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Why Americans Should Care That Other Countries Are Still Struggling With COVID-19

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Where we are in the arc of the pandemic depends very much on where in the world we are experiencing it. In the U.S. these days, there's a lot of talk about light at the end of the tunnel and about family reunions and hugging loved ones, about leaving our houses after a long year-plus of quarantines and lockdowns. Well, much of the rest of the world is not there yet. And that has implications both internationally and also for Americans. Here to talk about what summer 2021 might look like on a global scale is Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Dr. Nuzzo, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JENNIFER NUZZO: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: All right. So I'm going to ask you to imagine we're spreading out a world map in front of us, and the places that are really struggling, that are being ravaged right now by the coronavirus, are lit up. They're blinking red. What are the top two, three, four places that would be just pulsing crimson on our world map?

NUZZO: Sure. Well, it's really, I think, dotted all over the map. But we had in previous weeks been deeply, deeply worried about Latin America. And obviously, the worries there remain, but the map is getting a little bit dimmer than it had been. Now, of course, there are deep worries about many countries, particularly in sort of the Asia-Pacific region, that hadn't necessarily been lit up before. And in fact, many of the countries that we're seeing case increases in are actually countries that had been doing quite well in the last year or so.

KELLY: Like what? What are the countries you're thinking?

NUZZO: Sure. So I think a great example is Taiwan. They were really the poster child of a successful response. But now, they are seeing a fairly substantial increase in cases - still small numbers compared to what we've seen here in the United States, but it really demonstrates how much at risk all countries will be until they're able to vaccinate their populations.

KELLY: All right. I was going to ask, is there a single factor uniting the places that are lit up bright red? Is it vaccines are not available, or if they are, they're not getting into arms?

NUZZO: Well, right. So I think that's probably the biggest factor is that countries that have not been able to vaccinate substantial portions of their population remain at risk. And then, of course, there is also the concern about new forms of the virus, variants that seem to have increased transmissibility, which makes it harder for countries to respond with the non-pharmaceutical interventions. If each infected person is potentially able to infect more, it just makes it harder to kind of get a handle on the virus through those other slower measures like testing, contact tracing and isolation.

KELLY: How the rest of the world is faring obviously matters to Americans who travel. It, of course, should matter to all of us as human beings who care about the fate of other human beings on this planet. But lay out the case for why Americans, vaccinated Americans, have a direct interest in the rest of the world beating this.

NUZZO: Sure. So, first of all, I mean, obviously at a human level, the fact that we have since invented vaccines that can prevent human suffering really ups the moral stakes here. Any additional loss of life in an era where we have not a small amount of vaccines that can prevent that loss of life really make this an utter tragedy that we are continuing to see the numbers of deaths occurring that we are seeing.

But putting the moral argument aside, there's also a pragmatic one, which is, you know, we're finding genetic mutations in the viruses that are circulating. And each time we find it, we have to ask, does it mean increased transmissibility? In many cases, the answer has been yes. And then there's also the question of, does it mean that the vaccines that we have will no longer be effective? So far, the answer to that question has been no, but there is no particular reason not to worry that it could one day be yes.

KELLY: It boils down to if Americans truly want things to go back to normal, whatever that looks like now, it's not going to happen until the rest of the world is out of the woods, too.

NUZZO: None of us will be safe until all of us are safe. We have seen the incredible upheaval that this virus has caused just in terms of businesses and our abilities to receive products made overseas. And if our goal is to go back to that 2019 life that we probably all miss quite dearly, really, that's not going to happen unless we're able to protect most of the globe with vaccines. And unfortunately, we're not doing a very good job of that.

KELLY: That is Jennifer Nuzzo from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Dr. Nuzzo, thanks for talking to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NUZZO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.