COVID-19 has come to us in 2020 where the world leaders, with a few exceptions, lack a 20-20 vision as well as the scientific temper that goes in with such a vision. To understand history, it is at times necessary to imagine what might have happened. Such counter-factual arguments often help us to understand better what did happen in the past. The best formulation of such an argument goes to the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal: “Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” In short, the course of history would have been different, as instead of Augustus Caesar, Marc Antony might have succeeded Julius Caesar.
It can be demonstrated that the pandemic either could have been prevented in December 2019 or nipped in the bud in January 2020. Wuhan, a city of 11 million population, witnessed a growing number of cases of pneumonia of unknown aetiology from 8th December onwards. On 30th December Dr. Li Wenliang, 34, talked about it on the social media and urged immediate action. The Mayor of Wuhan rebuked and silenced the doctor on 3rd January. The Mayor did not want anything to spoil his plans for holding a congress of the Wuhan branch of the Communist Party in January to be concluded with a grand banquet for 40,000 families on 18th January. Eventually, the banquet was held, and the virus went viral. This was the wasted opportunity to forestall the epidemic before it became a pandemic out of control.
On 20th January, Dr. Zhong Naushan, 83, an eminent virologist went to Wuhan and reported to President Xi Jinping of the seriousness of the situation. On 23rd January Beijing imposed a lock-down not only in the city of Wuhan but in the whole Hubei province. That means Beijing realized the threat of an epidemic. This showed both scientific temper and good governance. However, earlier on 31st December when China informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of cases of pneumonia of unknown aetiology, there was a gross error of judgment on the part of China. It said that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission (HTHT). The WHO instead of digging deeper into the matter and assuming the worst-case scenario, till more is known, swallowed the Chinese claim hook. The WHO should have told the member-states and prominent bodies such as CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) that on HTHT, more study was required. Instead as late as 14th January, it tweeted that there was no evidence of HTHT. By then there was one infection in Thailand. Obviously, the WHO displayed a lamentable lack of scientific temper and sense of stratified governance. Deplorably, the WHO persisted on the wrong path. It resisted declaring a pandemic. On 30th January it declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. It waited for a long and finally on 12th March it declared Coronavirus as a pandemic by which the toll was 4613 deaths and 125,260 infections in 118 countries. Therefore, one can conclude contra-factually that had the WHO acted sooner with a better sense of its responsibilities, the epidemic would not have become a pandemic. The flights to and from China should have been stopped in early January.
Italy, despite having one of the best health care systems in the West, has paid a painfully high price in terms of lives, infections, and economic losses. Could Italy have acted differently? Of course. A number of school children in Lombardy in the north, Italians and Chinese, had gone to China at the time of the Christmas vacation. When the schools resumed there was reason to fear that the children who had gone to China might have picked up the disease. There was a demand for suspending the classes, but that demand was rejected as it was feared that suspension would send a wrong signal and hurt the economy sparingly. On 19th January 2020 Milan hosted a football match with a Spanish team. The stadium of 40,000 capacity was full. 2500 fans from Spain carried back the virus with them. Two days later, there was a big celebration in Milan for the inauguration of the China-Italy year of Tourism and Culture. Nobody had heard of social distancing and the virus went viral, unnoticed by the humans. When Italy struggled hard to stop the contagion its request for help was ignored by the European Union. The best explanation of what happened to Italy is stated well by its Under Secretary, Sandra Zampa. She said that when it happened in China, nobody in Italy ever thought it would affect them. It was seen as a sort of science fiction. When it happened to Italy, the rest of Europe thought that they were somehow immune.
Even the US President Donald Trump for long dismissed COVID-19 as a type of common flu and resisted the advice of his advisors, from intelligence and health sectors, to act. The price is being paid by the Americans as well and the rests is history. However, the media and the pundits have seldom highlighted an important point, If Trump had acted early, the West and the rest of the world would have followed, and thousands of lives would have been saved. President Trump has said repeatedly that he held China responsible for not sharing information at the right time. He has at times said that the virus might have come out from a Chinese laboratory. He has not yet produced any evidence to substantiate this accusation. However, any aggravation of tension between the two largest economies will harm both of them and can harm the rest of the world too. Moreover, President Trump’s stopping of funding to WHO is of questionable value. Of course, there is need to find out why the WHO acted too late, but such an investigation will have to wait. The international community needs to pay undivided attention to the raging contagion and the WHO needs the support of all of us.
In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has dismissed the COVID-19 as a minor matter though the death toll has crossed 6,000. He even dismissed his Health Minister who warned him of pandemic and denounced the governors too for sharing the reality. It is a significant fact that till now the contagion has caused most of the deaths in the West. As on 30th April the toll of affected people is 217,769 out of which 79 percent is accounted for by the US and seven European countries (Spain, Italy, the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands). Surprisingly all of these eight countries do have a developed healthcare system. However, we do not know what is in store for the developing countries, or for that matter to South Asia. Obviously, the healthcare system in these countries will collapse as the number of infections goes up. What is to be done? It will be ideal if the UN Secretary General convenes a conference to discuss this matter. The WHO should prepare a note detailing the financial and technical support needed in each country and the rich nations, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and other bodies should pledge the amount they can contribute. Subsequent implementation should be monitored by WHO and the UN Secretary General.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member countries have started helping each other. The SAARC secretariat should actively promote such cooperation. The SAARC should periodically meet through video conference at the level of Ministers or Secretaries. All governments in the developing world should give special attention to the vulnerable sections such as workers working far away from home. Homo Sapiens failed to show wisdom when the COVID-19 appeared but its better late than never.
Ambassador K. P. Fabian is an Indian Diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000, during which time he was posted to Madagascar, Austria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Canada, Finland, Qatar and Italy.