Don’t stigmatize China

Published On: March 16, 2020 09:22 AM NPT By: Abijit Sharma

Yes, China’s handling of coronavirus crisis came at a cost of the personal liberty and livelihood of millions. But at the end, it was able to stop the virus from infecting hundreds of thousands of others

When the news emerged that a Chinese doctor, who had warned his colleagues about an emerging virus, was reprimanded by the Chinese authorities, the West went into a tizzy. The media was quick to criticize China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and how its authoritarian government’s desperate attempt to conceal it had led to the outbreak to reach unprecedented level. Many commented that the steps China was taking, including locking down of an entire city of 11 million and forcing million others to stay indoors, was extreme and ‘draconian’. 

Almost a month later on March 12, China was slowly taking a victory leap having recorded just five new cases of the virus in the epicenter of Hubei province—down from nearly 15,000 fresh cases a day just a month earlier. On the other hand, the alarming spread of the virus has generated responses mired with panic and confusion in the West. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the situation a pandemic. Italy is under a complete lockdown. The United States, after having accepted that enough tests had not been carried out among ‘suspected virus carriers’, has finally declared a state of national emergency.

Ends justify means 
There is no doubt that China’s approach came at a cost of the personal liberty and livelihood of millions. What mattered at the end, however, was it was able to do what was the needed: Stop the virus from infecting hundreds of thousands of others. 

But the West and its media have always been critical of China’s approach irrespective of the context. Be it during the Beijing Olympics or China’s handling of the SARS virus, concerns over ‘curtailment of human rights’ is quickly picked up by the press and, in most cases, blown out of proportion. It was thus not surprising to see Western media reporting at extraordinary lengths that the way China went on to contain the current crisis was a ‘blatant’ exercise of its authoritarian power. 

But looking back, it is clear that if China had not taken those steps swiftly, the crisis could have taken a deadlier turn. Thus, while the authorities’ decision to put an entire city under lockdown drew flak from the Western media, it was this very decision that helped to contain the virus primarily in Hubei and prevented it from breaking out into other heavily populated provinces like Guangdong and Shandong. Similarly, while the Western media lashed out authorities’ decision to screen content (pertaining to coronavirus) on WeChat, it was this very step that helped prevent the spread of false information and panic. Moreover, while the Western media came down heavily on China for ordering its citizens to stay indoors—a step which Hong Kong and Singapore avoided—this very step has been successful in containing the virus. It was this particular step that avoided the situation from spiraling out of control.

Yes, there are reasons to believe that the virus could have been tackled much earlier than the authorities actually did. But it should be understood that the signs of its severity were not yet visible. Any government—authoritarian or democratic—could not have figured out its severity at early stage. Agreed that early clampdown on whistleblower(s) was uncalled for. But simply blaming Beijing for ‘not taking swift action’ once the signs started to show is illogical, much less authoritarian. Once the severity of the situation began to show, the authorities took swift action—much quicker than what Western countries have been doing at the moment.

While on one hand the West has been critical of China’s approach in handling the crisis, its very own approach has been highly flawed.  A highly ‘transparent’ and ‘democratic’ American system was taken aback by the surge in coronavirus cases in its country and declared a state of emergency in haste. Despite having prior knowledge about the severity of the outbreak, the American health system, as is evident, was highly ill prepared. A March 12 New York Times article mentions how hundreds of sick people were being denied the test since the hospitals did not have enough testing kits.

Replicating China  
Ironically, the same West, which claimed China’s approach was authoritarian and draconian, is following China’s lead in containing the outbreak. In Washington state, the governor has banned gatherings of more than 250 people. ‘Democratic’ European countries like Italy and Spain too had to follow China’s lead. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte ordered all shops—including restaurants, cafes and bars—to close until late March. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that his government would declare a two-week state of emergency on Saturday which allowed the central government to limit free movement, legally confiscate goods and take over control of industries and private facilities, including private hospitals.

Having successfully tackled the situation, the Chinese authorities are now offering their help and experience. It is all set to restart economic activities. Schools and colleges look set to open and offices are slowly opening up. Although late, its approach is now garnering praise. A week after the lockdown, the WHO was one of the first to recognize China’s efforts way back when it began. “The Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak, despite the severe social and economic impact those measures are having on the Chinese people,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, much to the ire of the Western leaders. 

As for the West, it should understand that at extraordinary times like these, ‘civil liberties’ and ‘democratic ideals’ are far less important than people’s lives. More importantly, it should stop using every other opportunity to stigmatize China which has handled its issues far more efficiently. China has offered a lesson to the world on how to swiftly and effectively combat the crisis. For once, the West should take note of it if it wants to save lives of its people. 

The author is LLM graduate from Shanghai

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