China, Covid-19 Pandemic, WHO, Globalisation

The Black Swan of the Century: Birthing Covid-19

By: Sarada Subhash, Assistant Researcher, Geography and You
In the age of rapid globalization, associated/subsequent international, interstate and intrastate migrations and increased economic cooperation between global communities, the chances of an infectious disease spreading from one country to another are quicker. From Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that broke out in 2002 to the present-day ongoing pandemic Covid-19, there are many reasons why the global community needs to be vigilant and responsible. Understanding how the virus began is an important step that can lead to policy changes in stemming such risks.

As the interactions and collaborations between nation-states increase in the era of commercialization and globalization, it becomes crucial that each nation is responsible to itself and towards the international community. The nation-states need to resolutely adopt stringent health protocols within their community and maintain adequate transparency in sharing of information with the global community. In this context, this article attempts to analyse two critical areas where China has faltered, which might have expedited Covid-19 becoming a pandemic and engulfing the world like a raging wildfire.

China’s lack of transparency and Covid-19 cover-up

Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State of the United States, voiced that it was becoming “incredibly frustrating to work with the Chinese government to obtain data on the coronavirus”, which he firmly believes will be the ultimate solution to “both getting the vaccine and attacking this risk” (Stankiewicz 2020). Similar sentiments were echoed by Larry Kudlow, National Economic Council of the United States, that there appears to be a lack of “good transparency” by China regarding the Covid-19 outbreak (Pound and Javers 2020).

In all fairness, it is not just the United States that does not have confidence in the Covid-19 data and numbers coming from the Chinese authorities. After several days and months of cover-up, underreporting of the number of cases and alteration of the data (since the outbreak of virus in China in possibly early December 2019), Chinese officials in the mid of February 2020, admitted to an additional 15,000 cases of Covid-19. Much to the chagrin of the world, the increase in numbers came mostly from “clinically diagnosed” cases which are now acknowledged to be “confirmed” by the Beijing authorities (Pound and Javers 2020). By then, the disease has spread far and wide, affecting almost 126 countries across the globe.

As the world suspects by now, China gravely erred in its initial Covid-19 containment measures and rapid reporting of cases to the outside world–steps crucial to preventing any infectious disease from becoming an epidemic. China waited until New Year’s Eve to inform the World Health Organization (WHO) about their wet markets’ link to Covid-19 in spite of having knowledge about the same during the mid of December 2019 (Wootton 2020). After denial for months, the acknowledgement of human to human transmission of the virus came even later from the Chinese authorities-on January 20, 2020 to be precise. Researchers from WorldPop, argue that had China started the ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI)’ like isolation of early cases, rapid reporting, travel restrictions,  “one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 66 per cent, 86 percent and 95 percent respectively – significantly limiting the geographical spread of the disease” (Southampton 2020).

There are also several media reports of whistleblowers from China being brutally hushed up and reprimanded for letting the world know about the severity and actual ground situation of Covid-19 in China. On December 30, 2019, Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist (who later died contracting Covid-19) in China had tried warning his fellow medics about a “virus he thought looked like SARS” but was reprimanded by the Chinese authorities “to stop making false comments” (BBC 2020). Dr Li was later on investigated for “spreading rumours” on suspected infections in China.  The Chinese government has now accepted that there were “shortcomings and deficiencies” in their Covid-19 response in China (BBC 2020). The Chinese denials, delays and  confusions kept other countries in the dark for two months, leading to severe underestimation and under preparedness of Covid-19 by these countries-as proved by the rising mortality rates in countries like the United States, Italy, Spain and many others.

China had come under similar criticisms with a considerable lack of transparency during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002, another epidemic that originated in China and caused by the coronavirus. A pattern and behaviour China stoically holds on to till date much to the dismay of the international community.

While holding China accountable for the lack of transparency in the Covid-19 pandemic, it is equally pertinent to analyse WHO’s mishandling of the early stages of the pandemic . The WHO and its Director-General (DG), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus have come under criticism for their weak understanding of the outbreak in China. Tedros, the first non-doctor DG of WHO has been criticized by the international community for his effusive praise of China and its Covid-19 handling strategies. Tedros in fact said [China has] “a new standard for outbreak control” and that Beijing’s actions against Covid-19 had “bought the world time”, causing outrage amongst the international communities and nation-states (Shekhar 2020). And rightly so, when the ground reality of Covid-19 in China, as the world now knows, was quite the opposite with huge yet-to-be-acknowledged casualties.

A serious lapse of WHO is the delay in declaring Covid-19 as ‘a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)’ (Collins 2020). Despite admitting (on January 23, 2020) that Covid-19 was an emergency in China, Tedros waited for another full week to declare Covid-19 as a PHEIC (Collins 2020). WHO is an international organization (IO) constituted by the United Nations (UN) with an objective to attain ‘highest possible health level’ by all people across all nation-states (World Health Organization 2020). They are looked upon by the nation-states as the most responsible and reliable IO in the domain of  protection and promotion of global public health. Hence, the delay in declaring Covid-19 as a PHEIC by WHO led many countries to underestimate the gravity and impact of Covid-19. The NPI in most countries (like restrictions in travel ban, isolation of early cases etc.) was dangerously carefree and relaxed until WHO notified Covid-19 as PHEIC. This hampered Covid-19 preparedness by the global community and in turn aggravated the human-to-human transmission across the globe.

Taiwan was one of the first nations to be affected by the Covid-19 outbreak. Nevertheless, Taiwan now has the lowest Covid-19 infection rates due to their efficient public health system that managed to successfully arrest the spread of the virus (Chan 2020). What however is astonishing is WHO’s willful disregard of Taiwanese officials’ early warnings and their continued reluctance to acknowledge Taiwan’s success (ibid).

Taiwan shares a complex political relationship with China (China considers Taiwan to be a part of China, not a sovereign state). China has been holding WHO back from acknowledging the efforts of Taiwan (Wong 2020). This presents a very worrying scenario which raises questions about a political-nexus/political-bias towards China, a deeply worrying precedent by an IO–supposed to work without any political biases and discriminations.

China’s wet market: Lapse in stringent health and sanitary protocols

The wet markets in China have once again come under the scanner as they are suspected to be the source of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst not confirmed, the culprit behind the Covid-19 outbreak is widely believed to be one of the wet markets in the city of Wuhan. Wuhan, once known as a sprawling city in the Hubei Province of Central China is now infamous as the original epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Media is widely reporting the case of a shrimp seller at Wuhan’s Huanan SeaFood Market, to be the ‘Patient Zero’/ first victim of Covid-19 pandemic (The Economic Times 2020). Following epidemiological investigations and extensive surveillance, the Chinese authorities have now shut this wet market temporarily, adding weight to the allegations and suspicions surrounding these wet markets’ link to the Covid-19 outbreak. Amidst the global furore against the wet markets, the media published reports that China is reopening its wet markets as the number of Covid-19 cases reduces (ANI 2020). The reports also suggest that the media is strictly prohibited from capturing the images of these running markets (ibid). As a matter of fact, this is not the first-time the poorly regulated wet markets in China are becoming the spotlight, always for the wrong reasons.

Traditional wet markets are a part of the  ‘popular local culture’ in many Asian countries. The wet markets are places “where wild and often poached animals are packed together” in filthy conditions for trade, thus becoming a “breeding ground for disease and an incubator for a multitude of viruses to evolve” (White 2020). These wet markets offer the sale (legal and illegal) of a wide variety of ‘live fauna’ with culinary and medicinal properties. Illegal wildlife trade has been identified as the fourth largest illicit transnational activity in the world and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime has estimated the global wildlife trafficking industry to be worth between 7 billion and 23 billion USD annually (Louis 2020)

Thus, the humans dealing with these ‘live fauna’ come in contact not just with the domesticated/commonly known animals but also with a baffling range of unusual wild animals, whose zoonotic history are rarely available (Breiman 2003). Also, as pointed out by conservation specialists like Christian Walzer, executive director of Wildlife Conservation Society, these wet markets often leads to “stashing and mixing of all these species together in a very small area, with secretions and urine mixed up together,” a dangerously unhygienic practice that might lead to transmission of the zoonotic viruses inhabiting in these animals and their secretions to the human beings dealing with them (White 2020). Dan Wooton of the The Daily Examiner describes the gruesome reality of these wet markets operating in China – “A smorgasbord of dogs being boiled alive, bats served on sticks like lollipops, kittens slaughtered, rats fried and giant snakes carved up for human consumption, with the blood splattering everywhere”-chances of cross-contamination a high possibility (Wootton 2020). The Daily Examiner also reports the presence and sale of wolf cubs, turtles, crocodiles, hedgehogs, bears — an unusual and notorious stock for any markets!

This wet market and its potential global health implications came into light even two decades’ ago. In 2002, SARS, a zoonotic (transmission from animal to human beings) disease caused by SARS-CoV, first occurred in China. The SARS disease was first noticed in a cook who worked at a restaurant in the Foshan City, Guangdong Province of China. The restaurant was known to serve exotic meat dishes made from wild animals. Although not proven as the actual source, it is believed that the primary reservoir of SARS-CoV were bats (Hui et al. 2020). Researcher Yi Guan and fellow colleagues established in 2003, “the isolation of SARS coronavirus (CoV) from Himalayan palm civets (Paguna larvata) in wet markets in Shenzhen, southern China”, now identified as the intermediary source of SARS-CoV (Webster 2004). The same researchers also found similar infection in raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procuyoinboides) stacked in one of the wet markets of the Guangdong Province, based on serological tests (ibid.). Yi Guan and colleagues also reported “serological evidence for SARS-CoV in human beings working in these markets”, which supports the argument that SARS is a potential zoonotic disease possibly originated in one of the wet markets in China (ibid.).

The chronology of the SARS outbreak is very similar to the current outbreak of Covid-19. Although SARS had a higher mortality rate, because of being milder in its influence, it did not cause as severe a global health crisis as that of Covid-19. After emerging in China, SARS spread to “29 countries/regions in 2003 through a travel-related global outbreak with 8,098 cases with a case fatality rate of 9.6 per cent” and 774 deaths in total (Hui et al. 2020). Covid-19, as of April 6, 2020 has wreaked havoc in almost 126 countries, affecting 1,278,523 people and leading to the mortality of 69,757 persons all across the globe (Worldometer 2020). It is alarming to note that like SARS, now Covid-19 also has its origin allegedly in one of the wet markets in China. After phylogenetics analysis of the available genome sequence of the virus, Covid-19 is now believed to be a zoonotic disease (bats appear to be the primary reservoir), similar to SARS (WHO 2020). Scientists believe that there is a high probability that the disease started in bats and was transmitted to humans through the scaly anteater, the pangolin–popular in the wet markets of China (Wootton 2020). The WHO report outlines that investigations around the Huanan wet market and the types of wild animals sold here are underway, so as to understand the origin of zoonotic virus (WHO 2020).

As early as in 1996, scientists have predicted that coronavirus has high possibility of mutation and “notably, several major coronavirus pandemics had been recorded” over the years in many important animal species-examples, porcine epidemic coronavirus (PEDV), porcine respiratory coronaviruses (PRCV), SARS-CoV (Baric 2009). The scientific and research community has advocated shutting down all animal markets as the best possible strategy to contain the mutation and transmission of the coronavirus virus to human beings (Baric 2009). Considering the unhygienic and scanty regulatory practices followed by these wet markets operating in China, health practitioners also have been consistently requesting the concerned authorities in China to either shut down these live markets or revamp them with the best international practices. As proved by the disastrous global health pandemic, Covid-19, these warnings and requests were constantly ignored much to the peril of innocent human lives.

Way forward

The frustrations and criticisms against China’s initial response to Covid-19 are mounting. It is quite unclear as to what China’s actual motives are behind their reluctance to adhere to transparency and openness when it comes to reporting of infectious diseases emerging in their soil. What political imperatives held them back from sharing information of Covid-19? Was it fear of isolation and distancing from the international community over a disease that emerged in Chinese soil, particularly when the nation harbours ambitions of being a ‘global leader’? Or was it the fear of losing the massive economic footprint that China has all over the world?

Whatever the actual motive may be, behind the initial reluctance of authorities in China to inform the health professionals and other nation-states about the seriousness and gravity of Covid-19, it is without doubt one of the reasons why the disease has become the decades’ deadliest pandemic claiming thousands of human lives. It is incomprehensible that despite China’s significant economic resources, abundant scientific knowledge and technological expertise, not to mention its infamous authoritarian regime–it cannot ensure safety protocols in wet markets, let alone crack down on illegal wildlife procurement. What is insurmountable to global understanding is the continued need of China’s populace to access these markets. Juxtaposed against the excessive and aggressive Covid-19 containment measures despite strong criticisms from human rights activists, the non-closure of wet markets decades ago perhaps show that the Chinese value billion dollar businesses far more than human lives.

China’s state media is “amplifying the message that the country can bounce back strongly”- while also constantly reporting the slew of campaigns and policies from the Chinese government in an attempt to regain domestic and  foreign investor confidence in Covid-19 affected China (He 2020). Tesla (TSLA), “the US electric automaker reopened its massive Shanghai factory and announced plans to expand production capacity” adds the report. While the other nations are under the Covid-19 siege, China is briskly planning strategies to bring its economy back to a path of full recovery and growth.

It is time that the world stands up against China’s economic control of the powerful nations. Till the time China engages in a more responsive and responsible regime–global communities need to tread carefully into close economic ties. China needs to be forthcoming and transparent particularly in matters that involve global health. Above all, China needs to acknowledge that in an era of globalization and commercialization what affects China affects the world and vice-versa!


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