Sputnik spoke to Dr Sweta Chakraborty, risk and behavioural scientist and Atlantic Council Millennium Leadership fellow, on the global response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as effects of human behaviour and societal factors shaping outcomes across US states. Dr Chakraborty is an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon University and King's College London, and has appeared on media such as CNN, MSNBC, CGTN, BBC and others.
She is also the US representative for 'We Don't Have Time', a Stockholm-based tech startup on climate change.
Sputnik: Can you give us your take on the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Which countries took the best measures and which could improve on their own, based on your knowledge?
Dr Sweta Chakraborty: Severe social distancing measures not entrenched in evidence, but rather in public fears and the worst-case scenarios predicted by epidemiological models, should never have been put in place.
The only way for these measures to have any real impact on the overall outcome is if there is full compliance. As a risk and behavioral scientist, I know that human behavior is complex and perfectly imperfect.
We don’t have the data yet, but from past research, I imagine the best compliance we will see will be from more authoritarian states. For democratic nation-states, there has not been enough incentive to ensure compliance, including deterrence measures like shaming, fines and even imprisonment. This should not surprise us.
In those cases, here in the US, there would have been federally mandated lockdowns and true widespread public compliance to “stay at home” orders. Instead we see disjointed policies across states and many people not taking COVID-19 restrictions seriously.
Ultimately, severe social distancing measures will likely to be found to not have had much overall benefit, and I fear will instead cause overall net harm.
Sputnik: Can you give your knowledge of the Chinese response to COVID-19, given some US and UK officials have accused them and the WHO of underreporting and mismanaging the pandemic? Can you stress the urgency of focussing on containing the outbreak rather than shifting blame?
Dr Sweta Chakraborty: Infectious disease outbreaks, and particularly COVID-19, are due to bad human behaviors. The combination of a warming planet and increasing global population is leading to increasingly harmful engagement with the natural environment.
Habitat encroachment and interaction with exotic animals have created fertile breeding grounds for a zoonotic disease transfer from animal to human.
— Dr. Sweta Chakraborty (@swetac) April 22, 2020
This is true of COVID-19, which emerged in China from harmful human behaviors with its unique ecosystem, but is also true of previous disease outbreaks such as MERS from Arabian peninsula and Ebola from Africa. Pandemics can emerge from anywhere in the world and it’s universal bad human behaviors that are to blame, not any one country or culture in particular.
Sputnik: Numerous countries, including the US, UK, Denmark and others, are planning to relax measures after reassessments of the pandemic. Do you believe that limited sectors of the global economy will be able to reopen whilst blocking a second wave of outbreaks? Which measures should be taken to do so?
Dr Sweta Chakraborty: Testing is critical to reopening the economy, not just to see if someone is COVID-19 positive, but serologic testing to identify if antibodies exist. This gives us a picture of a population, including potential immunity and susceptibility.
This is critical in that it can identify those least at risk to get back to work and will be important in ensuring community confidence in engaging with economy stimulating behaviors. There’s no point in opening up restaurants if nobody patrons them.
Sputnik: In the US, which cities/ regions/ states have implemented the best strategies to contain the pandemic? How have residents responded in those regions? Are specific states experiencing hardships due to demographic or cultural differences?
Dr Sweta Chakraborty: The US is experiencing polarization in response to infectious disease, similar to the polarization of responses to climate change. Infectious disease, like climate change, has become part of the political tribal identity.
— Ryan Struyk (@ryanstruyk) April 23, 2020
Polls in the US show that conservatives are less concerned about COVID-19 and climate change as compared to liberals. The red states have significantly more lax measures in place as compared to the blue states.
This is another example of how science and facts give way to political identity. COVID-19 does not care about whether its victim is a democrat or republican, and yet the victims seem to think it makes a difference.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.