it. European Union founding members have turned their backs on Italy, disregarding the common desire for compassion, cooperation and dignity, the very ideals which brought them together. Spring breakers have conglomerated in popular destinations with no regard for the unwanted visitor they might bring back that, although it might not affect their own personal health, could kill their grandparents. 

The behavior we are witnessing from thousands of self-prioritizing individuals is nothing new, nor is it anything that goes against the ultra-competitive genetic codes evolution has hammered into each and every one of us. Yes, perhaps it is instinctual for humans to prioritize self-help and primacy, to revert to in-groups and to view the other with suspicion. But it is thick-skulled and misses the bigger picture. 

Our current crisis is one that demands teamwork. We need maximized specialization and fully functioning supply chains to get anywhere near meeting the demand for medical and protective supplies. We need collective research pools where all progress on making a vaccine can be available for scientists around the world (we are not competing against Nazis to develop nuclear weapons, we are trying to save lives). We need world leaders to talk to each other instead of waving fingers (Trump and Xi Jinping haven’t spoken directly since early February). We need more intelligent contingency plans and relief aid. Even if developed countries push through the first wave of infections, what’s going to happen when developing countries with even fewer resources to defend themselves get hit or when these nations spread the virus back to the developed nations it came from? This is a cycle, and we are all interconnected.

We need people to act with consciousness, solidarity and mutual regard. World leaders must do the same.

Javier Calleja Erdmann is a sophomore writing about the international student experience. His column, “Expat Generation,” typically runs every other Friday.