Dealing with China after Covid-19Trump’s approach puts America in the wrong in the eyes of many who should be its friends.
With the coronavirus continuing its brutal global rampage, it takes a particular sort of malign genius to put the United States in the political dock as the death toll mounts and economic devastation spreads. Yet, that is what President Donald Trump is doing.
But first things first. In every country, medical workers and support staff have been on the front line fighting the pandemic on behalf of the rest of us. Beginning with the brave Chinese doctors and nurses who risked their lives and were muzzled by local political bosses when they tried to sound the alarm, we have seen similar examples of professional courage everywhere. And we should also salute those who try to keep normal life going by providing our food, operating our public transport, and cleaning our streets.
In the midst of a fire, it makes no sense to point fingers at the principal arsonist. The top priority must be getting the hoses to work and extinguishing the fire. But knowing how the Covid-19 pandemic started is central to learning how to prevent similar disasters in the future.
First, the outbreak began (like SARS in 2002) in China, probably in a so-called wet market in Wuhan, although some have pointed to allegedly lax biosecurity at a nearby virology research centre. (Although these suspicions have been widely debunked, they have been given greater credibility in some people’s eyes by the systematic destruction of the published outcomes of the research undertaken there and elsewhere in China.)
Second, the Communist Party of China (CPC) initially failed to disclose not only the outbreak but also the ease with which the novel coronavirus could be transmitted between humans.
Third, some critics believe that the World Health Organisation was hoodwinked about what exactly was going on in China. At the very least, they argue, the WHO was extraordinarily uncritical about the extent to which the CPC’s secretiveness appeared to limit China’s transparency and willingness to fulfil its reporting obligations.
Fourth, life in Wuhan appeared to go on as normal in the early stages of the outbreak. And during the Chinese New Year festivities, thousands left Hubei province (where Wuhan is the main city) to visit other parts of China or travel abroad.
Soon, some of these issues began to dominate the international agenda, with the CPC facing heavy criticism as a result of the fatal consequences of its secrecy. Chinese officials responded by attacking their critics and blaming the Covid-19 outbreak on the US military and even Italy.
All this is bound to affect other countries’ attitudes toward China—or rather, toward Chinese communism—and shape the lessons learned for preventing similar global catastrophes. But recent events cannot, and should not, wholly determine the outside world’s stance.
That is because China is for the time being the world’s most populous country and a major economic power, regardless of the immoral and dangerous nature of its regime. To recover from these horrors and their aftermath, we must try to persuade China to work with us, and we must strengthen the institutions that are essential for effective international cooperation.
Yet, Trump, long incensed by China’s economic and trade practices, opted for protectionism and China-bashing. At the same time, he has picked fights with most of America’s main trading partners, all of whom have similar criticisms of China. By preferring chest-thumping isolationism to building partnerships, Trump damaged America’s interests and encouraged nationalist prejudice in China.
And now he has done the same with Covid-19.
To be sure, Western liberal democracies should require honesty and openness from China in dealing with the pandemic and helping to prevent similar episodes. And under no circumstances should open societies surrender their values to try to curry favour with China. Nor should they fall for the self-seeking blandishments of Chinese leaders, whose agenda is hostile to what most of the world stands for.
Furthermore, liberal democrats must never fail to call out China when it is wrong—as it is, for example, in using the cover of the current health crisis to arrest some of Hong Kong’s leading democracy campaigners. And the West should continue to oppose the international isolation of Taiwan, a policy to which the WHO, to its shame, has been a party.
But Trump’s approach—attacking China at every opportunity and now announcing the suspension of US funding for the WHO—seems to put America in the wrong in the eyes of many who should be its friends. After all, we need a better and more effective WHO, not a bankrupt and toothless one.
For example, the WHO’s leadership role will be vital in preventing antimicrobial resistance (AMR) from causing up to ten million deaths annually by 2050, as a UK-government-commissioned review chaired by the distinguished economist Jim O’Neill warned in 2016. Moreover, because China is one of the world’s largest producers and heaviest users of antibiotics, addressing the AMR threat also requires us to work with President Xi Jinping as long as he is in power.
But cooperating with China does not mean subservience. Rather, it calls for good sense alongside determination.
For the time being, Chinese communism is a reality and a challenge, and the regime’s construction of a highly effective surveillance state would seem to entrench it further. But, like every other sort of authoritarian ideology in history, it will give way to something better, both for the Chinese people—who deserve a political system that embodies the best of China’s great civilisation—and the rest of humanity.
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Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.