Phases of Responses to an Epidemic

While holed up in a quiet corner as the COVID-19 epidemic sweeps the world, I have been intrigued by the worst and best in human responses to the epidemic. There seem at this stage to be a few phases, but I am sure there will be more as the epidemic unfolds over the rest of the year.

Let me say that I have had to cancel all travel for the foreseeable future, not merely because the air-conditioned nature of many forms of travel are now highly risky situations (COVID-19 can reach up to amost 5 metres and remain in such environments for up to half an hour after an infected person has left), but also because the useless travel insurance companies will not cover you if you travel to a part of the world that has even the threat of an epidemic. To be clear: I was planning to go to Europe to join my wife, but now that cases in Europe are rising rapidly, the travel insurance was certainly not going to help me if I contracted the virus. So I am staying put. Actually, I would love to be in China, since it is the safest place in the world right now. Already, about 60,000 (out of 80,000) have recovered and new infections are very few indeed.

As for the phases:

Phase 1: Racism.

With the first news of a new virus first identified in Wuhan only a couple of months ago, the uglier side of human responses became obvious. In those few parts of the world that used to be colonisers – the ‘West’ – highly offensive and openly racist statements were made in the media and by political ‘leaders’. I will not repeat them here, but they also appeared official travel restrictions and in everyday comments and actions, such as avoiding Chinese restaurants. Sure, they were dressed up as anti-communist Sinophobia, but they were a more blatant form of the official racism and hate speech that has been run-of-the-mill for a couple of years now.

At the same, people in countries who have experienced such forms of colonial racism were quick to send aid to China where needed, especially in terms of much-needed medical equipment while local producers caught up. Think of South Korea and even Japan, who were quick to help their Asian neighbour.

Phase 2: Rumour

They say that the first casualty in war is truth. The same applies to an epidemic. Rumours flew, aided by social media and a good number of deliberate efforts to seed such rumours. The rumours included a supposedly secret ‘biochemical weapons’ laboratory in Wuhan, from which the virus escaped. Or the completely false depiction of Chinese people eating bats. Or that another country had unleashed a biochemical attack on China. Or that the Russians were to blame for accusing the USA of a biochemical weapins attack. Or that China had secretly weaponised the virus to get back at the USA. Or that all sorts of weird and wonderful things could cure you from infection. On they went.

Thankfully, the media outlets in places of the world where responsible media is a reality – such as China – were soon up to the task. They provided up-to-date services with reliable information for people, while the World Health Organisation worked hard with its ‘myth-busters’ service. Indeed, it was precisely the WHO that came in early, with people on the ground in China and the formulation of a distinct plan of action.

Phase 3: From Complacency to Reality

This phase was my experience. Since I was in a relatively remote corner of the world, largely by myself, I assumed that the whole epidemic was happening ‘over there’ and that it would not affect me too much. I pondered matters such as the human-animal disease cycle but largely kept to usual patterns of life. I continued to make travel plans and thought things would be fine in the immediate future. I was keen to get back to China, since I feel so much at home there.

Then it finally hit: this is actually serious (as my Chinese friends had been warning me for some time).

The outcome: I cannot travel. I need to be very wary of public gatherings. I need to wear a face-mask when out. I need to be extra careful in Australia, since the regime here is alarmingly inept, even as more and more schools in the major cities have cases of COVID-19. So I will to stay put for a few months, if not the rest of the year.

The plans of yesterday change today, and will change again tomorrow.

Phase 4: A New (China) Model

As I have mentioned a few times in earlier posts (here and here), the Chinese approach is to offer a model of the best possible way to do something. Even more, they learn from their experience, address shortcomings, and seek to present an even better model next time. If someone else wants to follow that model, well and good. The Chinese will not insist on it, but they will help to adapt the model to local conditions.

Obviously, this is a positive turn. It has been assisted by the World Health Organisation saying very loudly and clearly that the resolute and differentiated approach in China in dealing with the epidemic is unprecedented in human history. Other countries should learn and learn fast.

Some did: South Korea knew that China had bought it time, so when the epidemic broke out there they followed the Chinese approach. Quickly quarantine affected areas, close down public events and travel, get hold of the necessary equipment and contain the outbreak. Japan too followed suit. And since these countries had been quick to assist China, the latter reciprocated tenfold with expertise and experience. In Iran, which is facing sanctions from the rogue state known as the USA, China moved quickly to assist with the outbreak there.

Indeed, the early criticism of China’s socialist system soon waned in other parts of the world. As Europe began to see the epidemic rising across that part of the world, countries began to adopt the China Model. Italy first quarantined Lombardy, where the largest outbreak initially happened, and then moved to quarantine the whole country and ban travel. Neighbouring Austria indicated that it too would follow the China Model.

More will do so as the epidemic spreads further: France, Germany, The Netherlands … But I fear for places like Australia and the United States, since the health systems in these places now count as inferior and the regimes in power are alarmingly inept.