Wuhan virus brings out the best and the worst in disaster responses

Wuhan seafood market closed after the New Coronavirus was detected there for the first timePhoto: Sistema

The global response to the outbreak of a new virus in Wuhan, China, has been a reminder of the merits of international collaboration. Sadly, it has also brought out some of the worst elements of humanity.

Editorial

The impending threat of a fatal disaster holds a mirror up to humanity. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was a backdrop to a collection of stories of individual heroism and an outpouring of international grief and assistance. It showed the lengths that humans would go to save loved ones and strangers alike from certain death.

The recent outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus in Central China has invoked a similar response. With more than 5,974 confirmed cases across 17 countries, it has brought out the best in humanity and demonstrated the unprecedented effectiveness of international disease prevention mechanisms.

However, it has also held a mirror up to ASEAN’s societies, providing a warts-and-all glimpse into modern anti-Chinese sentiment and the racist undertones that carry it.

Map charting the spread of Wuhan's coronavirus across the globe

The outbreak of a virus in Wuhan united the international scientific community

The rapid global response to an unidentified, pneumonia-like virus first detected in Wuhan, Central China has been unprecedented.

Within two weeks, the Chinese authorities formed an international consortium to look into the virus which swiftly published the genetic sequence on an open-access platform. By contrast, during the SARS epidemic, it took Beijing five months to identify and share the genetic sequence of the virus.

Once a genetic sequence is identified, scientists across the globe can begin working on DNA analysis to identify possible vaccine options and develop antibody tests to detect the disease in patients that are yet to show symptoms. Additionally, it allows laboratories to grow the disease themselves, instead of waiting for patient samples to arrive in the mail.

In the face of a global public health emergency, scientists and researchers have mobilised all the tools at their disposal to control the spread of the virus.

Karla Satchell, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Northwestern University in the US told the Washington Post, “this is really new… Lots of people [in science] still try to hide what they’re doing, don’t want to talk about what they’re doing, and everybody out there is like: This is the case where we don’t worry about egos, we don’t worry about who’s first, we just care about solving the problem.”

The results of this enhanced international health diplomacy have been staggering. There are reports that researchers at Purdue University in the US could have a vaccine ready for human testing within three months. It took scientists 20 months from the moment the SARS genome was identified to the first human vaccine tests.

Scientists put their egos aside, but so did the Chinese government

The lightning-fast scientific response to the virus can be attributed in part to the transparency of the Chinese government. In 2003, when the SARS outbreak infected more than 5,200 people in mainland China, Beijing was accused of orchestrating a cover-up after it took the government almost five months to announce the outbreak to the public and set up a task force to deal with the disease.  

Since then, Beijing has drawn up a state-level contingency plan for handling natural disasters and public health issues. It also established the China Information System for Disease Control and Prevention, a nationwide information system that connects hospitals and clinics and tracks an outbreak in real-time.

This time around, rather than cover up confirmed cases, Beijing worked closely with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and rapidly shared information with international stakeholders.

View of Wuhan in Hubei, China from the Yellow Crane Tower
View over Wuhan, Hubei province.
Photo: Harald Groven

On Tuesday, the WHO announced that Beijing had even agreed to let global health experts into the country in a move Chinese President Xi Jinping said was to prove his government was being “open, transparent” and “responsible” in its handling of the crisis.

The outbreak brought out the worst elements of anti-Chinese sentiment in Southeast Asia

The advances in international health diplomacy on display during the outbreak have been a cause for celebration. However, the crisis has also illuminated the ugliest elements of anti-Chinese sentiment across the ASEAN region.

Within hours of the outbreak, social media was awash with users joking about the outbreak. Netizens seized on a video of a Chinese vlogger eating bat soup and suggested it was Chinese eating habits that had caused the outbreak.

The vlogger and influencer depicted, Wang Mengyun, was quick to point out that bat soup is not a Chinese dish and the video was neither recent nor filmed in Wuhan. It was filmed in Palau, Micronesia three years ago, where bat soup is a local delicacy.

But for the peddlers of xenophobic chat, the details were irrelevant. It didn’t stop a small army of keyboard warriors taking to social media to share their belief that it was Chinese eating habits and poor hygiene that caused the outbreak.

Other posts struck an even more malicious tone. In Malaysia, some netizens went as far as to suggest that the virus was a form of “divine retribution” over China’s treatment of the Uyghur population.

Some mosques in Malaysia have implemented a ban on Chinese tourists. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was quick to announce that any mosques limiting access to Chinese tourists were not acting on governmental advice.

In the Philippines, the government’s response has been disproportionate to the threat level. The Philippines has stopped issuing visas on arrival to all Chinese tourists. There have also been calls to block Chinese tourists from arriving in Malaysia and a petition in Singapore to ban Chinese travellers from entering the city-state has garnered more than 110,000 signatures.

Southeast Asia’s proximity to China means ASEAN nations must take steps to prevent the spread of the disease. However, these steps must reflect the fact that the disease is the problem, not the Chinese people.

Times of duress should evoke empathy, not derision—after all, the strain of coronavirus could just as easily have broken out in Southeast Asia. Had it done so, ASEAN nations would want support, not ridicule, from the international community.