Beware the xenophobia epidemic from COVID-19 coronavirus
Following the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Wuhan, China, countries began to close their borders, and in some places, people of Asian appearance were blamed for allegedly spreading the “Chinese virus.” Conversely, during the initial stages of the outbreak in China, one popular theory postulated that the disease was in fact a genetic weapon designed to target Chinese, and Asians more widely, leading to a xenophobia epidemic.
The international outbreak of COVID-19 has been met with encouraging mutual support from many countries, but unfortunately, the xenophobia epidemic and anti-global tendencies have also become more apparent than ever.
Now, a month later, as the outbreak continues to spread across Europe and the US, such baseless speculations should cease gaining traction. Similarly, it should be clear by now that the virus does not belong to one country, and that racial profiling should stop, in the same way that over one month ago, residents of Hubei should not have been ostracized in China.
In this crisis, humanity shares a single fate, and to achieve victory, the world must come together to affirm global co-operation, and prevent an ‘outbreak’ of blind xenophobia.
At a time when the world depends on their leadership to affirm solidarity, it is regrettable that some world leaders such as US President Donald Trump have only further stirred negative sentiment, joining fear mongers in making incendiary comments like dubbing the COVID-19 novel coronavirus “the Chinese virus” on Twitter – the so-called leader of the free world supporting this xenophobia epidemic. By the same logic, the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 in North America could’ve been called the “American flu” — but nobody stooped so low as to stigmatize it.
Of course, viruses know no borders, race, or ideology. The World Health Organization (WHO) explicitly named the virus in a neutral manner precisely to avoid discriminatory association with regions, races or classes. The world must be vigilant not to let xenophobia manifest at times like this, when countries should come together to secure a victory for humanity.
Sharing of information
Despite the various stigmas and allegations that have inevitably arisen, and although the health authorities in Wuhan and Hubei Province made various errors of judgment during the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, following the intervention of the central government, China worked to provide information to WHO and the international community as quickly as possible. When the virus was confirmed to be a novel strand of coronavirus, the country ensured that the complete gene sequence, primers and probes were made available internationally. As the containment effort progressed, China shared findings related to epidemic prevention control measures and treatment methods, and held dozens of remote sessions with organizations like WHO, ASEAN, the European Union, and countries including Japan, Korea, Russia, Germany, France and the US. This is not creating a xenophobia epidemic, it is providing information would prove to be invaluable to other countries later in the global fight against the pandemic.
Just as some of the world was occupied with heaping the blame on China, commentators in the country were quick to entertain all sorts of international conspiracies. On 29 January, the internationally renowned New England Journal of Medicine published a paper on the initial outbreak in Wuhan, which found that the virus may have been transmitted between humans as early as mid-December 2019, and that as early as 11 January 2020, there were already 200 confirmed cases in Wuhan. This article, co-written by researchers from various institutions including the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Hubei Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the University of Hong Kong, conducted retrospective analysis on the early stages of the epidemic on the basis of data that was only made available later. Some online commentators questioned whether the authors had intentionally concealed this data in order to secure a publication. But such postulations couldn’t be further from the truth. As epidemiologists argue, availability of information is critical to the effective containment of an outbreak. The publication of this article in an international forum in late January, written on the basis of data that was available at the time, had nothing to do with the fact that the epidemic did not receive the attention that it should have in China in December 2019. In reality, the timely publication of these papers was conducive to ensuring that the outbreak received due attention in the international community, and that effective measures were able to be formulated.
Recently, following effective containment of the epidemic in China, the country shared its findings with the world so that other countries would benefit, and a global victory could be secured. For example, shortly after WHO designated the outbreak as a pandemic, a forum that brought together 60 countries and WHO was held in Beijing, at which Chinese experts shared their findings in the earlier stages of epidemic control. Having effectively contained the outbreak at home, China has demonstrated a strong willingness to contribute to securing a global victory in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak, in the same way that others came to its assistance in its moment of need.
Developing a cure
Experts argue that medicines and vaccines for the virus are the greatest hopes for humanity to achieve a victory in the fight against COVID-19, and there have been a number of international developments in this regard.
The most prominent development thus far is Radixivir, a drug developed by US biotechnology company Gilead Sciences, which has produced encouraging preliminary results in a 14-patient clinical trial held in Japan, in which most patients recovered. Although randomized double-blind controlled trials are needed for conclusive results, due to the urgent need for treatment, Gilead is expected to produce sufficient supply to support treatment worldwide in the near future.
On 16 March, a China-developed COVID-19 vaccine proceeded to the trial stage for the first time. On the same day, the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced that a US-developed vaccine for COVID-19 had also entered the first stage of clinical trials, and that volunteers had already begun to receive experimental injections. Germany, the UK, France, Japan, Israel and other countries have also been working as part of an international effort to develop a vaccine for the virus.
The timely development of a safe and effective vaccine is of top priority for prevention of widespread COVID-19 infection. Only through working together – not through a xenophobia epidemic – can countries have confidence in these new medical developments and beat the virus.
In the early days of the outbreak in China, masks were a scarce commodity. In response, Japan, South Korea and others, sent medical masks and protective clothing to the country. Packages from Japan with words of encouragement drawn from Chinese poetry were well-received online and became a symbol of mutual support between countries in the fight against the epidemic.
By March, however, when the number of new cases across many Chinese provinces had reached nil, the number of diagnoses outside China had quickly grown to exceed the total number of cases within China, and various countries began to experience similar shortages of medical supplies. In response, China transitioned from the role of beneficiary to benefactor. In addition to government support, international enterprises based in the country made significant contributions. Trip.com Group donated 1 million masks to various countries including Japan, South Korea and Italy, and the Alibaba Foundation donated masks, protective clothing and test kits to 54 countries in Africa. These donations were significant not only in terms of their material value, but as symbols of the determination and willingness of international enterprises and society to support other countries in overcoming this common challenge.
In addition to medical essentials, China also reciprocated the support it received earlier from other nations by sending teams of medical experts to countries and regions severely affected by the outbreak to assist with prevention and control. On March 12, medical experts from the National Health Commission and the Chinese Red Cross arrived in Rome with 31 tons of medical supplies to support Italy in the fight against the epidemic, after having already sent support teams to Iran and Iraq.
Experts will agree that with the support of other countries, China achieved encouraging results in containing the outbreak, quite opposite of what a xenophobia epidemic encourages. Now, the country has much to share in terms of both resources and findings and has expressed a willingness to contribute to a global solution to the outbreak.
Improving screening and quarantine
In the early stages of the epidemic, many countries implemented entry restrictions for Chinese nationals. As the situation begins to improve in China and worsen in other parts of the world, the country has introduced stricter quarantine policies for travelers arriving from abroad, to prevent a second outbreak in the country. On March 16, for example, Beijing city implemented a policy requiring all international arrivals, regardless of origin and nationality, to quarantine at designated locations at their own expense for 14 days. Shanghai also announced regulations requiring all international arrivals with recent travel history in heavily affected countries and regions, which are updated according to the latest available information, to quarantine for 14 days.
Economists have argued that the measures taken in Shanghai are more precise and conducive to allowing life to return to normal, and ultimately, containing the outbreak without causing unnecessary damage to the economy. Countries must work together, not alone, to prevent a second outbreak. Concerns to do with false reporting could be addressed by working with international telecommunications companies to verify the travel history of travelers, developing an international system on the basis of the “health code” currently in use in China. More precise identification of at-risk travelers would also allow restrictions to be opened up for countries and regions with comparatively better epidemic control (for example, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan). This would serve to reduce obstacles to daily life, business and exchanges, as well as concentrating the use of relatively limited resources on the isolation of areas with material risk.
Once seamless and frequent exchanges have been disrupted by the pandemic, and the impacts of these disruptions may very well be as significant as the epidemic itself. This experience is also a wake-up call. Having unprecedented restrictions placed on communications and exchanges has forced many of us to search for alternatives where we might not have otherwise.
The barriers to exchange that have been imposed upon us in this desperate time should also serve as a sobering reminder that there remain various self-imposed, and unnecessary barriers to productive exchange between countries, which we should alleviate. As economists have argued for some time, breaking down the various barriers to trade between the US and China, and ensuring that key channels for information sharing and communications such as the Internet remain open are imperative to ensuring the future of the world economy.
Unfortunately, in the same way that entry-exit restrictions made travel virtually impossible, experts have argued that the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’ has continued to serve as a significant hurdle to important international exchanges. With unprecedented restrictions on movement and contact worldwide, and scores of people taking temporary refuge in their home countries, alternative digital avenues for cross-border communications have a determining role to play in allowing economic activity to continue, and it is critical that these are not hindered by unnecessary restrictions. Students shouldn’t have to worry about being unable to access their university’s official website due to the Internet restrictions of the ‘Great Firewall’, for example.
Under the impetus of the present epidemic, a failure to address these evident pitfalls runs the risk of sending globalization backwards.
During times like these, the importance of international co-operation becomes apparent. When China faced the initial outbreak, many countries extended a helping hand, and now that the epidemic has been brought under control, China has reciprocated by offering its findings and resources to help other countries overcome this common challenge. Our actions in this epidemic determine not the fate of a single country, ethnicity, or ideology, but of the human race.
Viruses are the common enemy of humanity. The present epidemic has given us a chance to reflect deeply on the true meaning of a common destiny for all of humanity and brought the pitfalls of present to our immediate attention. Countries will need to work together closely to respond to the challenges that we collectively face, and to break down the barriers to exchange that still exist. Only then can we truly secure a victory for humanity.