Acid test for China to contain Novel Coronavirus

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In early January, patients in the Hubei Province of China were being rushed to the hospital for pneumonia by an unknown cause— later identified as COVID-19 or Novel Coronavirus. Even as the number of cases and severity kept rising, the Chinese Government stamped out any information about the disease fearing ‘rumor mongering’ and kept its local population in the dark.

Abruptly on the 23rd of January, Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, was placed under complete lockdown but the damage was already done — over 5 million people had left the city. The outbreak has now escalated to frightening proportions with over 43000 people infected and the death toll at 1018, surpassing the SARS outbreak in 2003.

The epidemic has spread to 28 countries and has been classified by WHO as a Global Health Emergency, its gravest classification. China, fatigued by the lengthy trade spat with the US and the resilient Hong Kong protests, now faces a test on the global stage of its ability to tackle this deadly contagion.

Response of Chinese Government

The first reported case was on December 1st and by late December there was alarm within Chinese Medical circles. But the doctors who spoke up about the illness were reprimanded, as the Government wanted to control the narrative of a “preventable and controllable illness”.

In early January, patients could not be tested for the illness due to a shortage of testing kits, putting even the official infection count in doubt. The drastic lockdown of Wuhan can merely slow the spread of the virus while forcing the local population to live in a state of perpetual panic. This panic is exacerbated by overcrowding hospitals, which makes it difficult for patients to even access quality medical care. Local officials did not want to risk public alarms or political embarrassment and the cost they had to pay was their citizen’s health and well-being.

But the local officials acted the way they did because of the incentives deep-rooted in China’s authoritarian model. The Chinese government is rigidly hierarchical and discourages local officials from raising an alarm about any bad news. This incentivizes them either to conceal or take into their own hands any complication leading to a fragmented response. But such an approach is ill-suited at best for a public health emergency of this scale which requires transparency at every step of the way.

Moreover, China has for decades gutted institutions like the free press, NGOs and Government watchdogs making transparency for both the local population and global authorities a pipe dream.

This is not to say that China has entirely mismanaged the response to the outbreak. On the contrary, it appears that it has excelled in the technical aspects like the construction of hospitals in unbelievably short times and was praised by the WHO for the effectiveness of its response.

Reports show that the quarantine in Wuhan, despite its medical efficiency in question, provides a sense of comfort to local residents in the Hubei Province that the outbreak is being contained. The chief criticism is rather that the sense of comfort from these grand gestures does little to combat the outbreak and that China appears to have downplayed the magnitude of the crisis. Such an approach only jeopardizes the safety of its citizens and risks an escalation into a global pandemic.

Life of Residents

Meanwhile, the impact of the outbreak on the residents of Wuhan is heart-wrenching. The whistleblower doctor who tried to inform the public about the virus was silenced by the Government and in an evil twist of fate has fallen prey to the virus. Family members living in forced isolation infect each other as the hospitals have no room. China’s response to prioritize political stability over the health of the patients has evoked a rare response from the public. As Simon Rabinovitch, of The Economist, writes “I’ve never seen so much raw emotion on WeChat from so many. An outpouring of grief over the death of Li Wenliang and tributes to his courage, mixed with a seething anger at what can only be described as the system.”

Response by the Indian Government

Although India has had only three confirmed cases of Coronavirus, the country lacks the necessary infrastructure to handle a large-scale outbreak especially in rural regions. Since there is not yet an approved vaccine for the disease, serious cases will require intensive care for which facilities are only available in limited numbers in cities and almost non-existent in more rural regions. Therefore, the Indian Government has been swift to repel a threat of a widespread outbreak in the country and is closely monitoring all ports of entry to assess incoming travelers. India has also evacuated over 600 citizens from Wuhan and is planning more flights in the coming week.

Race for a Treatment

For now, there is no specific antiviral treatment for COVID-19 and all patients are being treated on a case by case basis. However, due to improvements in Vaccine technology called Rapid Response Platforms, the time required to develop a cure has been cut short significantly. Melanie Saville of Vaccine Development center CERI predicts that a Clinically tested Vaccine should be ready in 4-6 months. By comparison, the vaccine for the SARS epidemic took over 2 years to bring to the market. In the short run, there is speculation that the drug used to treat Ebola, Remdesivir, could be used as an effective anti-viral treatment against COVID-19 but it is yet to be approved by regulators. However, a drawback to using antivirals is that they are inconsistent and the speed of mutation of the virus also reduces their efficacy over time.  However, it is still unclear if a treatment can be produced quick enough to be administered and until then preventing the spread of the virus remains the primary strategy.

Economic Impact

The outbreak also comes at a time of economic turmoil in both Hong Kong and Greater China.  Hong Kong faces the severest challenge as the outbreak in addition to the protests threatens the tourism industry which makes up a considerable portion of Hong Kong’s GDP — which is expected to take a hefty hit in Q1 of 2020. The impact on greater China will be relatively smaller because of its sheer size and the government’s plan to stimulate the economy by injecting cash. However, China has evolved into a crucial player in the global economy since the SARS outbreak in 2003, and global supply chains will be severely impacted because of this epidemic. With China growing into a major commercial market for international firms, a prolonged slowdown can hurt their bottom lines. However, the greatest impact might be on the manufacturing sector due to the shortage of migrant labor who cannot travel back to the cities after the Lunar New Year Holiday due to the lockdown. While the exact extent of the impact is hard to determine now, the only certainty is that it will be widely felt.

However, unlike in democracies, the Chinese public cannot express their dissatisfaction with the government. As Nikolas Kristof of the New York Times aptly writes “The Chinese social contract has been that citizens will not get ballots but will live steadily better lives, yet China’s economy is now as weak as it has been in three decades — and the coronavirus will sap growth further. Xi is not living up to his end of the bargain”.

 

About the Author:

The author is a student of 11th grade at Greenwood High International School, Bangalore. He is also an SAT and Economics Tutor for an Online Organisation called Kara Tutoring.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Pragativadi and Pragativadi.com does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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