The Coronavirus that started its flight from Wuhan, China, has changed the way we live and work globally. It has elicited a variety of responses in various countries. Inhabitants of Beijing, New York, Toronto, New Delhi, Tokyo, Milan and the rest of the world are anxious. They await the count tomorrow; how many more will they have to bury, and at a more personal level, have I been exposed, and thereafter got the family, friends, colleagues and unsuspecting others into the virus’ tentacles.
Nations have reacted in tune with their priorities, cultures, state of healthcare infrastructure and assessments. Their objectives coincide, but responses vary. A few facets from the chronologies traced at various capitals are worth reflecting upon.
The American Dream
In the US the story has its twists and turns. Though a sizeable percentage have issues with their President, he remains a very decisive man, otherwise. Trump initially felt the whole issue was trivial. On 22 January replying to a CNBC reporter’s question, “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” Trump replied. “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. … It’s going to be just fine.”
The virus was given some room in the bargain. However, by 2 February the Americans declared a Public Health Emergency. Foreign nationals other than immediate family members of American citizens and permanent residents who had travelled to China in the last 14 days were denied entry. In effect, 50 per cent of the American population is under stay-at-home orders. Trump has, however, refused to order a stay at home across the country.
Sometime in March, the American President realised he had been a tad slow when he said in a press conference that “I would view it as something that just surprised the whole world”. Ron Klain, who spearheaded the fight against Ebola in 2014, said, “The US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort.”
With around 300,000 cases and over 7500 deaths as on 4 April 2020, President Trump has a huge challenge in front of him. The initial focus on the economy rather than the coronavirus has cost the country dearly, already. However, Trump has got going with a $2.2 trillion rescue package for the American economy and health care systems to fight the battle. Hopefully, the American dream will not lose its fizz.
The first cases to come to light were on 31 January when two Chinese tourists tested positive. The same day, Italy suspended all visas and air traffic to and from China. Wuhan was already reeling under the virus attack at this stage. Two EU countries, Czech Republic and Greece had already suspended visas of the Chinese. Italy also ordered a state of emergency.
The virus continued to spread, primarily in Northern Italy. The Italian government responded in a graduated manner as the virus sped across the country. In February, 11cities in Northern Italy were placed under quarantine. Finally, Italy declared a national quarantine placing 60 million residents in lockdown on 8 March.On 19 March, Italy went ahead of China to be positioned as the country with the maximum number of Coronavirus related deaths. On 21 March all non-essential businesses and industries were closed and additional restrictions were imposed on the movement of people.
The story thereafter has been a spiralling reflection of Virus infected statistics. By 4 April. Italy had over 120,000 cases with over 15,000 deaths and 20,000 recoveries.
Italy’s medical facilities are unimaginable when compared to developing Asian, South American or African countries. As of 3 April 2020, the total number of tests for coronavirus infections conducted in the country reached 620,000. Can the developing countries find the resources that were inadequate for Italy? However, the flaw in response has primarily been it’s running the course behind the Virus. Steps Italy took would have earned far greater dividends had they been imposed earlier.
Brazil provides a different panorama altogether. Here the President is at loggerheads with the Governors and Mayors. There is no agreement on the fundamentals between the leadership echelons. On 6 February Brazil declared 9 cases in 5 different states. However, statistics in Brazil kept changing. On 24 February, it was confirmed that there were only 4 cases in Brazil. However, on 25 February a man who had returned from Italy on 20 February, died. On 16 March, Brazil confirmed 34 additional cases, totalling 234. On 16 March, Brazil confirmed 34 additional cases, totalling 234. By 22 March, Sao Palo had 459 cases, and Brazil registered 1546. The death toll was at 25.
On 27 March, President Bolsonaro said in a television interview, “I’m sorry, some people will die, they will die, that’s life,” and added “You can’t stop a car factory because of traffic deaths.” Brazil had by then registered the highest number of confirmed in Latin America.
Bolsonaro ran a TV campaign to include the slogan“#BrazilCannotStop” in end March. The slogan was similar to “#MilanWillNotStop”, which became popular in northern Italy in February. By 3 April, a new data released by the Brazilian Health Ministry revealed 9,000 COVID-19 cases with 359 deaths. A huge spike was recorded the previous day with 60 deaths and 1,146 confirmed cases, the largest number in Latin America.
A majority of the country’s 26 governors have banned non-essential commercial activities and public services in their states. Bolsonaro’s popularity has slipped during the crisis, and people across Brazil banging pots and pans in the evenings to protest his handling of the situation. That’s quite in contrast with the Indians banging pots and pans at the end of a 14 hour ‘Peoples Curfew’ on 22 March that the Indians had observed in response to a call by their Prime Minister to applaud the medical practitioners who were at the forefront of the battle against Coronavirus.
Carissa F. Etienne Director, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) during a media briefing on 31 March said, “There is still a short window of time for governments to slow the spread of the virus, reduce the impact on health systems and save lives”. Bolsonaro could also face impeachment, as it appears.
The Hissing Chinese Dragon
The Chinese have not disputed at least one fact that the virus originated in Wuhan, except for the odd mention of Americans being responsible to introduce it during the World Military Games at Wuhan in October 2019. The rest of the story is a mix of suppressed truths, half-truths and lies. As per reports available, the source of the virus was the Wuhan Sea Food Market and was possibly contracted by a man on 17 November 2019. More cases came up with regularity in December 2019 in Wuhan but went unreported. By late December, alarming similarities between the new virus and SARS 2002 were reported in the Times of London. On 31 December, Wuhan health authorities reported WHO about a cluster of cases of mysterious pneumonia leading to the closure of Wuhan Sea Food Market on 1 January 2020. On 7 January, at the politburo meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping acknowledged the outbreak and gave directions for resolute measures to curb the disease.
Despite the cases being reported Wuhan hosted a banquet with 40,000 attendees on 18 January, 2020. A limited travel ban for domestic travel was imposed on 25 January. Meanwhile, WHO got its act together belatedly, declaring a global emergency on 1 February. It graduated to declaring the disease as a pandemic only on 11 March, 2020. The WHO’s dithering is also ascribed to Chinese lobbying.
The Chinese leadership displayed an absolutely irresponsible attitude and remain in a denial mode even today. A few questions that need to be answered are how is it that the virus could create havoc in Italy, Spain and now the USA, having barely made a dent in Beijing or Shanghai. Close to million people travelled out of Wuhan to destination within and beyond China during the period in review. Surely, domestic travellers would have far outweighed international travellers?
Meanwhile, Wuhan is getting back to normalcy, while USA, Italy, Spain and Germany lead the tables.
The Japanese Equanimity
The Japanese have reacted quite differently as compared to the rest of the world. The first case was reported in mid-January, the individual having returned from Wuhan. The odd case started coming up almost every day from 24 January onwards. On 3 February, Japan initiated travel restrictions focussed primarily on passengers from Hubei. The same day Diamond Princes returned with 3711 passengers and crew, after having travelled from Yakohoma to six ports in three different countries. The ship was kept out with its passengers quarantined aboard. 712 passengers were to test positive later, with 331 being asymptomatic. The cruise ship was a vital source of data for fighting Coronavirus.
On 27 February, Japan closed all schools. On 3 April, even with 2617 cases, the Japanese Prime Minister ruled out a lockdown. It has to be however admitted that the virus has not exploded in Japan unlike in some European countries. In fact, Japan will be a great case study when Coronavirus recedes. Perhaps the innate hygienic practices of the Japanese people, combined with their respect for authority, abiding largely by the instructions issued by the government, will carry them through.
The Olympics have been pushed back by a year. PM Abe has not lost his focus on the economy so far. There will be a requirement for democratic countries to retain their economic stability as they contest efforts by the Chinese to increase their stakes in a post-Corona world. Japan, will need to play a major role in that. Hopefully, Abe will be able to maintain balance.
The Indian Race
The Indian story has its remarkable variations. India had the advantage of experiencing a late start. The first case was reported on 30 January, the same day as the first case was reported in the USA. It was a passenger from China. It took almost a month-and-half for the figure to reach 100 on 15 March. In between, Indians were evacuated back home from Wuhan, Iran, Japan, and later from Italy. 15 tons of aid was also flown to China in one of these trips.
On 19 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked all Indians to observe a ‘Janata Curfew’ from 7 AM to 9 PM on 22 March. It was a classic example of strategic communication that elicited a nationwide response with people coming out in balconies at 5 pm banging pots and pans to thank all those in the frontline of the battle against the virus. On 24 March, Modi addressed the nation again and announced a nationwide lockdown starting midnight the same day. The infected count at that stage was 500. However, closure of schools, colleges and a host of other preventive actions had already been undertaken by state governments, by then.
The day after the lockdown, migrant labours in New Delhi became apprehensive; quickly graduating to a restive state. In Delhi, fed by rumours they thronged the bus terminuses and railway stations trying to find a way to reach home; in some cases, a thousand kilometres away. Finally, they took to the roads. Notwithstanding the chaos the next few days, they were either intercepted en route or at state borders and have hopefully been mostly identified. Perhaps unavoidable, yet it was a major administrative failure. Meanwhile, the government has announced a $ 23 billion package to primarily extend assistance to the poor.
On the heels of the migrating labourers, was an incident at Tablighi Banglewali Mosque in New Delhi. The mosque had hosted an international meet on 13 March violating orders forbidding congregations. Even on termination of the meet, a fair number of international and domestic participants had stayed back. The event has turned out to be the single biggest source for the spread of the virus in India, so far.
Notwithstanding the aberrations, the Indian response has been bold, quick and firm. Possibly prodded most by the fact that the healthcare system in the country is inadequate, the government had decided on a 21-day lockdown from 25 March. However, India’s rates of testing are extremely low. How far the current statistics are true will be known in the next few weeks.
To summarize, each nation is fighting the virus as per its priorities and assessments. Cultural aspects like greater willing adherence to instructions, hygienic way of living, individual’s realisation of his social responsibilities, religious practices, maturity of political leadership and a host of other factors have contributed, over and above medical support. The need for nations to be transparent is at the fore, with China being considered as an offender by governments and their people across continents. The United Nations and especially the WHO have come under cloud for being ineffective and even biased. The necessity of the world coming together was spearheaded by India organising a SAARC meet, and prodded a G-20 meet too. Democratic politics has slowed the pace of response in some cases, but by and large elected representatives have come together as they have grappled with the pandemic.
Brig SK Chatterji (Retd)