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How populism, political will and public fatigue are undermining global COVID-19 fight

The world is struggling to slow a new surge in the number of COVID-19 infections. The problem is especially pronounced in Europe, where France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom account for a large share of new cases. But the concerns about continuing spread are global. Amna Nawaz talks to global health expert Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown Law School about new hot spots and how to curb them.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the world is struggling to slow a surge in the number of new COVID cases.

    The problem is especially bad in Europe, where the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and France account for a large share of the new cases.

    But, as Amna Nawaz tells us, these concerns are global.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, new hot spots are emerging around the world, and some epicenters are getting worse.

    In India, the total number of cases now tops seven million. In Brazil, a new milestone this week, with more than 150,000 deaths. And infections are now rising in a number of other countries, including Russia, Nepal, Iran, and right here in the United States, where COVID cases are increasing in a majority of states.

    Meanwhile, a new study suggests the U.S. death toll could be even higher than previously thought.

    Lawrence Gostin specializes in global health. He has advised special committees of the World Health Organization and served on a special Ebola commission for the U.N. secretary-general. He's now at the Georgetown Law School, and joins us now.

    Lawrence Gostin, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, the head of the World Health Organization said COVID-19 activity is up, accelerating around the world, but it is uneven.

    So, when you look at the countries that are seeing a surge, why are they seeing that surge? Is there something that they have in common?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Yes, I mean, I think there's probably a few things they have in common.

    I mean, the first thing is that they haven't followed science. If you look at, say, among the top five worst-performing countries, many of them have populist leaders, they undermine science, they undermine public trust.

    And the other reason is, is that there's a lot of fatigue. The public just wants to get back to normal. And so they're going back to bars, restaurants, things like that.

    And governments have gone out of the lockdowns really, really quickly and didn't do what was needed, like testing, tracing and isolation, in order to keep it under control. So, you are seeing vast differences between countries.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, you look at the way some governments are responding now.

    In Germany, for example, they have implemented, in specific cities, in Berlin and in Frankfurt, a partial curfew, saying bars and restaurants have to close earlier. Is that kind of step sufficient to slow the spread they're now seeing?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    It depends on the country.

    Germany's done a pretty good job. And so, if you have gotten your cases relatively low, like Germany is, then you can just target hot spots.

    China has done this, actually, particularly effectively. They got their cases down to negligible ways. As soon as they see a cluster, wherever the cluster may be, they throw everything at it. They massively test. Currently, they're testing a whole major city.

    And then they have targeted quarantines or lockdowns. And it's been very effective. And you just — you know, the virus is there. It's going to come back, unless you're really on top of it. And that's the message that I think all political leaders need to know.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, what about here in the United States?

    As everyone remembers, several regions, almost every state, had some kind of lockdown earlier in the pandemic. We got the daily number of cases down to a low in early September, around 30,000, 35,000 cases a day.

    We're back up now to about 50,000 cases a day. So, is this, this fall surge everyone's been warning about? And was it inevitable?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Well, certainly, it wasn't inevitable.

    If we had our — when we had our cases down to a relatively low level, when we were kind of at a moderate level, we could have really used our public health measures, like social distancing, personal hygiene, no major public gatherings, mask use.

    But we didn't do any of that. And, as a result, we're seeing hot spots throughout the United States. It's really concerning to see that kind of level of spikes in our case counts and, indeed, in our hospitalizations.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, what can be done about it now here in the United States?

    I mean, you mentioned some of this fatigue. People are tired of the restrictions. Even if they're following the science and masking and socially distancing, there's a desire to reopen. Is it harder now for leaders to reimpose those restrictions this late in the pandemic?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    You know, it really is.

    Lockdowns, as the WHO actually just said yesterday, they can't be the primary method of controlling COVID. And so what we need is to have population-wide interventions. We need everybody to wear masks. We need people to social distance. We shouldn't be opening bars and restaurants.

    Any indoor spaces — if you think about it as a rule of law thumb, any time you're indoors with a lot of people, or even a small group, you're not wearing masks and you're close together, you're going to get transmission.

    We have seen it from the White House, to political rallies, to bars, to restaurants, to dormitories. And that's the problem. And we can't do anything about it unless we all participate in trying to keep this down, until we can get an effective vaccine and therapeutics.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's a new study about excess deaths that's out today.

    We know that the U.S. death toll directly related to the pandemic tops 215,000. This new study says that there were an additional 75,000 deaths from March to July. These are deaths indirectly related to the pandemic.

    What does that mean? And why does that number matter?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    So, why does it happen?

    It happens because, first of all, people delay going to the doctor. You have signs of cancer, you don't go. You have got heart disease or pain in your chest, you don't go. You have diabetes, you don't manage it. That's one reason.

    Another reason is, we have people who are lonely, so we're seeing substance abuse. We're seeing partner abuse. And then, finally, people are being driven into poverty. There's food insecurity. People are being evicted from their homes. There are more homeless people. There are people without jobs.

    And we have known for a long time that the social determinants of health make a huge difference in our outcomes and whether we die young. And that's exactly what's happening in the United States now indirectly, but also directly due to COVID-19.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So many Americans feeling the effects of this pandemic.

    That is Lawrence Gostin, now of the Georgetown Law School, joining us tonight.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

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