For almost a month, China has been engaged in a heroic fight against the novel coronavirus pneumonia (NCP). According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, as of February 10, there were 40,235 confirmed cases and 909 deaths. While the problem is principally in Hubei Province in central China with 29,631 cases, other provinces such as Guangdong in the south, Zhejiang in the east, and Henan in central China, have also been affected, though to a much lower extent.
In other countries, 319 cases in total have been reported. These countries include Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Thailand, the U.S., France and Germany. Although the novel coronavirus is not the same virus that caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, it has drawn some parallels in analysis because both epidemics broke out in the same country.
While China has been significantly transformed in comparison to 17 years ago, it is still encountering significant challenges as an emerging economy. This becomes evident in the 2009 Global Health Security Index, a project by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and the Nuclear Threat Initiative using research by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The index links relevant capabilities with the level of income and puts China in the 51st position out of 195 countries.
A public disease can start everywhere and makes no exemptions. Developed countries have also seriously suffered from them. The H1N1 influenza that appeared in 2009 was first found in human beings in Mexico before reaching the U.S. In April that year, the U.S. had to declare a public health emergency, which was renewed in July and October.
The incidence of illness continued to rise and then President Barack Obama announced the influenza had constituted a national emergency. Estimated fatalities in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were 12,469. At that time, Beijing took successful measures to prevent the spread of H1N1. According to a China Youth Daily poll, the measures were highly appreciated by an overwhelming majority of the Chinese society.
The Chinese Government’s battle against the NCP outbreak is multifaceted. The intensive support being offered to patients daily, including psychological counseling; the construction of two hospitals in Wuhan in only a few days; along with implementing numerous controls. Measure people’s temperature in public places are indicative of that.
Additionally, efforts to test medicines and develop a vaccine are expanding. The speed, scale and efficiency of the response have been praised by WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Moreover, the government is providing financial assistance to citizens and companies suffering economic losses due to the disruption in their activities. This is the true meaning of a governmental social policy. When people are helpless due to a crisis beyond their means, the state needs to intervene.
As far as the international reaction is concerned, there are countries that are helping. Daily briefings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refer to specific cases along with the government’s appreciation of support in difficult times.
A remarkable one is that of Japan, which has sent face masks, goggles, protective suits and other supplies for epidemic prevention and control. U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated—in a tweet—his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for the latter’s attempts to alleviate the crisis and for transparency in governmental policies. In his 2020 State of the Union address too, Trump spoke about coordination of actions with China.
Despite the good intentions of some governments, the role of the international media in the coverage of the NCP has been largely unfair. The media are more interested in publishing stories that appeal to their readers and audiences than conducting a thorough research on the matter.
A few years ago, I wrote a book about the coverage of the Greek economic crisis in the international media and concluded that many journalists had unreservedly vilified Greece and its citizens without having a clear idea about the problem or having visited the country. This is what is currently happening with the case of the NCP and China. You don’t have to be an expert in political communication to understand that the criticism of the Chinese Government comes from the Sinophobia in the Western discourse.
Sadly, there have been incidents of racism and xenophobia against the Chinese and people with Asian features. Fear and panic fueled by media reports lead individuals to occasionally show an unacceptable attitude.
But on a positive note, there are journalists across the world who condemn this behavior and warn about the impact of prejudices. People in Europe, where the racist incidents occurred, are more likely to be infected by seasonal influenza than the NCP. Countries that do not follow WHO guidelines and decide to suspend all flights to China will realize that it will damage their national economies.
This Spring Festival was certainly different. Numerous people had to stay at home and cancel their holiday or business schedule for safety reasons. Despite the inconvenience due to the precautions and the uncertainty about the evolution of the public health crisis, the Chinese society has remained united. This is perhaps China’s most important ‘profit’ in the last weeks.
Even under extreme circumstances, the public is determined to fight together with biologists, doctors and the authorities and tackle the problem. This mentality can be rarely understood in the West, where critics of China and its governance model abound.
The Chinese leadership has not looked for excuses even though the international criticism against it has been often unfair. Though the diagnosis of the NCP was delayed and movement of people from Wuhan was not immediately controlled, the flaws have been noted and will shape future actions. The subsequent responsible mobilization by the Chinese Government is producing results. Thousands of patients have been released from hospitals, people are returning to their business. Patience is still needed but this element has never been absent in China.
When the crisis is over and life returns to normal, it is not only this country that will benefit from it, it will be the world. Solidarity with China will accelerate this global victory.
The author is director of EU-China Programs at the Center international de formation européenne
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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