OPINION: The Viral Connection

BANGKOK (ANN Desk) - This is not the time to blame governments for responding inadequately to crisis management.  We should be praising and supporting actively all the healthcare doctors, nurses and personnel who are putting their own lives at risk to make sure that the threat is contained. 

Coming back from London, I landed at airports that seems to be in outer space, with everyone in masks and health inspectors in space suits.  The World Health Organization (WTO) has warned that the world must be better prepared against the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, which has confirmed total infection of 7,816 worldwide of which 105 are reported outside Mainland China as of 30 January 2020.  So far, 170 deaths are reported inside China from the coronavirus.

The word virus comes from the Latin word meaning “poison”.  Coronavirus are a family of viruses that causes illnesses from the common cold to severe diseases such as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that hit Hong Kong hard in 2003.   That outbreak infected 8098 cases in 29 countries, with 774 deaths, thought to have spread from bats to civet cats to humans.  This coronavirus outbreak is reported to have spread from a market in Wuhan that sold seafood and live animals. 

There is considerable fear and misinformation about viral pandemics, because they can spread very quickly through human contact or close proximity to infected cases.  Put in perspective, the current Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has to date 3,854 cases reported, of which death rate was 66%, compared with 2.2% fatality rate so far for the coronavirus.  

Knowing how viruses operate may help to allay such fears.  Since viruses are a life form that is lower than a cell, they replicate themselves through spreading across carriers, jumping from plants to animals and finally to human beings.  There are billions of different varieties of viruses and they continually adapt to new environments and evolve, exactly like other life-forms.

Like human beings, viruses are selfish in that they want to survive.  If they kill all their hosts, they will die out with the hosts, hence it is a truism that over time, most viruses will become less fatal in impact, even as human beings develop their own immunities.  

But during the outbreak phase, it is important to control the infection through “breaking” the viral connections, namely, isolation through quarantine, better sanitation or disinfection of affected areas, or injection of antiviral drugs. 

Since SARS in 2003, the good work of the WHO has ensured that there is much better global cooperation to exchange information on any emerging virus in terms of identification, isolation and then developing the anti-viral drug.   The Chinese authorities responsibly and quickly shared the information amongst the worldwide scientific community about the coronavirus when it was first detected in December 2019.  By the end of January 2020, an Australian laboratory had already isolated and successfully grown the virus in cell culture. Hopefully a new anti-viral immunity drug can be created soon. 

What lessons can we take from this viral outbreak?   A survey conducted by the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene on the global health outlook for the next 25 years suggested that the top three concerns amongst members are: climate crisis, drug resistance and emerging epidemics.  

All these factors are inter-related through globalization.  Because more and more people are interconnected through urbanization and better communications, diseases can spread very quickly around the world, impacting the poor the most because they can neither afford the prevention nor the treatments. 

Viral connectivity means that what happens in the poorer and less well managed places of this world will have an impact on us, whether we like it or not.   We cannot shut out the world now because we are all inter-connected and inter-dependent arising from globalization. 

The most vulnerable places and people who will suffer most from viral outbreaks are the poorer regions of the world where there is over-population, crowding and poor hygiene. They are also likely to be suffering the most casualties because they cannot afford the better hospital and treatment facilities, nor is the public health education and practice up to global standards. 

Almost all the medical experts surveyed felt that the climate crisis will require better coordination and cooperation to tackle the health challenges arising from greater urbanization, aging demographics and rapid technology.  This is why any viral pandemics will stress test not just the quality of all bureaucracies, but also the ability of the political system to deal with these outbreaks. 

For example, before the Wuhan outbreak, China was already suffering from the African swine influenza, which is also a viral attack.  Over 1.1 million pigs were culled to prevent it spreading further.  The consumer price index rose mainly because of the sharp rise in pork prices.  Very quickly, Premier Li Keqiang has personally taken charge of the crisis management because of its national and global ramifications.

But at the personal level, there is nothing like a crisis to force us all to focus clearly on what is most important in our lives.   In most cases, it must be our health, both physical and mental.   Menes, like genes, are social in nature.  We cannot enjoy the fruits of our development if all of us, rich or poor, young and old are mutually exposed to pandemics.  We should be spending more time as family or community members together, rather than independently reading the next piece of news or entertainment on our own smartphones.   

The viral outbreak therefore unveils all the cumulative ills of inequality, bureaucratic inadequacies, globalization and bad education on how to deal with complex crises caused by climate change. 

But dealing with the physical threat of viral infection is first and foremost a mental barrier on how to cooperate with each other.  At a time when the world needs more empathy and greater cooperation to deal with mutual threats, we face instead more and more social polarizations. 

This is not the time to blame governments for responding inadequately to crisis management.  We should be praising and supporting actively all the healthcare doctors, nurses and personnel who are putting their own lives at risk to make sure that the threat is contained. 

The viral connection is a two-way street.  Those of us who enjoy the fruits of globalization must also face and accept the threats.   In short, if a pandemic crisis that threatens mutual destruction cannot bring reconciliation and cooperation in the world, does it mean that we are set on a path of mutually assured destruction?   That is what everyone one of us who do not like the present situation, from protestors to leaders, have to ponder from this crisis.     

Andrew Sheng is former Chairman of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission and eminent economist.