As the news flows in day after day of the number of people infected by the Coronavirus and those who have died from it, I can’t help but think that we are rather helpless in dealing with it. News media seems to be able to do no more than simply report on the swelling numbers each day and, importantly, report on the Chinese authorities’ response to it.
What strikes me about most of the reporting is that it seems to revolve around the numbers infected and the state of lockdown in Wuhan. There is also growing interest in whether people in China who had the most forgettable Chinese New Year this year, will actually be getting back to work.
Why does all this matter? Because China matters to the entire world. More than it did in the time of the SARS epidemic in 2003, and more than it ever has in its entire history. It matters economically, and we can already see from the US-China Trade War, how that has impacted both these economies and all the others that are tied to China through trade – from countries in Latin America and Africa all the way to South East and East Asia.
It also matters that the western media has sought to focus on the numbers, rather than the human story behind it. It has, in some cases, added to the sense of panic, fear and even distrust between China and other countries. As this clip from a CGTN news video doing the rounds of social media makes amply clear, western media has been speculating and reporting insensitively and irresponsibly, when what is required from the world is greater understanding, expression of solidarity and support, and the determination to fight it together. I have myself heard a news reporter – on BBC World News, I think – call the coronavirus, Wuhan Virus.
Some politicians too, especially in the US, have been speculating and contributing to the anti-Chinese sentiment at a time of an international health emergency. Rumours and speculation over whether a secret pathogen research laboratory based in the epicenter of the crisis, Wuhan, created a virus which then ran amok, abound in social media and mainstream media news circles. The Guardian reports that there is even a Russian disinformation campaign being maliciously spread through social media and other news channels, according to US officials.
As it is, so-called Third World countries carry the blame of spreading disease and it has been so since the Black Death swept Europe in 1347, when too it was believed to have been brought from China on ships laden with merchandise. Fear and apprehension, born of ignorance, was palpable everywhere even in 17th century Europe, when yet another plague epidemic spread through the region and I was delighted to find this detailed personal account of it by Daniel Defoe on Project Gutenberg. First published in 1722, he says he felt compelled to write it since there were “no printed newspapers to print rumours and reports of it”!
As far as COVID-19 is concerned, an initial theory of the virus having travelled from bats through snakes to human beings, is being debunked with nothing more coherent to take its place. The WHO was itself late to call it an international health emergency in my opinion, and besides saying it is a serious concern, seems to have little else to offer.
Of course, there are the immediate and unavoidable comparisons with SARS and MERS, when the more recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika virus infections have been forgotten. We are being told that the Chinese authorities were trying to conceal the crisis initially, just as they were late in acknowledging the SARS epidemic, and are unable to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. From what I read and see in the news, China seems to be pulling out all the stops in trying to deal with the epidemic. From building new prefabricated hospitals in a little over 10 days in Wuhan, to imposing a state of lockdown and quarantine in the city, to calling in the services of the medical corps of the military, it has been quite an effort from the Chinese government. The latest news is that the Communist Party Congress, which is to take place next month in Beijing, might be postponed as well.
Of course, we know that the Chinese government can be authoritarian, and there might even have been an attempt to suppress the news as well as the people, but now is hardly the time to bring it up and cast aspersions on the Chinese. What we need is for the international leadership to step forward and offer all the help it can in identifying the cause and finding the remedy for it. The blame-game can come later.
Countries that have a comparative advantage in medical sciences and pharmaceuticals such as the US, UK, France, Switzerland, Germany and Japan ought to be taking the lead in spearheading new initiatives to combat COVID-19 on a war-footing. Because this is not the last such virus the world will be fighting; there will be many more to follow in future, and perhaps even on a pandemic scale. The fact is that COVID-19 is making bigger headlines than Ebola, because it happens to have originated and spread in China, the growth engine of the global economy. The Economist dedicated its February 1, 2020 issue to coronavirus and is of the view that the first quarter GDP for China might crash to 2% from 6%. That would indeed be a “hard landing” for China, one that the economist, Nouriel Roubini, has been predicting for the past decade and it won’t be debt that will cause it but death from a deadly and little-known virus. And it won’t be a hard landing for China alone.
Almost immediately international crude oil prices fell on the expectation that China’s demand would slow considerably. It will also impact other countries through commodities trade, the global supply chain and trade in finished goods. In India, for example, the biggest concern is the impact on our domestic pharmaceutical industry, since we are major importers of APIs (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients) from China. Not to be forgotten, the high-spending Chinese consumer and traveler will be missed in all the important tourist destinations of the world. Equally, multinational companies doing business in China will be adversely affected, no doubt, and will have to scale back their operations at least for the next year or so.
We are reminded in such times, of just how fragile the world is, how vulnerable and interdependent we all are, in the face of a crisis. The same goes for climate change. News of wildfires raging in California in the US and across much of eastern Australia during the past year, doesn’t make the same kind of headlines, because the economic impact isn’t as immediate or far-reaching, but we should know that there is no room for complacency. What strikes me as inexplicable is the intransigence of the political leadership in these countries in even acknowledging that we have a crisis on our hands, let alone finding ways to mitigate and combat it.
Whether COVID-19 has anything to do with man’s link in the food chain with the animal world or not, it is clear as daylight to me that we have got to do something about consuming less meat. For the sakes of our health and the environment, less meat in our diet is good for us and for the planet. I can see those in the meat and fisheries industries and even political leaders scoffing at the idea because the impact on many countries’ merchandise trade would be swingeing, but if we take a longer-term view – which is always a better one – we cannot argue against it.
Most of all, it would bring countries together in fighting a common enemy. Pandemics, or even epidemics, and climate change do not recognize national borders, and it would be a huge blunder if we thought that closing or sealing off our lands, is going to help the cause. These require a bold vision as well as a generous, liberal-minded, and well-reasoned response. I am reminded of Albert Camus’ The Plague, which he wrote in an allegorical sense to refer both to the epidemic that swept across Europe, as well as the fascist political climate in the continent. And because he set it in the port city of Oran in Algeria, which had faced a cholera epidemic before, the only reference point for residents was the cholera; they had never known the pestilence brought by rats.
“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; and the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”
Disease and pestilence as metaphor is perhaps itself an affliction, as Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor. I would rather we focus our energies on how to help China deal with its coronavirus crisis and in the process heal the world of its divisions and distrust as well.
I would rather we deal with COVID-19 and climate change through compassion, science and good sense, and not like the knight in Ingmar Bergman’s classic, The Seventh Seal (also set against the backdrop of the plague), who, thinking himself to be invincible, challenges Death to a game of chess.
The featured image at the top of this post is of a painting titled The Citizens of Tournai bury Plague Victims by Pierart dou Tielt, circa 1353, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Subscribers to The Whistle Newsletter from my blog can read the full text of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year in the March selection of reading and viewing at The Whistle Library on my blog site.