People wearing masks walk at Central district in Hong Kong, China | Paul Yeung/Bloomberg
People wearing masks walk at Central district in Hong Kong, China | Paul Yeung | Bloomberg File photo
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There is something a little puzzling about the international response to the Wuhan novel coronavirus – nCoV-2019 – outbreak: the actions taken by the United States, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and other countries exceed what the World Health Organization has recommended. Is the WHO underplaying the risks of a global epidemic or are these countries over-reacting?

The WHO has declared the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which under International Health Regulations is “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response”. It implies that there is a risk of trans-border spread of a disease necessitating international coordination. Such a declaration obliges all countries to take appropriate countermeasures and share outbreak-related information with the WHO on a regular basis.

The WHO, however, has not recommended international travel restrictions. In fact, its chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, came out clearly against any measures that “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”, suggesting that there was no need for them. “The WHO doesn’t recommend and actually opposes any restrictions for travel and trade or other measures against China…If anyone is thinking about taking measures, it’s going to be wrong.”


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Not convinced

Early — and therefore tentative — research findings suggest that the virus is less fatal than SARS and might not spread through air. Despite a late start in acknowledging and acting to contain the problem, the Chinese government is taking extraordinary measures to prevent the spread of the viral infection. Over 50 million people in Hubei have been cordoned off and quarantining measures have been put in place across China. Ghebreyesus acknowledged that “because of this strategy and it weren’t for China, the number of cases outside China would have been very much higher”.

The United States, however, is not convinced. Not only has it issued a travel advisory to its citizens advising them not to travel to China, but it has also temporarily barred entry to any foreigners who have recently visited China. Only seven US airports are open to flights from China. Major US airlines have suspended flights to China for the next couple of months. Australia, Indonesia, India, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore, Russia and Vietnam have introduced similar entry restrictions and limited flights.


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China’s chagrin

Not only do travel restrictions have an economic impact, they have an adverse impact on China’s image and pride. Beijing’s official reaction underlines its chagrin. Its foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying noted that “US comments and actions are neither based on facts, nor helpful at this particular time. While the WHO has only just specifically advised against any travel restrictions, the US has decided to act in the opposite way. This has set a bad example. It is certainly not a gesture of goodwill”. China restated this position at the WHO Executive Board meeting denouncing “some countries” for imposing entry restrictions and accusing them of going against WHO recommendations.

It is likely that the WHO is under severe pressure from the Chinese government to exercise caution in its pronouncements. Beijing has not hesitated to use its power at international organisations to brazenly promote its interests. Recently, the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Twitter account blocked a number of people who questioned it on its exclusion of Taiwan. Both the person handling ICAO’s twitter handle as well as the organisation’s chief happen to be Chinese nationals. While Beijing might have weighed in on WHO officials on the coronavirus outbreak, it is unlikely that the international organisation would cave in and downplay risks of a global epidemic. There’s too much at stake.


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Geopolitical game

International relations is a cynical game. The United States sees relations with China increasingly on adversarial terms, and this attitude is perhaps informing the positions Washington is taking on the coronavirus outbreak. Singapore and Russia apart, the list of countries that have imposed entry restrictions has a large overlap with countries that are resisting Chinese hegemony. Given Singapore’s size and reliance on trade and travel, its overcautious approach is understandable. The Russian position is interesting. While Moscow mostly makes common cause with Beijing on international issues, it too has rolled out travel restrictions.

Meanwhile, some of China’s allies and dependents are using the crisis to signal their loyalty. After a brief suspension, Pakistan has resumed flights to and from China. Cambodia’s Hun Sen declared that his country won’t ban flights and warned people not to discriminate against Chinese nationals. He went further and threatened to kick out journalists or officials wearing masks… “for the prime minister does not wear a mask, so why should you be wearing one?”

So, politics is well underway even as countries are engaged in unprecedented cooperation to head off a coronavirus pandemic. And lest you think that China is unfairly at the receiving end of the geopolitics of epidemics, remember that Beijing is insisting that Taiwan be kept out of the WHO, despite Taipei being among cities most vulnerable to the Wuhan coronavirus.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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