Global Radar Screen

Coronavirus politicisation and its global impact

Tourists from China wearing face masks.

Dissector

As Sri Lanka celebrates yet another ‘Day of Independence’ she could pat herself on her back for, perhaps, just one thing: Her comparatively calm reaction to the coronavirus infection which is seemingly claiming one country after another. To be sure, no country could be complacent over the supposition that the virus is unlikely to spread within its borders. But considering that even in modern times the world has been witness time and again to spreading and lethal infectious diseases which were contained by the international community with less panic, the current attempts by sections of the world to isolate China over the coronavirus seem to be uncalled for and unfair.

However, Sri Lanka could take some comfort in the fact that she has reacted with notable rationality so far to the disease. Hopefully, the degree of maturity evinced by Sri Lanka in the current emergency would continue to manifest in the multiplicity of issues that will be assailing her on the socio-economic and political planes in particular, in times to come. As some medical authorities in Sri Lanka were quick to point out, the graver threat to the people’s health is emanating from the influenza virus which is currently rampant in this country. Needless to say, any neglected disease could prove fatal.

Accordingly, seeing the coronavirus as particularly lethal, smacks of selectivity and bias. Besides, as pointed out by some observers, influenza has claimed lives in the thousands in some Western countries over the years, but there has been no necessity on the part of the international community to declare states of emergency and initiate similar urgent measures. It needs to be borne in mind that the Chinese-origin SARS virus was managed by the world some 20 years ago with relative composure and calm. But the coronavirus threat is proving to be the proverbial ‘different kettle of fish’ for some sections for reasons best known to them.

It was no co-incidence, perhaps, that the US was foremost among Western countries to take dramatic precautionary measures on the virus, including prohibiting entry to the US of ‘foreigners’ who had been to China within the past two weeks. In fact, a national emergency is in force in the US over the health crisis. Britain, Japan, Germany and several other countries have joined the US in advising their citizens not to travel to China. The latter has called the US travel advisory ‘unkind’ and sees it as lacking in ‘good will’.

While all countries are obliged to take strong precautionary measures against epidemics that permeate borders, it smacks of mass hysteria to irrationally react to such crises, generating xenophobia in the process. While the SARS crisis was managed with relative orderliness and rationality, so was the Mad Cow disease that had implications for the world’s dairy industry and the international economy, to take just two health crises of recent decades.

A thermal scanner set up at the Bandaranaike International Airport determines whether a passenger has a temperature.
A thermal scanner set up at the Bandaranaike International Airport determines whether a passenger has a temperature.

All such crises possessed the potential to jeopardise the global economy unless managed or contained effectively. But the international community did quite an effective job managing those crises. The same goes for the coronavirus crisis. The latter too could be handled rationally and brought under control provided reason and not emotion is brought to bear on the situation by all relevant quarters.

It is the international climate of opinion that is foremost among keys to understanding the current anti-China bias that is manifesting itself in the handling of the coronavirus crisis by the world community. In the health crises of the past, Western relations with China in particular were, to a considerable degree cordial. Every economy of the world was and is touched by China, but there was no marked or widespread US animus against China in the past two decades.

This is not the case today despite a truce of sorts holding between the US and China in their trade war. Since the advent of the Trump administration the US has taken its efforts to undermine the standing of China in the world from the political stage to the economic sphere and this is proving a decisive factor in the current denigration of China by sections of the international community.

The process of damning China has taken the form of racial slurs, besides other forms of insult. While the transnational Western media is, in the main responsible for blowing out of proportion the virus threat and in projecting it as the beginning of some species of ‘Black Death’, the social media of both West and East are maliciously projecting China as the archetypal ‘Other’ that needs to be confronted constantly and rendered helpless. Some sections of the Western social media even went to the extent of referring to a ‘Yellow Alert’ that is staring the international community in the face as it purportedly did decades ago in the wake of the perceived spread of Asian economic influence world- wide. Some Eastern countries that are featuring in the blackening of China, particularly via social media are Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia, although the relevant states do not figure in these tarring exercises. That is, at the popular level the anti-China sentiment is on the rise.

The reasons for this wave of rising anti-China hysteria in East Asia ought to be plain to see. To begin with, China was a colonial power a couple of centuries ago in the region and these past antagonisms are dying hard. Besides, most East Asian states are at logger heads with China at present over contested territories in the East and South China seas. In these squabbles these states enjoy the tacit backing of the US and other major Western powers.

Accordingly, it is a case of politicizing the coronavirus disease by China’s global rivals. To the degree to which political, economic and territorial rivalries remain between the above states and China, to the same extent would the current crisis and issues growing out of it linger and ruffle international politics.

However, the uncomfortable facts need to be faced by the world community. For instance, given the fact that almost every country is impacted positively by China on account of its commercial and business reach, it is the world that would be affected negatively through a prolonged stand-off with China. Tourists from China alone are an economic mainstay of many a country. Rather than confronting China, the world would do well to help it in this its time of need.

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