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  • Hamsini Hariharan

The Tide Turns

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on March 16, 2020 and can be accessed here.

“I just want this coronavirus to go away,” my sister texts me from Seoul as the number of coronavirus infections crossed 7000 this weekend. South Korea is taking drastic steps like banning public gathering and mass quarantining troops and even the most famous boy band in the world, BTS is cancelling their world tour. But the virus isn’t going away anytime soon – instead it is going everywhere. In India, the number of COVID-19 cases has risen to 34 in the last two weeks, and hand sanitisers and masks are already unavailable at pharmacies across the cities.

South Korea, Italy and Iran have the highest number of COVID-19 cases outside China. But around the world borders are closing and flights are being cancelled to quell the virus, whose scale is yet unknown. Saudi Arabia restricted foreign tourists from the Hajj, the religious pilgrimage that sees millions of Muslims travel to Mecca and Madina every year. Pakistan has temporarily reopened its border with Iran to allow for its citizens to return home, but at the same time has shut its borders with Afghanistan at least for the week. While President Trump of the United States first labelled virus as a “hoax”, he signalled a stronger response a day later by imposing travel restrictions and asking people not to panic. Since then, 16 people have died in Washington State alone and the total number of infections in the US has crossed 450.

Around the world, countries are gearing up to deal with a potential pandemic as the COVID-19, which has a low fatality rate, remains highly infectious. Within China, any person who has travelled outside the country is required to self-quarantine themselves. An Australian reporter who had spent a week in South Korea found a notice on his door telling the neighbours to report him if he left the house. China’s initial handling of the disease, and its repression of news have gained the authoritarian government much criticism. However, with the decline in new cases within China, messaging from the Chinese government is highlighting how well it has done in tackling this unprecedented crisis.

The Report on the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 released in the last week of February, said, “In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” At the same time, the report also notes that, “Much of the global community is not yet ready, in mindset and materially, to implement the measures that have been employed to contain COVID-19 in China. These are the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans. Fundamental to these measures is extremely proactive surveillance to immediately detect cases, very rapid diagnosis and immediate case isolation, rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts, and an exceptionally high degree of population understanding and acceptance of these measures.”

China has received a lot of flak for mismanagement of the disease but it is attempting to turn the narrative around by projecting a stronger message from the central government. It has announced the release of a book titled, A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating Covid-19 in 2020. Mismanagement of crises is rife in authoritarian governments but democracies are not immune from them either. While we simply have no data about the spread of COVID-19 in North Korea or the actual on ground situation in Iran, democracies around the world also do not have the capacities to deal with a pandemic. As the cases around the world surge, China will be keen to point out that most democracies do not have the capacity to carry out the sweeping measures that it has taken. This will go a long way in pointing out that mismanagement of crises is not limited to authoritarian regimes. In India, even without the coronavirus, the government has demonstrated a propensity to mismanage its resources – and the pogrom in Delhi is yet another reminder.

So, when I speak to my sister next, I echo her sentiment but can only sigh at how this coronavirus is not going way. It will remain in the headlines for the next few months. And for the people affected by it, life may never be the same again.


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