This is Our Alien Invasion Moment. We’re blowing it, but we don’t have to.
A few lines from a more than 30-year-old speech can be a rallying cry for global cooperation and solidarity during the Earth rattling COVID-19 pandemic.
As the nations of the world continue to confront the COVID-19 pandemic in ways both responsible and irresponsible, I am reminded of a moment from US President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 address to the United Nations General Assembly. While mimicking the appearance of a thoughtful grandfather, Reagan ruminated on a hypothetical scenario pulled straight from science fiction pulp novels, last popular when Reagan was an actor in the 1950s. If the planet faced an alien threat, an invasion from outside this world, could we as diverse peoples and nations, with competing interests and desires, come together and defeat the threat as a singular force?
“I occasionally think of how quickly our differences world wide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world,” said Reagan to the U.N. General Assembly in the Fall of 1987.
Reagan was using this fictional scenario to find common ground with other world leaders, in the hope of eliminating the very real threat of global nuclear war. Six years later the United States and its chief geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union (in the process of becoming its successor, the Russian Federation) would sign the first in a series of agreements drastically reducing the global stockpile of nuclear warheads. Instead of the fear of nuclear holocaust, could the COVID-19 pandemic be the world encompassing event that unites the human race; akin to an alien invasion of Earth?
The coronavirus is not from a different planet. This new (or novel) form of the coronavirus is likely the result of commercial wet markets — large, often open air food markets where a wide variety of animals are caged and eventually butchered in close proximity to each other. That proximity increases the chance of a disease, like a new form of coronavirus, jumping from animal to human. Chinese health officials tracked the Coronavirus to a large food market in Wuhan, China and permanently closed the market in December 2019, after the virus began its spread through mainland China. A small group of individuals, news outlets, and even US government agencies, have conspiratorially disputed the origin of the virus, claiming a Chinese infectious disease laboratory either accidentally or knowingly released the virus into animal populations. Most scientists now agree that the narrative is not only false, but may be extremely difficult to execute on a scientific level.
What isn’t in dispute is the scope and severity of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Not since the Spanish Flu of 1918 has the entire world experienced such a universal pandemic. Nearly every nation on Earth has recorded infections and deaths from COVID-19. According to John Hopkins University, as of May 10th, over 4 million people have been infected and over 280 thousand people have died from COVID-19 world wide. If there was ever a moment that felt like a global, all encompassing threat, the one Reagan wistfully contemplated in front of the world’s leaders, this moment fits the criteria. Unfortunately, we’re not living up to Reagan’s premonition of vanishing differences and dissipating antagonisms.
In the middle of March as infections and deaths connected to COVID-19 began to dramatically increase, US President Donald Trump took up the habit of erroneously calling the coronavirus the Chinese virus, even marking out the word Corona and replacing it with Chinese in prepared statements. The tactic was an unsubtle attempt to distract the public and blame a foreign power for his administration’s own negligence in handling the early stages of the outbreak inside the United States. It’s very likely that tens of thousands of US citizens would still be alive today if the US government, as a whole, was more adequately prepared to handle viral pandemics and the Trump administration, in particular, acted faster in providing national and state health agencies with stronger, stricter guidelines in order to stem the spread of the virus. Even if the Chinese government acted in bad faith at any point during the initial COVID-19 outbreak, the US can’t blame the Chinese for its own long and short term failures.
Tragically, Ronald Reagan failed his own administration’s alien invasion moment by doggedly following his personal prejudices during the AIDS epidemic. What was initially and derisively called the gay plague (or GRID, “Gay-related immune deficiency”), would kill thousands of Americans before the Reagan administration publicly acknowledged the existence of the disease by the middle of the 1980s. In 2020 President Trump has different groups to despise than President Reagan, but the underlying cruelty through neglect, and the failure to take real responsibility for that negligence, is consistent.
As some countries are slowly beating back the virus and taking precautions to adequately protect citizens through testing, quarantines, infection tracing, and insurances for workers and impacted businesses, most countries are doing little to cooperate with one another outside of already established partnerships. Last month Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed that a Canadian cargo plane, attempting to retrieve purchased personal protective equipment (PPE), returned from China empty due to strict regulations. “We have been fighting in a very competitive international environment where everyone is looking for PPE,” said Trudeau.
According to Global Trade Alert, a free-market focused research agency created in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, numerous nations have either banned or restricted the export of PPE, medical appliances, and other health supplies during the pandemic. Where countries have not outright banned the exchange of medical necessities, competing nations are using considerable resources to find and then bid for essential supplies. Even as lives are lost, coronavirus is being treated as a market factor — albeit an extreme, outlying market factor — but not too dissimilar to a delayed soy bean crop or an over production of crude oil. This commodification of life-saving materials is perhaps based in the belief that whoever can smartly navigate the crisis will come out stronger. In terms of national economies, there will be winners and losers in the fight against COVID-19; regardless of whose citizens get to live or die.
Perhaps the most troubling sign of economic nationalism connected to the pandemic lies in the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Dozens of laboratories and companies have begun the preliminary steps to develop a viable vaccine, a process that will likely last more than 18 months. Creating a vaccine is a long and complex task requiring funding, patience, and luck. Medical scientists are a long way from creating a life-saving vaccine for the virus, but the specter of COVID-19 drug monopolization is already lurking. German officials have claimed that the US government has tried to secure exclusive control on any vaccine created by German pharmaceutical company CureVac. Striking a strong contrast to the claim, the German government says it remains committed to open access to vaccines. German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that CureVac would develop a vaccine “for the whole world, not for individual countries.”
COVID-19 doesn’t respect international borders or discriminate against specific groups of people. It doesn’t matter if you are young, old, poor, rich, American or German, anyone can be infected and get sick. While confronting a deadly, indiscriminate global pandemic the strategy of every country for themselves is myopic and dangerous, no matter what country you live in. But it doesn’t have to be this way, there is another option. We can see a more hopeful and effective approach to an alien invasion moment in a revised version of Reagan’s sci-fi fantasy.
An updated take on an alien first encounter can be seen in the 2016 film Arrival. In the movie, adapted from a Nebula Award winning novella by Ted Chiang, a team of US military commanders, aided by expert linguistic Dr. Louise Banks, must find out why 12 alien space craft have landed on Earth. The aliens are not hostile, however they cannot readily communicate with humans. At its core Arrival is a film about communication, both the possibility and challenge it presents. By the end of the story Dr. Banks does not fully understand the alien species’ intentions, but she is able to reach a profound, yet mystifying understanding with a powerful Chinese military leader — a person seemingly alien to her role as a peaceful academic.
Even if Arrival’s premise seems fantastic and unrealistic, the story’s conclusion offers a valuable lesson for the COVID-19 crisis. As communication breaks down between the nations attempting to decipher the aliens’ motives, the aforementioned Chinese military commander prepares to attack one of the alien vessels, which may cause a chain reaction of violence. Through learning the alien’s language Dr. Banks is able to open a line of communication with the commander and persuades him to stop the attack, likely averting any global retaliation against humans. The aliens eventually leave Earth without attacking, but in the course of their visit the aliens have forced humans to communicate and cooperate in ways they never expected.
Communication and cooperation, although difficult, often yield greater results than isolation and unchecked competition — particularly in the context of a global health disaster. Our world is so deeply connected and interdependent that cooperation between nations is not only necessary, it is nearly impossible to avoid. Even an extremely isolated nation such as North Korea has been impacted by the coronavirus and benefited from close cooperation with China, even if they refuse to admit it. A vaccine won’t be discovered any faster if nations refuse to share data. Economic hardship in one country will undoubtedly impact others. To say otherwise is to disregard the long list of pandemics that have come before.
In a frustrating way the arrival of this novel form of coronavirus, along with many other pandemic causing diseases throughout modern human history, is due to the interconnectedness of our world. The commercial wet market in Wuhan, China that likely incubated the virus is a product of industrialized animal trade. Since the opening of China to the global market in the 1970s, meat producers in the country have grown rapidly and consolidated into factory farms, all in order to feed an increasingly meat hungry national and international population. In order to survive, small and family sized farms were encouraged by the Chinese government to catch, breed and sell exotic animals that were not being produced and sold by large farms. These wild animals (such as bats, pangolin, or game birds) can spread coronaviruses to humans. The dangerous practice has continued and expanded up until today.
But China is not the singular culprit for the spread of infectious coronaviruses. Since the mass domestication of animals, humans have had to contend with diseases spread via human to animal contact. Commercial wet markets are a result of an interdependent and globalized world. We must understand that as human consumption continues to grow, so does the complexity of the consequences of that growth. In the 100 years since the Spanish Flu outbreak the science and strategies designed to prevent such pandemics have improved — more effective vaccines for domesticated animals are available, revised food safety regulations have saved countless lives, and greater transparency have prevented future harm. But these solutions didn’t come out of isolation. All nations, perpetuating a hungry, yet wasteful system share the blame for COVID-19 and similar diseases, but they also share the burden to correct past mistakes through renewed cooperation.
This is where we, as individuals and nation states, can succeed in a moment that may feel foreign or alien, but is in fact common and universal in human experience. In January, the United Nations launched a new initiative designed to promote renewed international cooperation and stronger channels of communication in the hopes of tackling a growing list of global issues. The UN75, named for coming 75th anniversary of the UN, is asking people across the world to share their concerns on issues that impact the entire planet. UN75 is currently conducting a short one-minute survey, collecting people’s thoughts on a variety of global challenges, from terrorism to climate change. The initiative will then publish the survey’s findings in the hope of beginning new dialogues. It’s a simple way to remind people in all nations that they do not exist on an island, one nation’s challenges are intrinsically connected to others. The global reach of COVID-19 is a stark and obvious reminder that we need to cooperate with one another more than ever.
Some world leaders are taking the call for cooperation to heart. A European Union ambassador to Chile had some encouraging words when asked what is needed to defeat COVID-19. “Facing the crisis successfully requires unprecedented mobilization and management of resources,” said Stella Zervoudaki in a March 2020 interview with Chile’s La Tercera newspaper. “Solidarity within and between countries, and the willingness to make sacrifices for the common good are decisive.” In the same spirit, a committee of national foreign policy ministers known as The Alliance for Multilateralism has prepared and signed a memorandum of mutual support, focusing not only on the global health and economic challenges posed by COVID-19, but also the difficulties in combating misinformation and mitigating long term consequences.
This week the world commemorates two important milestones in global cooperation: the end of World War II in Europe and the start of the EU. After centuries of near continuous war on the continent, the lasting peace in post war Europe has been perhaps the strongest argument for multinational cooperation. Let’s hope the global response to COVID-19 can reach beyond a single continent. A throwaway line from a 33-year-old speech by a second-rate actor turned politician may seem like an odd, somewhat underwhelming rallying cry to global solidarity. But we have seen the hopeful outcome of Reagan’s idea before. Why should now be any different? Let us have faith in each other’s intentions and institutions, seek to understand each other’s actions and motives, and work toward finding solutions without prejudice or malice. Let us let go of our differences and treat each other with respect, as if our lives depend on it — because they do.
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Please follow your local government’s guidelines and procedures regarding COVID-19. Wear masks where necessary, wash hands frequently, and practice social distancing whenever possible. For more information on coronavirus and combating COVID-19 please consult the CDC and the WHO.