Attacks on China endanger future international stability

Wuhan station – Getty images

The Coronavirus outbreak is causing an unexpected fallout – friends that become ex friends.

I have probably read more and listened to more about this virus that most people over the course of the last three months. There are articles linked from this website together with thoughts of my own.

What I did say on facebook is that anyone who promotes right wing conspiracy theories or hate speech from the likes of Infowars or OANN would be immediately blocked.

But that has gone further. There are people that want China to be held to account; there are people who accept a US promoted theory that the virus escaped from a Wuhan biolab. There are people who are so eager to blame China that they distributing factless speculation, theory and commentary from questionable sources that have found the pandemic a convenient outlet for their anti-China sentiments. The trouble with so many individual stories is that taken in isolation they feed a particular argument or a personal viewpoint. A CNN piece about university censorship was picked up by many people as being part of a cover-up. But it almost certainly is not a cover-up, it is much more about a paranoid state still trying to control the narrative.

I am not an apologist for the Chinese regime – as I was accused of today. After all it is not everyone who gets a personal attack from China’s state-owned Global Times. But I have a combination of sympathy and hope for the Chinese people that they will one day see their way past a government that seeks to control every aspect of their lives. Our China problem is with the state not the people.

I also have a problem with this anger towards China and the demands that China somehow be held to account.

So rather than battle away with people who have already decided that China should be brought to account, without saying how, it is easier to just ignore them.

At a time when international co-operation is a necessity a battle between east and west, between superpowers is futile. When the dust finally settles there is little to be gained by antagonising the Chinese regime. That just plays to the ‘us versus them’ xenophobia which could quickly become out of control.

Let’s start with a look at the early dates of this pandemic:

On December 31 last year, China alerted the WHO to several cases of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. The virus was unknown.

Several of those infected worked at the city’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which was shut down on January 1. As health experts worked to identify the virus amid growing alarm, the number of infections exceeded 40.

Doctors knew only that the sick people had viral pneumonia that did not respond to the usual treatments.

On January 5, Chinese officials ruled out the possibility that this was a recurrence of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus – an illness that originated in China and killed more than 770 people worldwide in 2002-2003.

On January 7, officials announced they had identified a new virus, according to the WHO. The novel virus was named 2019-nCoV and was identified as belonging to the coronavirus family, which includes SARS and the common cold.

That allowed scientists around the world to study the virus and swiftly share their findings. As the scientific community moved quickly to devise a test for exposure, political leaders remained reluctant to act.

On January 11, China announced its first death from the virus. The same day the team at the Wuhan Institute of Virology shared the virus’s genetic makeup in a public database for scientists everywhere to use.

As the scientific community moved quickly to devise a test for exposure, political leaders were much slower to respond.

The WHO reported on January 13 a first case in Thailand, the first outside of China, in a woman who had arrived from Wuhan. As a side note I remain surprised that Thailand has not seen anything more than a trickle of cases.

On January 17, as a second death was reported in Wuhan, health authorities in the US announced that three airports would start screening passengers arriving from the city.

Authorities in the US, Nepal, France, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan confirmed cases over the following days.

On January 20, China reported a third death and more than 200 infections, with cases also reported outside Hubei province including in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Meanwhile, a Chinese expert on infectious diseases confirmed human-to-human transmission to state broadcaster CCTV, raising fears of a major outbreak as millions travelled for the Lunar New Year holiday.

The cities of Wuhan, Xiantao and Chibi in Hubei province were placed under effective quarantine on January 23 as air and rail departures were suspended. By the end of the week, more areas were placed under lockdown affecting a total of 56 million people.

Chinese authorities had banned flights (both domestic and international) and trains from operating in or out of the Wuhan on 23 January…at that stage the virus had only claimed 17 lives. What a difference three months makes with deaths now over 120,000.

As later happened in Bangkok and Delhi many residents in Wuhan did not understand the gravity of the epidemic until the lockdown was announced. An announcement that created alarm and led to crowds of people rushing to the airport and train stations to get out before the deadline fell on the morning of January 23rd; many taking the virus with them.

The timing of the outbreak could not have been worse. Hundreds of millions of people were about to travel back to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year. These were huge decisions taken when effectively the whole of China goes traveling.

Meanwhile the WHO said that the outbreak did not yet constitute a public emergency of international concern and there was “no evidence” of the virus spreading between humans outside of China.

But the virus was out there. Already transported by residents of Wuhan. The province was sending on average 900 people a month to New York, 2,200 to Sydney and 15,000 to Bangkok. (source; New York Times.)  People were still flying up until 23 January.

Once again the lack of extensive infection numbers and the low death toll in Thailand continues to be a surprise.

What was also unknown at the time was that about 85 percent of infected travelers went undetected but were still contagious.

On January 30, the WHO declared the coronavirus a global emergency as the death toll in China jumped to 170, with 7,711 cases reported in the country, where the virus had spread to all 31 provinces. By the end of the week, China reported 304 deaths amid 14,380 infections.

Within a few days, new cases were confirmed in India, Philippines, Russia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Singapore, the US, the UAE and Vietnam.

Now how did the virus quickly become global. Wuhan was under lockdown. But flights continued to operate internationally from China. Many, including Niall Ferguson, are calling out China for continuing to allow international flights. I will come back to that.

Too many people in authority want to create a narrative of who is to blame for its damage. The virus started in China. But how did it become a global pandemic.

Simple: travel from and within Europe preceded the first coronavirus cases in at least 93 countries across all five continents, accounting for more than half of the world’s index cases. Travel from Italy alone preceded index cases in at least 46 countries, compared to 27 countries associated with travel from China.

One of the reasons European travel facilitated the spread of the coronavirus was because those countries were late to close air links. Italy closed one terminal of Milan’s main airport on March 16, when the northern region of Lombardy already had 3,760 cases in a population of 10 million people. As a reminder China had shut down flights out of Hubei province on January 23, when there were 500 reported cases worldwide and 17 deaths in Hubei among a population of 58 million.

London’s Heathrow and Paris’s Charles De Gaulle airports were still open as cases soared in both of those cities, while Spain’s air operators only closed major terminals in Madrid and Barcelona when air traffic had ground to a halt anyway. Airlines like Qatar facilitated travel from one infectious hub to another with nothing in Doha beyond a temperature check.

A widely shared article in The Atlantic stated, “Is this a time for blame? Yes, it is.” It is a widely held view.

And it is fair, to a point. The outbreak began in Wuhan, China’s ninth most populous city. Chinese authorities covered up its dangerous spread early on.  Travel from China infected major countries like South Korea, Italy, Russia, Germany, India, and the USA.

But as China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong were stabilizing their coronavirus rates through a combination of massive testing, rigorous contact tracing, and strict lockdown measures, infections in European countries were shooting up.

Despite witnessing the devastation in China, and the rapid response put in place by its neighbors, European countries failed to take action as the virus spread rapidly from Milan, Paris, and London to countries in Africa, Latin America, and its European neighbors.

European public health officials had initially modeled their responses to coronavirus after the 2003 SARS epidemic, which was more locally contained in Asia. The assumption appears to be that a global spread was unlikely.

East Asian countries had built up their screening and contact tracing capacity after SARS. South Korea had learned its key lessons from its experience with the MERS outbreak in 2015, when testing production was delayed by regulations. In 2020 South Korea was ready to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak with fast and massive testing.

Italy, France, Spain, and the U.K. all failed to scale up testing.  Only Germany had the industrial capacity to mass-produce Covid-19 tests on short notice.

As it turns out the pandemic was then exported from Europe. South Africa’s first coronavirus cases had gone to northern Italy for a skiing trip. South America’s first case was a Brazilian who had traveled to Italy’s Lombardy region, and Bangladesh’s first cases were Bangladeshis who had also come from Italy. Panama’s index case was imported from Spain, and Nigeria’s first experience with coronavirus was an Italian business traveler. Jordan’s was imported from Italy.

Travel from Italy alone preceded index cases in at least 46 countries, compared to 27 countries associated with travel from China.

We were not ready. And people who have been defending the UK response (and the US response) are giving their governments a free pass. The west should have been better prepared.

Lets come back to China. Premier Xi has created a nation that fears his control while valuing the nation’s strength and increasing wealth. The theme of China as the oppressed for so long resonates with many.

A new Chinese assertiveness has come about as a response in part to Washington’s more confrontational stance towards China under Trump.

The rhetoric is no longer one way. But as China becomes more assertive so do most of its citizens.

Autocratic one-party rule in the People’s Republic of China has endangered everyone. In and outside of China. China could have done more to be transparent. But what they were dealing with was unprecedented and at the worst possible timing. Local officials remain far to eager to give Beijing the message that they think Beijing wants to hear even if the truth on the ground is different. That unfortunately is what self preservation does to you. The truth gets lost. Wuhan officials chose to put secrecy and order ahead of openly confronting the growing crisis to avoid public alarm and political embarrassment. That says much about China; but many nations might have done similar.

I suspect that no one realized that the infection was as serious as it would become until it was too late to stop it.

Their is now a group of voices speaking for what can be termed ‘unofficial’ China. These independent-minded academics, doctors, entrepreneurs, citizen journalists, public interest lawyers and young students no longer accept without question the CCP’s authoritarian rule. Neither should you. But it is the duty of embassies and intelligence officers in China to develop and protect these sources and report their narrative. Every country has their own intelligence and disease control agency. Every nation has as significant embassy and intelligence gathering network in China. These embassies are tasked among other things to provide situational reports and warning where necessary.  They appear to have been of little help.

We blame China because western nations failed to protect their own people. China sort to protect its people. They did their job. They are not International Rescue saving the world.

Back in mid February Bloomberg reported that “Beijing’s efforts to rally the nation with stories of upbeat patients and heroic front-line doctors are falling flat, with social-media users instead lashing out about harsh working conditions and insufficient measures taken to protect medical staff.”

How strange that two months later in mid April you could write almost the same thing about Britain; led by the Easter resurrection of Prime Minister Johnson,

At some time the CCP will fall. China’s change will come from within not from without. The West cannot change China.

Back to the virus. Researchers continue to isolate the true origins but virologists who’ve parsed the genome, and epidemiologists who study coronaviruses, say they have enough evidence to emphatically prove that Covid-19 is brand new and came from nature, specifically a Wuhan market, not the test tube of a rogue Chinese scientist or laboratory. That will do for me.

And really is not a great surprise given the density of the population and the nature of some Chinese markets; these should probably have been closed down after the SARS epidemic; but they exist in much of Asia.

Every country needed to be prepared and responsive – and able to react promptly to look after its people. They were not.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea were well organized early and have had significant success in controlling the outbreak.

Countries suffering from severe infection numbers and significant death rates were ill prepared. Casting blame works as a deflection of responsibility but is not especially helpful when it comes to fighting this pandemic.

The lockdown procedures did work in Wuhan. They did stop the spread of the virus to other Chinese provinces. At that stage the Chinese authorities arguably did what they needed to and were resourced to do. They looked after and protected their own people. Internal flights did continue across China in limited numbers – as they have in other countries; but not to Wuhan. The lockdown of Wuhan was unprecedented. Nothing like that has been done in peacetime. It could not have been done without an autocratic state, a hard-line dictatorship. But it saved China from a fearsome pandemic and bought time for the rest of the world. How that time was used is a different story as the exchange today between President Trump and the CBS White House correspondent testifies.

It was not the responsibility of China to stop all international flights. Indeed a combination of bringing their own citizens home and sending foreigners home from China meant that flights would continue until destination countries started to shutter their airports. There were just a handful of flights from Wuhan. Often repatriation flights. But there were flights from across China in particular the main hubs in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

But you cannot argue with people who have already made their minds up; with people who have already found a story that fits their conclusion.

Just as the virus appears to be dismally complex so is any analysis of how we got to this point and why. Did the Chinese try to cover up the initial outbreak – yes. Could they have stopped it once it was out there – no. But they did the next best thing and bought time for the rest of the world to try and build their own defences. Many nations did not do well enough.

So we are where we are. Finger pointing will no doubt continue. After all it is an election year in the USA. There will be reams of analysis. There will be UN and WHO investigations. It will all come to nothing unless we are united in finding a vaccine and making that available, and in doing all that can be done to stop successive waves of infection.

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