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  • Eric Speer

The Coronavirus in an Isolated World

The recent outbreak of a coronavirus in China has been a formidable test for a world that is increasingly isolated and confrontational. Medical experts have long been warning that the world is woefully underprepared to deal with a serious pandemic. Pandemics are global problems that require extensive cooperation between countries trying to mitigate the spread of the disease and the panic that comes with it. Global cooperation has been decreasing however, as the United States has picked a number of fights with countries around the world including the trade/technology war with China and the travel ban on countries from primarily the Middle East and Africa.This particular coronavirus clearly has the ability to spread extremely fast and although it does not appear initially to have the same lethality rate as SARS did this could change as more accurate reporting comes from countries with infected citizens or worse if the virus mutates while it is being spread. At a time when countries need to be cooperating more than ever the current international system is as underprepared as it has ever been to deal with a global medical crisis. I want to examine this through several different viewpoints - first I would like to start with the benefits and drawbacks of the Chinese system of government when it comes to dealing with health crises. Second I would like to examine the international response to the virus and evaluate whether it has been productive or detrimental. Finally, I want to examine the role that social media has played in amplifying rumors and causing panic.

The drawbacks of the Chinese system of governance in an emergency like a natural disaster or medical emergency are obvious, as there is no incentive for local leaders to report a problem up the chain of command to the Party leaders in Beijing. When the leaders in Wuhan initially knew that there was an unknown virus going around they declined to report it to the leaders in Beijing because in the Chinese system local leaders are almost always blamed for perceived failures in order to protect the head of the Party. This problem has been made worse by the centralization of power by President Xi, as a nationwide problem like an epidemic would certainly reflect poorly on the man who was portrayed himself as the savior of a nation. While the Wuhan leaders were trying to get the problem under control so it would not be reported to the central government, citizens with the coronavirus were walking around freely infecting others, while others were leaving the city which is a major transport hub in China and sees enormous numbers of people coming and going everyday. This has allowed the virus to spread far and wide throughout China until the central government figured out it had a big problem and has stepped in to mobilize the immense resources of the state to minimize the fallout from the initial lack of action.

The benefits of the Chinese system in a situation like this come from the top-down hierarchical structure that allows the government to mobilize enormous resources without any delay or bureaucratic slowdown. Once the central government in Beijing realized that it had a big problem on its hands it has instructed the army to assist in all things related to mitigating the negative effects of the virus, whether that is building hospitals in a matter of days or instituting quarantines to prevent potentially infected people from leaving and spreading the virus throughout the country or abroad. I think that in this instance however the drawbacks clearly outweigh the benefits, as the initial delay in reporting the virus has allowed it to spread far and wide already, rendering the efforts of the central government to manage the crisis rather ineffective.

The international response overall has been not helpful as well, as governments around the world have been quick to shutdown borders, institute travel bans, and quarantine anyone coming from mainland China or places where they may have come into contact with Chinese citizens. These measures, while seeming logical, can actually be more harmful than beneficial. For starters, travel bans and quarantines can create a sense of panic among people in countries the virus has not yet spread to or spread widely within. It creates a sort of siege mentality where people begin to look at outsiders with skepticism and can often result in the resurgence of racist tropes and ideas about foreigners - in this example that Chinese people are dirty, have strange eating habits, and are carriers of disease. Additionally, shutting down borders limits information sharing between governments that are trying to keep track of people coming into and leaving their respective countries. In this example, countries who are maintaining open borders with China have people coming into/out of their countries at officially designated ports of entry where travelers can be screened for health problems and if they appear to be sick they can be documented. When borders are closed however, people will still find ways to cross into other countries but will do so in ways that prevent them from being noticed by authorities. Russia has a border with China that is over 2,600 miles long, which is an impossible length to monitor every stretch of land. People will cross back and forth between the two countries and there is a greater risk now of the disease spreading back and forth without any sort of documentation as to who is carrying the virus with them.

Finally, social media has played an important role in all this as it enables rumor mongering and creates panic among citizens who are increasingly connected through social media and messaging apps while simultaneously less trustful of the information disseminated to them by their governments. The coronavirus outbreak has been a perfect example of how a lack of official information from governments allows citizens to come up with their own theories about what is going on and how fast these rumors can spread. Even farfetched rumors, such as the theory that the virus is actually a bioweapon being tested by the Chinese government have gained significant traction in some circles because unofficial information is filling the void that a lack of official information has left. I am not sure what the particular solution to this problem is, as government's attempts to limit the spread of misinformation by shutting down the internet often makes the rumor mongering even worse and causes people to become more suspicious of the government and official information. This is an essential problem for governments to figure out how to tackle in the future.

Overall, the coronavirus has tested the ability of the world to work together in the 21st century to deal with global problems and I do not think that any can be impressed by the results. Geopolitical squabbles have limited the extent to which countries trust one another, in particular the two major powers in the international system China and the United States, and social media has allowed unofficial information to spread around the globe at unprecedented speeds. Countries around the world should take this as a lesson that they need to start tackling some of these collective action problems rather than competing with each other over more arbitrary things like territorial disputes and economic growth.


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