THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC IN A POLITICALLY DYSFUNCTIONAL WORLD
Covid-19 is politically agnostic. It ignores national boundaries. To contain and to defeat this modern-day plague requires ingenuity, commitment, communication and above all, global cooperation irrespective of ideology. Nations must put aside their differences and come together to secure global health, safety and economic well-being.
When the virus first appeared in China, their leaders hesitated before acting aggressively to bring it under control. When the Chinese leadership notified the global community about the crisis, this created the opportunity for the rest of the world to act. Instead, many in the West took this as an opportunity to condemn the Chinese for failing to act speedily enough, and for failing to go public at the very first sign. The West lost valuable time.
US intelligence officials don’t think the pandemic was caused by deliberate wrongdoing and that the prime suspect is “natural” transmission from bats to humans. However, solving the mystery of how covid-19 began isn’t a blame game, but a chance for China and the United States to cooperate in a crisis and prevent a future one.
The world was rightly up in arms when Chinese Dr Li Wenliang was silenced for “fear-mongering” when he sounded an early warning about the appearance of the coronavirus in China. He subsequently died of the disease. On 2 April 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US Navy had sacked Captain Brett Crozier, commander of US aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt for causing “panic” after a memo to military officials in which he pleaded for help, calling for decisive action with a major coronavirus outbreak onboard his ship at sea. His memo was leaked. His removal has caused outrage.
Plagues and The Blame Game
In a brief ABC history (Black Death), expert guests discussed plagues which have occurred over the centuries. In the 14th century, the 1348 plague, known as the Black Death, killed about half of the population of Europe and Asia. The London plague of 1665 killed a quarter of the population and the 1720 plague in Marseille, France killed half the population. In 1894 a plague emerged in Hong Kong becoming a global phenomenon. It was found to have spread through fleas on rats although this theory was resisted by the British, who controlled Hong Kong at the time.
In 1900, the bubonic plague struck in Australia. Scientists attributed the disease to rats which entered Sydney aboard ships. Many workers living close to the wharf were infected and quarantined at the North Head Quarantine Station. Many died. Fear and hysteria led to a search for scapegoats. Locals blamed the Chinese leading to a tremendous reaction against the Chinese community. The government reacted by moving hundreds of Chinese families into quarantine in tents near the wharf, away from those who had the plague. Many Chinese homes were destroyed. This plague was not caused by the Chinese!
President Trump, tried to distract attention from his administration’s failure to act, despite having months to prepare. He blamed China, referring to the “China virus”. By the end of March 2020, USA had a greater number of covid-19 cases than China.
In early December 2019, China detected the coronavirus, only reporting the disease to the World Health Organisation (WHO) at the end of December. The US Health and Human Services Secretary declared a public health emergency on 31 January but even sophisticated laboratories could not begin testing without authorisation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As late as 12 February, only the CDC (American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) could undertake testing (as labs were not yet authorised by the FDA). Few tests were carried out and only 11 people tested positive with Trump saying, “We’re doing great in our country - - - We only have 11 cases, and they’re all getting better”. By 16 February the CDC and US public health labs had carried out only 2.4 tests per million people in contrast to South Korea which had carried out 154 tests per million people. On 24 February the US state public health laboratories pleaded for the FDA to open up testing. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases expressed growing concerns about the slow pace of testing. Eventually on 29 February, the FDA issued less restrictive protocols, enabling wider testing to take place. By 28 March, the death toll in USA had reached 2,198 and continued climbing.
World Health Organisation Declares Public Health Emergency
On 30 January 2020, the Director General of WHO, Tedros Ghebreyesus declared a public health emergency. At the same time, he congratulated the Chinese government for the extraordinary measures which it had taken to contain the outbreak, and he added that China was setting a new standard for outbreak response.
The Asia Times (a frequent China critic) wrote that China’s virus response had been “breathtaking” and that President Xi Jinping was leading a scientific “People’s War” against the coronavirus, observing that China had managed to quarantine an urban environment of over 56 million people – “an absolute first in terms of public health, any time in history.” Millions of Chinese citizens were totally mobilised in the fight.
In the meantime, President Trump downplayed the threat - “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”. On 6 March, Trump announced that the US was “highly prepared for anything”. It was not.
The Chinese had delayed announcing the disease to the WHO for most of the month of December 2019. The USA continued to dither well into late March 2020 even though its leading health professionals were crying out for urgent action.
In a scathing article on 18 March 2020, the Washington Post published an opinion piece captioned “This is the biggest blunder in presidential history”. The Trump administration had squandered America’s advantage – a time lag during which to prepare for the crisis, thus enabling the spread of the disease when it might have been contained! Whilst the USA had lost the window of opportunity, Singapore had enacted severe measures to test and quarantine. It had acted swiftly not only through its invasive surveillance (which might not have been acceptable to the West) but also because it had spent years building a public health system which includes clinics for epidemics.
Medical professionals in USA paint a picture of scarce resources, growing anxieties and frustrations with the government for failing to adequately prepare. The lack of personal protective equipment means that frontline healthcare workers are faced with a higher risk of exposure to the virus. Trump has resisted the opportunity to replenish the US stockpile of such equipment by using the Defence Production Act. Instead he has said that state leaders should source their equipment on their own and that the government is not “a shipping clerk”.
In the meantime, on Thursday, 19 March 2020, China reported that there had been no cases of domestic coronavirus infections in the country for the first time since the outbreak began, a positive sign that the impact of the outbreak appeared to be waning.
Nevertheless, a Total Information War and weaponization of the “China threat” was spreading globally. In a discriminatory article, Salvatore Babones used the opportunity to attack China suggesting that the absence of “civil society” was the key gap in China’s public health infrastructure, arguing that communism had destroyed civil society. Despite this “lack of civility”, Pepe Escobar reported that Beijing had sent an Air China flight to Italy carrying 2,300 large boxes of masks bearing the script “We are waves from the same sea, leaves from the same tree, flowers from the same garden.” China also sent a large humanitarian package to Iran. Serbian president Vucic was explicit “The only country that can help us is China.” Under harsh sanctions and demonised for ever by USA, Cuba continues sending its doctors abroad to render assistance, and to perform breakthroughs developing a therapeutic treatment (not a vaccine) which has been used with success in the treatment of coronavirus. A joint venture in China is producing an inhalable version.
Authoritarianism V Democratic Liberal Order
On 3 March 2020, the Asia Times noted that China’s apparent success in containing Covid-19 may not be matched by Western countries which lack the political controls and access to individuals’ personal data. China had used data from hundreds of millions of smart phones to contain the spread of the virus applying sophisticated computational methods on a scale never attempted in the West. The Chinese applied artificial intelligence to supplement basic public health measures using algorithms which could determine that a given neighbourhood or individual may have been exposed to Covid-19. China can use electronic tracking to establish the chain of transmission of the virus while this remains a mystery in many other countries where privacy laws prevent governments from collecting smartphone data. Draconian measures were taken in cordoning off Wuhan province. One western cynic commented that “In the United States every one of the critically ill patients in Wuhan would have had a medical malpractice lawyer.” China showed the advantage of its authoritarian system in enforcing a strict lockdown, which is especially worrying when the western liberal order looks so wobbly.
The WHO labelled the coronavirus outbreak a “Pandemic” on 12 March, observing that the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold in only two weeks. The WHO expressed deep concern at the “alarming levels of inaction” and called upon governments to change the course of the outbreak by taking urgent and aggressive action, noting that governments had to strike a balance between protecting health, minimising disruption and respecting human rights.
The day before the WHO pandemic announcement, a BBC News report asked - “Is the US willing to go as far as Italy – another democracy – or even authoritarian China?” What measures was the US prepared to take? In Washington State where most US deaths from Covid-19 had occurred, officials were weighing “whether mandatory measures are required”. According to the Director of Columbia University’s National Centre for Disaster Preparedness, the likelihood of the US following Italy’s plan was “extremely small”, saying that this would amount to martial law – “a very far step for Americans to manage”. Any quarantine measures would face “strenuous legal challenges, at every level of government”.
It was only after the WHO Pandemic announcement that Trump took to the airwaves making a carefully scripted (and widely criticised) speech in which he sought to provide reassurance to the American public, simultaneously banning all European arrivals into USA for 30 days.
On 28 March 2020, the Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece “Has Australia’s coronavirus response been too slow off the mark?” Prime Minister, Scott Morrison remained relatively upbeat saying “I would rather be in Australia now (doing what we are doing) than in any other country in the world today.” Prof Raina MacIntyre (head of biosecurity at the Kirby Institute in Sydney) was alarmed by Canberra’s determination to proceed by way of incremental steps saying that “The window to have acted decisively has grown a lot smaller.” Only a week earlier the threat was exacerbated by the disgorging of thousands of untested passengers from the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney (which lead to energetic finger-pointing between NSW Health and the Australian Border Force). MacIntyre labelled this a debacle. She and others expect Australia’s low numbers to change markedly in coming weeks, a fear underscored by an article in the Medical Journal of Australia, warning that Australian hospitals (like USA) do not have the capacity to accommodate what they foresaw might be the demand on intensive care beds. David Heslop from the University of New South Wales said “many thousands, into the tens of thousands” were at stake. Medics and nurses were fearful of shortages of personal protective equipment.
There is a growing view that the Australian economy might be better off with a New Zealand style lock down, saying that a short sharp shock now would be a better way to go and that uncertainty was killing business in the meantime. The overwhelming majority in a group of experts convened mid-March, by the Group of Eight prestige Australian universities urged a strategy of “go now, go hard and go smart” but this did not find favour in Canberra.
The New Zealand government moved to a total lockdown of the country even though there had been no deaths and only a few hundred cases of covid-19. New Zealand has a national influenza pandemic emergency plan, instituted in 2002 and overhauled in 2017. It is following that plan with the government having decided to make an early, committed and extensive attempt to stamp out the disease.
The failures in much of the West contrast poorly with the vigorous and highly effective action taken in China whose Authoritarian leadership has enabled it to take determined action to minimise the spread and consequent deaths of its citizens. USA and Australia have hesitated about what action to take, fumbling the risk of adverse reaction by human rights activists and privacy laws. Arguably, countries like USA and Australia with their federal constitutions, and the need to take account of multiple state, and not only central governments are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to unified and decisive action. However, Authoritarian regimes have been able to act to protect real, and by far the most important human right – the right to live - by saving lives and containing the spread of the deadly virus. This approach does not have to be limited to authoritarian regimes. Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand are striking examples of strong, decisive and effective action.
This battle is not, and should not be regarded as, a contest between different political systems. There is no such thing as a perfect political solution, whether democratic, communist, authoritarian or otherwise. Each system has its pros and cons. Authoritarian states have been able to act with a degree of vigour and determination, not readily available in the Liberal Democratic world. There have been clear advantages for nations such as China, and even Israel who are willing to take vigorous steps to achieve health outcomes even where this may offend the sensibilities of some human rights activists.
 The Washington Post 3 April 2020  Rear Vision – Black Death, 22 March 2020  The Economist 26 March 2020  Information from Washington Post on 30 March 2020
 30 January 2020  For example, on 19 March 2020 the Asian Times published a deeply hostile opinion piece by Grant Newsham referring to the CCP as an aggressive, capricious dictatorship with its concentration camps and organ harvesting scheme that matches Joseph Mengele’s deeds, and saying that US company investment in China was equivalent to doing business with Hitler, and then suggesting that investing in China is contributing to a Ponzi scheme  Time Magazine, Special Report (dated 6/13 April 2020)  Washington Post 19 March 2020  The Australian 31 January 2020  Asia Times on 17 March 2020  BBC New 24 March 2020  The Interpreter, 1 April 2020