Over the past two decades, China has been the epicentre of three disease outbreaks. It started with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 which infected 8098 and resulted in the death of 774 people in 17 countries. This was followed by H7N9 in 2012, which killed at least 1223 people. The latest addition to that list is COVID-19, which has already killed 300,000 people and counting. Even with a gap of 18 years between them, SARS and COVID-19 outbreaks share a lot in common. Especially as to how China handled the whole issue and showed the world that it hasn’t really learnt anything from it.
The evil twins
Going by the available timelines, both SARS and COVID-19, the evil twins, started spreading at the end of the year. SARS originated in Guangdong Province in November 2002 whereas COVID-19 was detected in Wuhan in December 2019. In both cases China took an inordinate amount of time to report the details of the diseases to the WHO. During SARS, WHO had asked China for intelligence about the outbreak in December itself, but the world came to know of it much later when the first English report about the disease was published in the third week of January, 2003. So, once again by the time WHO acted, a total of 500 lives were already lost around the world.
History repeated itself in China during the COVID-19 outbreak. It was detected very early in China, but then the Chinese Communist Party government took its own sweet time to share the details with the world. This has already wreaked havoc on global economies and undoubtedly the worst is yet to come. This time again, the country didn’t report the details of the epidemic on time and even misled WHO on how serious the disease was.
In the case of SARS, WHO has never been able to really pinpoint the source of the virus. Its official website states that “SARS-CoV is thought to be an animal virus from an as-yet-uncertain animal reservoir, perhaps bats, that spread to other animals (civet cats) and first infected humans in the Guangdong province of Southern China in 2002.”
Again in 2020, China has done everything in its power to prevent the world from having an independent inquiry into the source of COVID-19. It is clear that the Chinese government will never let the source of the outbreak be found.
Why China never learns
Each epidemic or pandemic that originates from China, brings back memories of the same level of Chinese ineptitude. The reasons behind this are a mix of social as well as political realities in China. The country has for years legalised the sale and consumption of wild animals. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see bears in cages next to live chickens in a Chinese wet market. This creates a perfect scenario for any virus to jump from one animal to another and finally infect a human being.
Even after seeing enough and more proof that such wet markets can become ground zero for pandemics, China has done little to shut such places down. The wet market in Wuhan that is considered as the place where animal to human transmission of the Coronavirus happened, was initially shut, but was later opened as if nothing had happened. Less than 48 hours ago, a new COVID-19 outbreak was detected in Xinfadi Seafood Supermarket in Beijing. The market has been shut down for the moment, but as usual will be opened soon enough.
Another cultural side of this is the widespread use of Traditional Chinese Medicine. People in China prefer a TCM practitioner for any illness, and it is after things get out of hand that they consult regular doctors. This in the case of a condition like COVID-19 makes things worse not only for the patient but also for everyone who comes in contact with them.
The biggest factor that makes things worse in any case of emergency is the Chinese government’s lack of transparency. While looking at everything from the lens of Chinese nationalistic pride, the Chinese government is almost always reluctant to divulge the right information at the right time. The same happened for SARS back in 2002 and COVID-19 in 2020. This lack of transparency is then followed up with silencing critics or whistleblowers and hence represses any authentic source of information.
Lessons for the world
For years and even decades, China has shown the world that it is willing to take everything from everyone, but is very reluctant to give back anything meaningful. Its self-centredness as a global power needs to be addressed by the rest of the world. And for that to happen, the world order needs to come together and hold China accountable for its reckless behaviour as a global power. A movement to Boycott China can be the start, but for things to improve even a little bit, its entire system needs to reinvent itself as one that believes in getting along with the rest of the world.