Coronavirus: Modern states and the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic – opinion

Despite significant scientific evidence and extensive predictions, not one Western democracy was prepared to deal with the coronavirus flare-up.

A man walks past a poster covering the side of a building ahead of a 21 day lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cape Town, South Africa, March 26, 2020. (photo credit: MIKE HUTCHINGS / REUTERS)
A man walks past a poster covering the side of a building ahead of a 21 day lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cape Town, South Africa, March 26, 2020.
(photo credit: MIKE HUTCHINGS / REUTERS)
The recent SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has led many governments to place severe constraints on the freedom of movement of their citizens. These constraints have for the most part been accepted either due to the authoritarian nature of the state (for example China), or due to a belief that the decisions of elected leaders are being made in the interests of their citizens.
Nevertheless, some libertarians have pushed back against the edicts and the fact that in many cases they are the result of pressures emanating from medical experts and media pundits, none of whom are elected by the populace. Indeed, these libertarian and often conservative voices have argued that the social isolation and widespread limits on personal freedom are counterproductive, and that the “cure may be worse than coronavirus”.
In studies of prehistoric humans, hunter-gatherers represented the norm. Nomadic in nature, they followed food sources and were organized in bands. Bands were characterized by an egalitarian social structure, with status primarily related to physical prowess. The leader of the band lived a simple life without noticeable hierarchical advantages. After the domestication of cereals, pulses and animals, humankind became more sedentary.
With the availability of sufficient food, small social villages were sustainable and increased in size from bands of 10-20 people to tribes of 50 up to several hundred. Despite certain notable exceptions, the advantages related to food production and beasts of burden allowed continued population growth that led to the formation of chiefdoms and ultimately of states.
As societies evolved through prehistoric and modern times, the freedoms associated with the individual became constrained. In bands, the individual had near total freedom to choose where and how to live.
Most band members were family and there was no need for regulating behavior or policing activities. Survival dictated the choices made and the wrong choice of what to eat, where to go or whom to fight, often led to death. As societal complexity increased bureaucratic regulations hindered or eliminated individual freedoms.
Citizens of a state were required to pay taxes, obey traffic regulations, become literate, be civil and nonviolent, fish and hunt at certain times and in certain places, and make individual sacrifices for the public good. Prehistoric band members would have grunted at and bristled under such constrictions. Modern man accepts them because they come with benefits that ensure survival in times of famine, war and disease.
The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic provides an operating theater to test the effectiveness of the modern states in the time of a world-wide health crisis. From this perspective, most of the states of the world, and in particular the democracies, appear to be struggling. Despite significant scientific evidence and extensive predictions, not one Western democracy was prepared to deal with the coronavirus flare-up.
Shortages in basic medical supplies such as masks and protective garments and in essential life-saving medical equipment have resulted in high levels of infection and preventable deaths. The reticence of politicians to act decisively, often due to non-medical based concerns, has placed their populations at high risk and hampered the response to the outbreak. Fortunately, the free world now understands the true dangers of the sub-microscopic particles that are waging an invisible war against us.
AS A SCIENTIST, I am optimistic that SARS-CoV-2 will be contained, and that colleagues around the world will develop effective therapies to treat the COVID-19 disease, prolong the lives of those infected, and ultimately prevent future transmission through vaccination and appropriate protocols for social behavior. The unanswered question is, what will be the cost of our lack of preparation?
Those who believe that the “cure is worse than the coronavirus” view the problem from various perspectives. Some are true believers in individual rights. The conservatives highlight economic and international power/status viewpoints. They suggest that shutting down our economies will weaken our world-standing and cause economic crises for large cohorts of our citizens, who will then suffer both physically and psychologically.
There is some validity to this argument. However, the Western democracies have the resources to ease the pain and prevent such stresses until the virus is under control. The unchecked spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the ultimate loss of millions of our countrymen would lead to unpredictable damage to the fabric of our democracies.
Such dire losses might lead to the unwillingness of many to continue to live under our system, resulting in significant social disorder and instability. Already we have seen countries questioning the value of super-states (like the European Union), and individual states questioning the effectiveness of centralized decision-making (as in the US).
At the time of writing this, the number of SARS-CoV-2 infections is approaching 1.25 million worldwide with an approximate 5% death rate. More than 5% of the cases have been reported in the US, with approximately a 2.3% death rate, which climbed steadily this past week. 
Those who argue for individual choice and for an opening of businesses must justify their ideologies in view of the potential cost in human life. The first responsibility of a band or a state is the survival of its people. The lockdowns, whether voluntary or decreed, will not last forever, and if they are conducted with empathy, humanity and wise economic planning, they will not lead to a major catastrophe.
Humankind has survived ice ages, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other pandemics. We will survive SARS-CoV-2. Some prehistoric and early historic chiefdoms were wiped out by germs brought from other cultures. In the past, geographic topologies and distances acted as barriers that slowed transmission. In our jet age, such barriers are meaningless. As we go forward, we humans must be farsighted, vigilant and prepared to encounter other health scourges with concerted world-wide and local efforts for prevention, and if necessary, for containment.
Success in the now oft-used idiom “flattening the curve” is dependent on our determination and our understanding that the security of all states will require international cooperation and mutual respect.  
The writer is a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, a former provost of CSI, and a visiting scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot.