Countries can make destinies by addressing challenges linked to geographic and historical realities, professor says

As the novel coronavirus spreads around the world, it has become clear that some states are better prepared for pandemics than others. Some success stories are truly surprising, and so are some failures. There is one thing that most well-prepared countries have in common: they used to occupy security border regions during the Cold War — the 20th century global rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that made war more likely among their allies. Some of these countries continue to be in the most volatile regions of the world — this, more than any other factor, has forced them to be well-organized in the face of such massive national challenges.

To effectively deal with pandemics such as COVID-19, a country needs a rationally organized national health care system, a national strategy to deal with epidemics and effective leadership to implement the national strategy. A rational organization is necessary to decide what aspects of national health care and public health infrastructure to be centralized and what has to be decentralized.

To effectively deal with pandemics such as COVID-19, a country needs a rationally organized national health care system, a national strategy to deal with epidemics and effective leadership to implement the national strategy.

For instance, Germany has a centralized national health care system, while its laboratories for disease control are decentralized; each German lander, or federal unit, has one of its own. In comparison, the United States has these things the other way around: there is no national health care system in the U.S. — health care is in the hands of thousands of discrete private and public entities, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is centralized. As a result, Germany’s federal disease control labs could respond much more quickly to viral outbreaks in their own jurisdictions by both developing the necessary kits and conducting tests in their respective populations. They also cooperated and helped one another, while the initial CDC failure to develop a workable test kit proved to be rather costly in the U.S. To date, Germany has more than 60,000 cases of COVID-19, but many fewer deaths than most other European countries — fewer than 450.

South Korea, like Germany, was ready to become a battleground between the East and the West during the Cold War. Even today, the South Korean political and military leadership are never certain what their volatile and dangerous neighbor, North Korea, may come up with in its rivalry with the United States or Japan. In addition to their national health care system, South Korea has a national strategy to deal with pandemics. As soon as it became clear that the virus had spread from China to South Korea, the country’s health authorities started to test everyone to identify those infected, to isolate and treat them accordingly, and to keep vulnerable populations under observation. South Korea was the second country after China where novel coronavirus cases were exhibited in large numbers, and currently the country is getting ready to deal with the second wave of infections. Despite this, the COVID-19 cases are fewer than 10,000 in South Korea, while the deaths have not exceeded 150. Most remarkably, the country avoided large-scale infections and deaths without shutting down everything and stopping the economy.

Surprising success story

The most surprising success story in the fight with COVID-19 has been the Republic of Georgia. The national government of Georgia has led the charge by following closely the advice and suggestions of a triumvirate of specialists, composed of a doctor, a public health official and a specialist in infectious diseases. A former Soviet state frequently harassed by Russia, Georgia is not known for its effective political leadership, quite the contrary, it has been often fractious and disorganized. However, in this case Georgia has shown good organization and leadership and has managed to rally the entire country for the cause. Georgia was one of the leading states in the former Soviet Union for the study and treatment of infectious diseases. It shares borders with Turkey, a major NATO member, which the Soviet Union considered as one of the major threats at its southern borders.

Dr. Lasha Tchantouridzé

Georgia has preserved its knowledge base and laboratories specializing in the fight against bacterial and viral diseases. In 2011, with the help of the United States, the country opened a new center for public health research named after former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. The Lugar Center, as it is commonly known, is one of the best laboratories in the world for biomedical and biosafety research. Currently, it plays the leading role in Georgia’s fight against COVID-19. Despite being a neighbor of the countries Iran and Turkey where the novel coronavirus is widespread, Georgia has exhibited only 90 cases of coronavirus infections with no deaths.

Those who believe geopolitics to be a field of study of world affairs determined by geography and current political history often like to say that “geography is destiny.” This is most certainly an exaggeration: geography is not destiny, but countries can make their destinies by effectively addressing the challenges handed to them by geographic and historical realities. Fears and anxieties of the Cold War forced countries located in geographic proximity with the other side to be better prepared for major homeland security challenges, including massive public health emergencies, such as the current pandemic.

Dr. Lasha Tchantouridzé is professor and director of the graduate programs in diplomacy and international relations in Norwich University’s College of Graduate and Continuing Studies. He is also an advisory board member for Norwich’s Peace and War Center.

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