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Welcome to the new virus politics

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A medical team member poses for a photo before leaving for Xianning City of Hubei Province at Changshui International Airport in Kunming, capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province, Feb. 12, 2020 (Xinhua/Jiang Wenyao)

International veteran news reader Veronica Pedrosa has her own take on Coronavirus while on a London bus. Read her experience

I almost got into a fight with a guy on the bus this evening because I was so transfixed on the boldface headline of the Evening Standard tabloid “All China Visitors ‘Could Face UK Ban’,” that I picked it up from the seat next to him across the aisle.

“Oy, that’s my paper!” Oops. He got off the bus and I looked out of the window at the empty pavements, closed shops and forlorn looking posters of red and gold welcoming the Chinese New Year.

My Twitter feed is awash with the global conversation about the #coronavirus that goes far beyond the actual 2019 Novel Coronavirus –  2019-nCoV –  the new respiratory virus first identified in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.

There are pictures of the almost empty Immigration area at Bangkok’s main airport, Suvarnabhumi. “Stunning – the complete absence of Chinese tourists [in one of the world’s busiest airports, often choc-a-bloc with Chinese]”, my friend commented. A Chinese friend living in London posted pictures of the 100 face masks they’ve bought for five times their usual price for their sister in eastern China. “I hope the masks reach her safely,” the friend commented, [given the ongoing “interception” of masks].

I’ve been used to experiencing previous outbreaks closer to their origins: in Bangkok and Hong Kong. During the avian flu scare, in January 2004, a major new outbreak of H5N1 surfaced in Vietnam and Thailand’s poultry industry and, within weeks, spread to 10 countries and regions in Asia. Also caused by a Coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is another viral respiratory illness that was first reported in Asia in February 2003. Over the next few months, it spread to more than 24 countries in North America, South America, Europe and Asia before the outbreak was contained.

Now, just as then, the strengths and weaknesses of our nations, international and national healthcare systems are being revealed under the stress of a highly contagious yet mysterious disease threatening the safety of people to live, trade and travel among each other in ever growing numbers – their economies and forming a new kind of politics.

It’s been just a few weeks since the international health regulations emergency committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern”. Chinese health officials have reported tens of thousands of infections with 2019-nCoV, with the virus reportedly spreading from person-to-person in some parts of the country. Infections also are being reported in a growing number of international locations, including the USA. The US reported the first confirmed instance of person-to-person spread on Jan 30.

The USA had an average of more than 14,000 people arriving from China each day in 2019, via both direct and indirect flights, so it was profoundly disruptive when the (US President )Trump administration issued its “Proclamation on Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Persons who Pose a Risk of Transmitting 2019 Novel Coronavirus”. It is an order to suspend and limit the entry into the US, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of all who were physically in China during the 14-day period before coming to the US. It’s a conflation of immigration policy with a travel issue, so that if you’re a Chinese citizen, you can’t enter the US. All travel and movement has been stopped because of the epidemic.

Pullitzer Prize winning journalist, Laurie Garrett has reported that,  because almost all of the active pharmaceutical ingredients used in the formulation of medicines come from China, the US will soon run out of drugs for diabetes, heart disease and cancer. She has also pointed out that the Trump administration disbanded a crucial programme linked to global health security set up by the (former US president Barack) Obama administration in response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. It’s got rid of the National Security Council’s special pandemic response unit, the equivalent in the Department of Homeland Security, cut the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and for training local health workers and public health leaders.

Time magazine’s front cover is a cartoon image of Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a face-mask on which the words “China’s Test” is emblazoned. Its coverage suggests the coronavirus outbreak could derail Xi’s dreams of a Chinese century.

Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist and one of the firsts to figure out there was a new kind of pneumonia, is now himself dead and hailed as a kind of Coronavirus martyr. He had posted his observations that there were cases similar to SARS and tried to warn other doctors, but was arrested and jailed by the authorities. In the first few weeks of January, Wuhan officials insisted only those who came in contact with infected animals could catch the virus and failed to issue any guidance to doctors and health workers. Once released, Dr Li went back to treat patients but caught the virus himself and died within days of his diagnosis. One Weibo (China’s heavily censored version of Twitter) user called him a hero and worried that doctors would now be afraid to issue early warnings when they find signs of infectious diseases. Another said that tens of millions more like him are required for a safer public health environment.

China has taken extreme measures: building enormous high-tech hospitals in a matter of days, placing tens of millions of people in some form of lockdown, moving huge consignments of food all over the country in mass convoys to the locked-down population. There are 11 million people in Wuhan. Beijing is essentially under a de facto quarantine.

These are measures that would be impossible for any other country in the world to replicate. So the question is what would the US government or anywhere else do? It’s not as easy to lock people up and build massive new facilities in democracies.

Meanwhile, the Chinese and Asian diaspora communities have become the target of increased racism, they say, because of the outbreak. I’ve joked myself with friends that we need to watch out for the consequences of coughing or sneezing as Asians – and now there’s that headline I read on the bus.

China-US relations are under enormous strain with each government playing megaphone politics against each other – and for the benefit of the governed. Other governments around the world are following suit. This is politics driven by self-serving vested interests struggling with their own failures to provide people with resilient societies and fully functioning public healthcare systems against a virus that doesn’t know borders, doesn’t know the politics, race, religion, age or gender of whoever it infects.

Welcome to the new virus politics.

The author has presented the news on the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.

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