Coronavirus & The Voice of Reason

A reasonable, respectful and sound communication with the people has to be established. There is no other alternative, is there?

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

For some time now the theory of collapsology has been busy imagining scenarios of the destruction of the planet by a series of converging factors and mainly by natural disasters worldwide – tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, fires and so on. Hollywood’s 2012 illustrating such end-of-the-world scenario, of course, did not take place. What it achieved was the use of a supposedly Mayan calendar and belief to make a superhit film, drawing millions of cinephiles and pocketing millions of dollars.

The turn of millennium year 2000 was nothing special, either. Others predict that natural resources will inevitably shrink, and widespread famine will revive a tribal instinct with a Stone Age mindset  which leads every group to fight for the least grain of food to feed themselves. What a scene! Not unlikely, though.

Closer to human instinct, read male instinct of competition and domination, in a highly patriarchy-led world is a likely possibility of warmongers going berserk and pushing the button of nuclear destruction. With a wide margin of human error  and wrong targets, a foretaste of which is the downing of the wrong plane recently in Iran, a case of sophisticated modern weaponry used erratically in the wrong hands.

Collapsologists are busy pondering the extinction of human species and working out different scenarios. A typical western vision of the end of the world with biblical connotations, natural or caused by the Knights of the Apocalypse from a specific region, hell-bent on causing destruction. Oriental vision sees it all merely as the end of a cycle.

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Priority of Image over Science

Now amid the race for selling and acquiring modern weapons and high-tech fighter jets, a World Health Organisation international team of experts currently in China, headed by Bruce Aylward, a veteran specialist in the fight against viruses, is said to take the issue very seriously of  finding  a vaccine against and treatment for coronavirus in the coming months to avoid a pandemic which would wipe out 60% of the world population! With such a prospect, nuclear weaponry dwindles into insignificance, if anything.

China’s effective handling of the major health issue following the official announcement of the epidemic outbreak draws respect from the international community. It builds  a hospital in ten days, distributes millions of masks, closes down factories and shops, and issues notices regarding quarantines for millions of its people, bans illegal wildlife markets and puts a halt to movement  to and from the hard-hit area of Wuhan. The Chinese central government spares no means to fight against an unexpected invisible tiny enemy which feels free to circulate insolently from animal to animal, from animal to men wherever it can with little regard for the Confucian principle of obedience to authority, which Chinese culture has been imbibed with for millennia. A tiny ghost virus, if not properly contained as toxic political ideology was in the 19th century, is set to become a weapon of mass destruction.

Paranoia is characteristic of authoritarian regimes, far-left or far-right fascists and theocracies which are suspicious of the intentions of honest citizens who voice rational opinions on major national issues. The detention and muzzling of 34-year old doctor Li Wenliang for raising the alarm bell in November 2019 was most unfortunate and tragic. Certainly, precautionary measures which could have been taken two months earlier would have limited the propagation of the virus. The military rhetoric of ‘people’s war against the virus’ with ideological connotations comes a bit late and does not make up for unnecessary loss of lives, neither does the sacking of lower-level health officials in Hubei province.

Not only authoritarian regimes but other rulers also are prone to be oversensitive, suspicious, get touchy and nervous and likely to give in to paranoia when simple facts based on evidence and common sense are brought to their notice by citizens. They are more concerned with the image they think is the right one, one that they think they deserve and which they should project to their countrymen and to the international body, an image which should not be sullied. When such leaders prioritize image-building over reality and factual information, and their obsession puts the lives of people in jeopardy, there is cause for thorough self-criticism and introspection.

People’s Voice

Doctor Li Wenliang’s death and the suffering of his mother, who was not allowed to visit him, stirs deep emotional response as people express sympathy and voice their anger on social networks. To make matters worse, outspoken academic Xu Zhangrun, a law professor who had reported on inadequate hygienic conditions of hospital quarantines and  been suspended, has laid the blame at the feet of President Xi and the culture of suppression and ‘systemic impotence’. He is reported missing these days. His mother sends desperate pleas to find his whereabouts.

In light of growing public anger, a group of Chinese academics have written an open letter calling for the government to publicly apologise for trying to silence Dr Li Wenliang. By the same token, they ask for freedom of speech and rights guaranteed by the Constitution to be protected, for freedom of assembly and the right to vote in open elections. In a nutshell, respect for the people and the right to have a say in the running of the country’s affairs.

Other Priorities

Not only in China but also across the world, a cathartic effect should create a high awareness of issues at stake impacting on economy and health, leading one and all to take full stock of hazards caused by overconsumerism, overpopulation and climate change. Irrational views are bound to resurface whenever a deadly disaster takes a heavy toll in some major country, affecting its economy locally and causing ripples.

Some of these views find their way in newspaper headlines in places which harbour other priorities than research work in science and modern technology. Unsurprisingly, an umpteenth conspiracy theory sees the hands of the US and Israel in creating an epidemic in China. CIA and Mossad agents slyly strolling in Hubei market and fiddling with snakes, bats, foxes and rats to fabricate a virus! A reminder of wild rumours of conspiracy to exterminate Africans at every epidemic breakout in Africa when it is a matter of public hygiene and monkeys having a free passage in populated areas.

Millions of Chinese have never seen or eaten wild animals or cockroaches. However, food habits are bound to become a priority worldwide. As regards China, the onus is on the public to assess food requirements and the need to have all sorts of animals on display for sale and the lack of hygienic conditions which prevail in markets, not to mention the irrelevance of eating wild animals.

Meat consumption in itself is to be cut down in the world. Overpopulation is a major issue in China, India, Pakistan and loads of African countries. It needs to be tackled effectively to ensure tenable economic conditions.

China has lifted millions of its people out of poverty by taking advantage of a liberal market economy for decades. In becoming the world’s workshop and a high export country, it has accumulated tremendous wealth and endowed the country with modern infrastructure, invested in all branches of science and modern technology. It has managed to make its people subscribe to the country’s long-term vision and place the country’s interest above everything else. The Chinese people have accepted huge sacrifices and brought their contribution to make China what it is today.

Surely, the people of China deserve better. They know the overall picture does not hide the scourge of corruption, the culture of opacity and brutal suppression of dissent. The onus is on the ruling Communist Party to review its way of thinking, its single-minded policies, and its crackdown on anyone who expresses a different opinion. It needs to wake up, consider citizens like adults and shed off paranoid habits. A reasonable, respectful and sound communication with the people has to be established. There is no other alternative, is there?

* Published in print edition on 14 February 2020

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