For Asia the past decade seemed the best of times. Much of the continent, particularly its East, was experiencing a continuum of progress and prosperity. China was rising. It was poised to elevate itself to the position of a global superpower. As in the ‘flying geese paradigm’, the Asian tigers as well as the rest of ASEAN followed the flight-path of Japan to transform themselves into the world’s newest economic powerhouse. The focus of the world had turned from the West to the East. That still remains, but for a different reason. Now all that attention, while it still persists, is, alas, for being the nerve-centre of a non-conventional threat to global stability that is now enveloping the rest of the world. The Coronavirus, emanating from Wuhan in the Hubei province of China, wisely designated as ‘Covid-19’ by the World Heath Organization, to delink, at least the name, from its powerful source country, a key member of international institutions. Spain had no such luck with the ‘Spanish Flu’ in the 1950s!
The scourge is having an impact across a broad spectrum in different ways. What originally began in Wuhan and spread rapidly to other parts of China late last year, was treated with an equanimity by the authorities that attracted considerable global opprobrium. But Chairman Xi Jinping, when he assumed control of the situation, reacted with great energy, marshalled the necessary resources to confront the problem, and took the required administrative and medical steps, sufficient to restore a modicum of confidence in China’s governance. Cities were ‘locked-down’ and travel was restricted. In consonance with the prevalent political culture, the people obliged the government by largely obeying the set rules and conforming to laid down protocols. The number of the newly-affected cases dropped eventually, and some provinces lowered their emergency responses. Even then, at writing , there are 80,409 cases in that country, with a death toll of 3012, preponderantly higher than anywhere else in the world.
Unfortunately, but also unsurprisingly, the virus has spread, starting with the neighbouring countries. For instance, take South Korea, an Asian economic tiger and a technological giant, characteristics that could not provide it immunity. There the infected cases have crossed 6000, and is said to be rising. President Moon Jae-in has risen to the challenge. Three cities, till now, have been declared ‘Special care zones’ which resemble a softer version of the Chinese ‘lock-down’, but has proved to be a good ‘enabler’ for organizing the needed response. The authorities have worked to garner communal support, and a large war-chest of funds is the welcome result.
Japan is another such affected country. The Coronavirus took it completely unawares. The government’s treatment of the case of the passengers of the affected cruise ship ‘Diamond Princess’, was extremely cavalier to say the least. That they were sent home without any serious examination’ displayed an initial lackadaisical approach. But as numbers of cases began to rise, now exceeding 1000 with over a dozen dead, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was moved to action. At the outset he was wary of anything that resembled a frenzied panic as the crowning glory of his tenure was to be the 2020 Olympics. He did not naturally wish to have anything come in the way. Now it is likely to be postponed beyond the scheduled month of August. Another blow to him was the negative impact on the recent warming relations with China. First, the much- awaited visit of Chairman Xi Jinping has for now been cancelled. This is seen as a huge mutual blow. Second, the millions of Chinese tourists who indulged in bakugai or ‘explosive shopping’ were now having to be kept away, much to the chagrin of the Japanese retailers. This is bound to have a serious economic consequence. The support for Abe in opinion polls has plunged.
One country that is seen to have shown leadership quality in this respect is Singapore. The political system led by Prime Minister Li Hsien Loong seemed to have grabbed the bull by its horn at a very early stage. Tests included not only the taking of temperatures for almost all inhabitants twice a day, sometimes more because the system is in place at the entry-point of every public space, but examination of nose-swabs of anyone detected registering over 38 degrees in the thermometer. Every affected case is diligently pursued to detect every past contact made during a specified period of time. For a nation already inclined to high hygienic standards, these were raised even higher so much so that sanitization was being practised with such religious fervour that had become the envy of priests! All this has yielded results. The number of patients has not risen much above 100, and 28 have already been sent home from clinics fully recovered. But not to show any sign of complacency, the Health Minister Gan Kim Yong have spoken of the long haul. He had said in the Parliament that Singaporeans need to learn to live with the virus a long time and brace themselves for possible future spikes. The disciplined populace of ‘the little red dot’ will doubtful be willing to defer the enjoyment of yet another potential sparkling centre of the city-state’s many urban attractions, the future Terminal 5 of the Changi Airport!
So, how is this epidemic or pandemic different from others of the kind in the past, like the Plague or the Flu? It is that we do not know enough about Covid-19: its origin, the nature of its transmission, and methods of prevention. When science is unable to provide answers, the modern man, woman or child, becomes nervous. But some day, hopefully sooner than later, science will provide humankind the knowledge that will assuage the fears. Till then, the idea should be not to panic, but to stay prepared to the extent possible. In the meantime, one can also sit back and cherish the global cooperation that the apprehensions are inspiring. Just when one was bemoaning the death of the old ‘world order’ and of international institutions, one is beginning to look up to the world Health Organization for solace and succour. There are also some positive political ramifications. In this region, on which this essay is principally focussed, the reportedly irascible and socially distant Chairman Kim Jong -un of North Korea has written his South Korean counterpart President Moon Jae-In, what President Donald Trump would call a “beautiful letter”. In it Chairman Kim has eulogized South Korea’s “battling” the virus, and stated that he was worried about President Moon’s health. Normal times would not have produced such abnormal warmth!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh