A joint responsibility

Around a month ago I focussed on some international relations aspects of COVID-19 in these columns. At that stage the World Health Organisation (WHO) had characterised it as a “public health emergency of international concern”. A few short weeks later, on March 11, the WHO declared it to be a pandemic. By then COVID-19 had spread to 114 countries, infected 1,18,000 and killed 4291 people. (As I write these lines it is now present in 176 countries  killed 8969 and infected 2,20,000 people). While declaring COVID-19 as a pandemic WHO Director-General noted “Pandemic is not a word to be used lightly or carelessly”. He justified its use because of the “alarming levels” of its “spread and severity”. The Director-General made two other important points. This was the first pandemic “caused by a coronavirus”; earlier coronavirus epidemics such as SARS that led to 800 deaths in many countries did not ‘qualify’ as pandemics. The other significant assertion was that COVID-19 could be “controlled”.

COVID-19’s control is dependent on two factors. The first is that each country takes decisive and sustained action and the second through global cooperation. As each country’s situation differs the precise nature of national control policies would obviously vary but will have to be within a basic format dictated by the nature of the virus. As the health systems of many countries are not equipped to know the precise nature of the virus they have to rely on other countries and most of all look to the WHO for guidance. Most countries will also have to tweak the WHO advice to their own circumstances and resources though ideally all countries should have the resources to follow common practice. It is here that international cooperation is really needed. India has done well to offer both technical and financial help to its neighbours. Admittedly this would be limited but it does point the way in which the advanced countries should move even if they are presently stretched to the limit in combatting COVID-19 within their own territories.

Almost all countries are seeking to at least hamper its ingress into their territories currently by either completely stopping or severely restricting the entry of persons from the most effected countries. These barriers are justified and are a part of common global action. As COVID-19 has spread to European countries and is leading to large scale infections and thousands of deaths, especially in Italy and France, Europe is simply locking down. China had locked down the Hubei province and its capital Wuhan. Its drastic measures yielded good results in helping control the COVID-19’s. Now other countries are doing the same for this according to health experts is the right way to proceed. The United States is following the European example though not as completely at present. The international community is accepting these measures though they will have very adverse consequences for the global economy. Naturally the first priority has always to be the preservation of life.

At this time when international cooperation is needed to battle COVID-19 should major world powers seek to score points and indulge in propaganda? The obvious answer, as I had indirectly submitted in my earlier column on COVID-19, is no. It is therefore irresponsible for the US and China to blame each other for COVID-19. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson’s suggestion that the US military may have brought the virus into Wuhan is absurd. Knowing that such a vicious and contagious virus would have world-wide effect would anyone deliberately seek to unleash it? It is equally disingenuous for Chinese scientists to seek to distinguish between the discovery of the virus in Wuhan and its origin elsewhere. Till a hundred years ago when the world was not as wired as it is today such distinctions could be made but not today. If China is seeking to divert attention from its role in COVID-19 the US President is seeking to pin the blame on it by repeatedly calling it the China virus. This is puerile especially as the urgent need is for scientists world-wide to pool resources to find effective medical responses against the virus and such point-scoring will detract from such efforts.

The history of virus pandemics over the past century shows that there were four: The Spanish flu of 1918-20, the Asiatic flu of 1957, the Hong Kong flu of 1968 and the Swine flu of 2009-1010. While all these infected millions upon millions of people the most devastating was the Spanish flu. In a then human population of around 1.8 billion it caused more than 50 million deaths. However, in the past hundred years medical science has made astonishing progress and therefore the world is better prepared to handle such pandemics. The question is if it is adequately prepared.

It is true that pharmaceutical responses to new viruses can be developed only after they appear. Hence, international cooperation has to focus on attempts at draining the reservoirs which enable such viruses to appear. One such area are the live animal markets of China and south-east Asia. These markets are fed by international criminal groups that traffic exotic and endangered species. National and international action is therefore needed to stop these markets. Cultural practice cannot be an alibi for their continuance. In addition to preventive actions rapid and comprehensive monitoring and containment mechanisms have to be put in place. All this may detract from traditional notions of national sovereignty. But so be it.