The first patient of the coronavirus disease or COVID-19, as termed by the World Health Organization (WHO), was identified on 8 December 2019, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. The virus has since infected more than a million people of 208 countries, areas and territories across the world and led to over 56,000 deaths. During his G-20 video address on March 26, President Xi Jinping stated that life and work are quickly returning to normal in China. This is after more than 3,300 officially reported casualties and over 82,000 confirmed cases o f COVID-19 in China.
Tribute to medical workers, China April, 1, 2020. Source: http://en.people.cn/
In this background, this paper analyses (a) sources of COVID-19; (b) China’s handling of the new virus; and (c) emerging debates in China and the world from different perspectives.
Historically speaking, China has a well-documented record of infectious diseases. Ancient dynasties of China and in the Republican period suffered from a number of cases of epidemic and severe epidemics.A study by scientists based on 5961 epidemic incidents in Chinese history established that there is a correlation between climate change and epidemics in Chinese history. Some historians from Tsinghua University, Beijing, have posited that epidemics often played a role in the rise and fall of the ancient Chinese dynasties.After the establishment of PRC in 1949, the Chinese government implemented policies focusing on prevention and control of epidemic disease. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2002-2003 presented a significant challenge to the Chinese authorities. The government responded by strengthening the public health system aimed to ensuring a fast response to future epidemics.
Origin of COVID-19
Several reports/theories claiming an artificial virus, alleging a Chinese conspiracy, and the possibility of links with bio-weapon development went viral on social media across the globe after the outbreak of COVID-19 in China. On the other hand a Chinese Foreign Ministry official Zhao Lijian said “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan” implying that the US military brought COVID-19 to Wuhan and it did not originate in China. However, the accusation was not supported by China’s Ambassador to the US Mr. Cui Tiankai. Further, China’s Global Times wrote on Twitter that “#Italy may have had an unexplained strain of pneumonia as early as November and December 2019 with highly suspected symptoms of #COVID19, reports said.” Seemingly, such theories are being floated to deflect growing criticism and conceal the origin of the COVID-19 by creating confusion.
In this context, the Chinese Ambassador to India Mr. Sun Weidong has noted: “About the virus itself, we still don't have enough knowledge. Scientists are doing their best to know more about this novel virus. Based on the analysis of genomic sequence, what we could know now is that this virus originates from nature, not man-made”.
A new study by US scientists, published in Nature Medicine Journal on March 17, 2020 has concluded that COVID-19 indeed had natural origins virus and could not be a ‘laboratory construct’. It is expected that scientists from China and the world will provide more knowledge based on their research about the origin of virus in coming months to conclude the debate.
It is widely believed that COVID-19 originated in the wet markets in Wuhan. China has traded and consumed wildlife animals mainly for traditional Chinese Medicine, laboratory research, fur and food. According to a report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Beijing, the wild life related industry employed more than 14 million people and the industry was valued at US$74 billion in 2016. China is the world’s largest producer of fur products. Studies suggest that Mink, fox and raccoon dog pelts are the most profitable.
It is noteworthy that “China is the world’s largest market for illegal wildlife trafficking”. China's National People’s Congress on 24 February 2020 had decided to impose a full ban on illegal wildlife trade. However, some reports suggest that the ban is not working well. The need is to strictly implement the ban and make laws so that wildlife traders, supply chain managers and global storehouses can be severely punished.
China’s Handling of the New Virus
It is generally believed that China could not properly handle the virus issue in its initial phase. According to Chinese government sources, it took a couple of weeks for China to share details about the new virus with the WHO, including the genetic sequencing of the new virus. It alerted WHO and other countries only after Chinese authorities learned that this could be transmitted from human to human.
A study by the University of Southampton found that if interventions in China “could have been conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent and 95 percent respectively”. China has defended its position by saying that it was not covering up anything, that there was very little knowledge about this new virus and that there was a process involved in discovering and identifying the new kind of virus.
As per reports, Dr. Li Wenliang from Wuhan Central Hospital had informed about a possible outbreak of an illness/pneumonia caused by a new virus that resembled SARS, later known as COVID-19. He was a whistleblower and his warnings were shared especially on social media. But, the local authorities reacted adversely. On 3 January 2020, he was summoned by Wuhan Police for “spreading false rumours”. Sadly, he died after getting infected to COVID-19 on 7 February 2020, at the age of 34. His death “crystallised the outrage and frustration felt across China over the initial cover-up of the deadly virus”.Later 19 March 2020, Wuhan Police apologised to the family of the Dr. Li Wenliang.
By January 7, 2020 the virus was identified as a new corona virus which could transmit human to human. Quickly, China adopted multiple prevention and control measures and launched “a concerted and well-coordinated effort to defeat the virus”. China constructed temporary hospitals in a short time in Wuhan and sent medical staff and supplies to Hubei province from its different provinces. Measures were taken to prevent the spread of the virus at national, provincial, local, and community levels. The city of Wuhan was locked down on January 23, 2020 and Hubei province implemented comprehensive and strict control over the outflow of personnel. Chinese military actively supported prevention and control measures. On March 12, 2020 China declared that the peak of COVID-19 was over in China and, new cases keep declining and overall situation is improving in China.Chinese experience of handling COVID-19 suggests some important lessons for other countries.
Recently, a famous Chinese respiratory specialist Zhong Nanshan and his team published an article in The European Respiratory Journal, detailing their experience in prevention and control of COVID-19. The study noted the “interagency mechanism that integrates early protection, early identification, early diagnosis, and early isolation has effectively curbed the rapidly growing outbreak”. Further, it stressed that “asymptomatic viral carriers could also be a source of infection, and early diagnosis and isolation of pneumonia patients is important”.
The effective use of in ICT in China is noteworthy in their fight against COVID-19. All Chinese citizens were required to register by their mobile phone for an app that separates the healthier person from the most vulnerable. This helped in identifying carriers of the COVID-19. People still have to show their QR health codes before entering business districts, while other prevention and control measures are also in place.
The outbreak of COVID- 19 in Wuhan, China has triggered major debates in China and the world. Some experts argue that the outbreak of COVID -19 and its initial mishandling shows the vulnerability of the “Chinese model” of governance or the “Beijing Consensus”. This is a very important issue as “it has adversely impacted the last person on earth”. Further, it has been argued that “COVID-19 is not merely a medical war; it is a conflict of ideas”..
Inadequate early responses to the outbreak of COVID-19 by the Chinese authorities have given birth to some new critical voices. It includes Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary posted on social media, also called the Quarantine Diary. First page of the Wuhan Diary was put up on Fang’s WeChat account, on February 7, the date on which Dr. Li Wenliang died. “Each entry in Fang’s Wuhan Diary has been consistently deleted by Beijing’s censors within an hour or so of it being posted on Fang’s social media page. Yet each post has gone viral before being struck down, being shared by millions of WeChatters within China and abroad.” She was not afraid of authorities in China and highlighted the need for political accountability during the time of COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. One occasion Fang wrote “Accountability is necessary. Or else how will you make it up to the thousands who have died, and more Wuhan people who have suffered?” The current debate over Wuhan Diary in China has expanded and includes political, social, and cultural issues.
Secondly, it has been debated that the COVID-19 could hurt the legitimacy of Communist Party of China.The crisis has also indicated political fault-lines in China. Viral posts in social media, such as, the Wuhan Diary could be considered a case in point.
Thirdly, the COVID-19 crisis is also seen as a crisis of neo-liberal capitalism. Many experts believe that the world may face contradictory tendencies of globalization and degloblization and the crisis can reinforce the trend towards a ‘more powerful and interventionist state’. Experts like, Mike Davis extend the debate by arguing that “capitalist globalisation now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure”.
Fourthly, COVID-19 has the potential to reshape global power equations. An expert argues that it is an ‘opportunity of the century’ for China to ‘rebuild its international image’. Others argue that responses of major powers to COVID-19 are most likely to define their future global role. Recently, Josep Borrell, the EU Foreign Policy Chief labeled China’s foreign assistance as the ‘politics of generosity’ and referred to a ‘global battle of narratives’. China has rejected this assessment. An Indian Sinologist noted that “Even as the world is struggling to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a subtle spat, nay power transition, happening at the global and regional levels”.
Fifthly, the debate about traditional and non-traditional security has acquired a new dimension. Some Chinese experts have highlighted that COVID-19 has raised the status of non-traditional security issues in the international strategic discourse. The position of public health in non-traditional security domains has also been elevated.
Sixthly, the COVID-19 has shown bankruptcy of international organisations including the role of the UN and the WHO. The latter in particular has come in for criticism for not sounding the alarm earlier. The Chinese leadership, on the other hand, has praised the role of the WHO in the current crisis. However, a well-known expert from China has highlighted that UN and WHO “lack authority and power to implement a global response” to fight the outbreak.
Finally, there is also the larger question linking this major health crisis with the ecological crisis. Further, the mainstream debate accepts that the economic cost of COVID-19 in China and the world will be huge for many countries.
In sum, it can be said that COVID-19 has impacted citizens of almost all countries across the globe. It remains important to know the exact source of the virus. President Xi Jinping has said that it is necessary to scientifically prove the source of the virus. This is a welcome statement. The outbreak of COVID-19, the initial mis-management by Chinese authorities as well as its well-coordinated efforts subsequently to defeat the virus give some important lessons for countries across the world fighting the battle against the pandemic.
*Dr. Sanjeev Kumar, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
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