The Novel Coronavirus and the Virus of New Cold War
FOR the first time, on two successive days, the number of new cases of the novel coronavirus (2019nCov) have dropped below 4,000 as against the earlier daily figures. The comprehensive measures the Chinese authorities have taken to slow down the transmission, along with larger availability of diagnostic kits, has now started to bite. Wuhan in Hubei province still continues to be the epicentre of the new coronavirus epidemic, with about two-thirds of the total infected in China from Hubei alone. As of date, 491 people have died of the virus, largely the elderly, whose immune systems are weaker, or already suffering from other inflammatory diseases like diabetes or asthma.
Most people have mild case of flu like symptoms, and except for Wuhan, where the health system had been initially overwhelmed, the mortality rates are 1-3 per cent, confirming that though this virus is spreading faster, it has much lower mortality rates than the 2002-03 SARS virus.
While the virus scene in China seems to be improving, we need to watch how much is it spreading in other countries and the danger of a global pandemic. The last global pandemic was the H1N1 swine flu epidemic that originated from the US. According to the Centre of Disease Control (CDC), in 12 months – April 2009-10 – there were an estimated 61 million cases, 274 thousand hospitalised and about 12,500 deaths in the United States alone. The worldwide numbers are harder to estimate, as a number of countries did not have the necessary tools to confirm the infections. The confirmed figures are about seven million, with a possibility that it could be as high as 25-35 million.
WHO had designated H1N1 in 2009-10 as pandemic and asked for a much higher level of monitoring and travel restrictions than now. While there are fears that the 2019nCoV might grow into a pandemic, with more countries reporting infections, as yet it is seen to be under control.
There are two kinds of responses we see on the new virus outbreak in China. One is the conspiracy theorists and wackos who come out every time any such event occurs. In the age of the internet, with its fake news ecosystem, we have all kinds of rumours and claims – from bioweapon going awry to Melinda and Bill Gates conspiracy to sell vaccines and new medicines.
The other, and it is the more sinister one, is leading news outlets in the US using the novel virus outbreak to attack China and its social system. Interestingly, this media campaign against the Chinese dovetail with the US trade war on China, and its strategic view that China, as a “revisionist” power needs to be contained militarily.
What is downright nasty about this campaign is the racist nature of the attacks, how the Chinese eat bats and snakes, and this is the reason for such virus outbreaks in China. As “proof”, a Chinese woman is seen in a video (yes it became viral as such things do on the internet), eating bat soup with relish. What was left out is the Chinese woman, is Weng Mengyun, a well known travel host, and was showing the exotic food in Palau, a Western Pacific island group. The Chinese do not eat bats, and in any case no virus would survive if the food is well cooked!
This attempt to vilify Chinese eating habits even forgets – or shall we say purposely overlooks – that avian flu or swine flu, both have occurred because we have domesticated pigs and chicken: such flu infections are a consequence of domestication of wild animals and birds! Attacks on Chinese, racial slurs and putting in travel bans and travel restrictions far beyond what the WHO has recommended are also indications of the racial and political nature of the attacks.
The local authorities in Wuhan were initially overwhelmed by the magnitude of the outbreak. The Chinese government was quick to acknowledge this, and rapidly ramped up medical support, both in terms of personnel and medicines, other medical supplies such as masks. The key problem was a shortage of critical care on a scale that Wuhan had never experienced. The Chinese central and local authorities have built 1000 bed hospital in mere 10 days, and made available another 12,500 beds to house those confirmed with the new virus that includes other hospitals, gymnasiums, warehouses, etc.
The key problem they are now facing is having medical personnel who can provide critical care for those who have more severe case of the illness. This is specialised knowledge and is now being provided by thousands of doctors and nurses from other parts of China.
The Chinese have also moved rapidly on isolating the disease. The scale of the quarantine – both in numbers and on a geographical scale – is simply unprecedented. It has been followed up identifying the genome sequence, and put it on a public database accessible to all. Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s executive director for health emergencies, in a press conference on January 29, called it “probably the most rapid characterisation of a novel pathogen in history and that was shared immediately. Multiple sequences were shared immediately on global platforms and that is what has allowed a lot of the diagnostics to be developed.”
Till date, genome sequences of more than 50 patients have been put up by the Chinese helping a much faster deployment of diagnostic kits and now rapidly developing the genetically engineered vaccines. Till date, vaccines have a development cycle of 4-6 months and deployment time of a year. They do not help in containing an epidemic, but only help in containing repeat infections once the epidemic has burnt out. This time, the ability of the Chinese to slow down the transmission by the drastic measures they have taken, and the Chinese society’s trust in their government, have given the world a breathing space that we did not have earlier.
Instead of appreciating the Chinese efforts, the leading news outlets have focussed on stray criticism within China, and amplifying it to argue how the Chinese system – dreaded socialism – or authoritarianism as they call it, is to blame. This is completely out of sync with what the global health authorities are saying. This is after all not surprising. Remember the New York Times or the Washington Post, supposedly the most authoritative news sources, and their record on Iraq, the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein “undoubtedly” had? Even when the UN weapon inspectors repeatedly said that there was no evidence of any weapon of mass destruction in Iraq. Instead, yellow cakes from Niger, the dirty dossier of United Kingdom, the private intelligence apparatus built by Cheney and Rumsfeld within the US intelligence system were presented as truth; or shall we say true lies? Remember aluminium tubes and mobile test laboratories – yes the ones we need to monitor people and even stop epidemics – were shown as proof of WMDs?
One of the reasons that the number of cases are now dropping is simply the enormous faith that the Chinese people have shown in their government and their discipline. They have followed the instructions, worn masks, have remained indoors, have quarantined themselves if known to have come in contact with somebody suspected of an infection, provided information and gone to health centres. Pictures of bustling Shanghai and Beijing are now replaced with very few people on the streets, deserted malls and empty eateries. The Chinese government has the trust of its citizens, and it is this trust that is paying them the social dividend that it needs to control this epidemic.
I would like to conclude with what in the press conference quoted above, WHO’s Dr Ryan said, “Personally I think myself and the Director General have never seen the scale and commitment of an epidemic response at this level in terms ...The challenge is great, but the response has been massive and the Chinese government deserves huge credit for that response and for the transparency in which they have dealt with this.”
The brickbats that western media and the governments are hurling at the Chinese, some of it racist, most of it a continuation of the cold war are very much a part of this new cold war. Objectivity is the first casualty in war, cold or hot.