In the last two weeks I have taken six flights to three countries in Asia. At each airport, before landing, I filled out a yellow card, checking off any symptoms of illness. My temperature was then screened before I was allowed to enter the country. The only country that asked me nothing — and checked nothing — on my arrival was the United States, as I was coming home through San Francisco airport. I found it particularly particularly odd as I was arriving on Singapore Airlines, which has 16 routes into China, seven into Japan and two into South Korea.
Robust screening of international travelers to the U.S. only began in mid-March. Unfortunately timed with Americans rushing home from Europe, it created mobs of passengers waiting up to six hours shoulder to shoulder, contrary to all social distancing guidelines.
This need not have happened.
According to 2019 figures, John F. Kennedy International Airport, one of the airports where serious bottlenecks occurred, processes more than 171,000 passengers daily on average. By contrast, Changi Airport in Singapore receives more than 187,000 passengers daily. They have no such bottlenecks or mobs, despite each international passenger completing health cards and walking through a temperature scanner. The difference is professional, organized planning backed by national government at the highest levels.
Changi Airport implemented health screening on Jan. 22. In the approximately six weeks that the U.S. lagged behind — while some elected leaders and influential media pundits were still calling coronavirus a “hoax” — it’s a safe estimate that more than 25 million people arrived unscreened through U.S. airports from international flights.
Even more shocking was the conversation around me after I returned, which is unlike any other in the world right now — acrimony, conspiracy theories and finger pointing between political parties, Facebook awash in stories of a “hoax” disease and claims that coronavirus was caused by 5G lines or purposely created by the Chinese. Meanwhile people are getting sick. In some cases, very sick. And they are our neighbors.
This might not have been as striking to me if it were not for the fact that my trip was to Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor), a small island of 1.2 million people between Indonesia and Australia. It is one of the poorest nations in Asia. Yet it managed to have someone hold a thermometer up to my head before I entered the country.
I traveled to Timor-Leste as part of my work with José Ramos-Horta, the former president of the country and the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. I happened to be at his dining room table when messages started pouring in about coronavirus, signaling that the threat was expanding around us.
The country was in political turmoil. Six days before I arrived, the prime minister had resigned, as the coalition that had put him in power had fallen apart. The president had refused to swear in the new ministers, so the ministers were all interim. As a result, no budget could be passed. Even so, they were able to come together, with leadership from Ramos-Horta and guidance from World Health Organization, to set up an inter-ministerial task force on COVID-19. Rising above division, the task force has worked closely with all political, civil society and church leaders, focusing on prevention, disseminating precise daily information, and mobilizing resources for public education.
A space was allocated to quarantine. Plans were put in place for makeshift hospital facilities in case of overflow.
Testing is free for anyone in the country. It is taking three days to get results because the tests are being sent to Australia. To shorten the timeline, the government is building new lab facilities in the country, which should be ready in two weeks.
It may not be fair to compare a nation as small and as poor as Timor-Leste to the United States. But I have often thought — when I return to the U.S. from my trips there — that as difficult as their lives have been and still can be, they still have something that we have lost somewhere along the way, a social wealth that on the level of the citizens is at least equal in value to material wealth. This is a wealth that becomes even more valuable in times of trouble.
There are no homeless people in the streets in Timor-Leste. If you don’t have a home and you live in a village, you can build a simple thatched hut somewhere. In the city, you would likely be on a cousin’s couch. In either case, your family and community members will help out with food until you are back on your feet.
No one is fighting over toilet paper. If you were to run out, your neighbor may have some to share. If neither of you has it, the two of you will figure out a solution. Then you would wonder if the old man at the end of the road has any.
This extends to their political leaders. As political parties compete for resources and position in the young democracy, it is not a smooth road. But when a threat looms, that can be set aside to take care of the first responsibility — the wellbeing of the community and its members.
Of course, the U.S. would require planning on an exponentially larger scale to replicate the care that has been put in place in Timor-Leste.
But perhaps when we find ourselves fighting over toilet paper and slinging mockery and denigration on Facebook, we could use this moment to look at ourselves. It may be our chance to realize that, in the face of a national health threat, when the stock market and political arguments consume more of our attention, conversation and planning than the steps necessary to protect the health of our neighbors, we may need to rethink our definition of wealth to include the richness of knowing our connection and responsibilities to one another — and the security of knowing our leaders are thinking of the same.