CORONAVIRUS ASIA: THE POTENTIAL PLAGUE OF COMPLACENCY

TOM PLATE WRITES (VIA THE KOREA TIMES OF SEOUL) — As horrible as the coronavirus spread looks right now, it may not be the worst that faces us. My worry is that even after the epidemic begins its remission, what happens is that everything returns to normal. And that’s the problem: our world-health “normal” hasn’t been good enough.

One “normal” example: The governments which performed the most incompetently, fail to learn from those that did the best they could by any standard.

No one is perfect, but if countries such as China can spend fortunes on upgrading its navy and Japan can quietly slip countless quiet yen into missile development, just maybe there’s not enough left over to protect the public properly in the event of severe challenges to global health?

Yes, and it also looks as if Japan’s authorities were all but brain dead when it took them more than 72 hours to clamp a containment on that offshore cruise ship.

Smugness of institutions is another “normal” that has to be retired. In this we reluctantly include the World Health Organization, which either needs new operating and intervening power under international law; or simply more staff; or simply vitamin shots for existing staff to get it moving faster. This is said with respect as well as sadness.

Another “normal” to steer clear of is the blame game for the time being. Whether it was all China’s fault or a series of blunders all along the globalization highway misses the point: Nations are in this together.

Epidemics or pandemics or plagues are unwanted tourists anywhere. Weariness and shaming one another is madness … and could lead back to the old world order of decentralized disarray. There will be more than enough time down the road for recriminations.

China-haters and ideological or religious anti-communists are practically gleeful that the wicked petri-dish of the epidemic turned out to originate in Wuhan. I cannot count the number of tweets I have seen or emails I have personally received that in effect suggest that without China’s communist-authoritarianism, none of this would have happened. Sigh.

Communism came to power in China in the late 1940s and of course neither China nor any other country ever had to endure a single epidemic or plague prior to that, right? Wrong, of course. Why must self-righteous Americans stigmatize Chinese the way homosexual AIDS sufferers were morally “quarantined” in the U.S. decades ago? We must show more compassion and decency and work with people and nations even when they make mistakes, as we all do.

Some under-informed Americans are taking a different view ― but they are just as ignorant and smug, though perhaps nothing can match the declamation of a Chinese official stating categorically that Beijing will “liquidate” the virus by April.

Good luck with that. Or maybe his smugness has a rival ― the complacency of President Donald Trump: “I had a long talk with President Xi … two nights ago, and he feels very confident. He feels very confident that … by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus,” adding: “But we’re in great shape in our country.”

So now one is worried: Who knows whether America will become Wuhan-ized? Smugness is not prevention; complacency is a potential plague.

President Trump’s comment might be seen as empathetic, were it not for his extremely annoying presumption that authoritarians are better leaders in a crisis: And he and Xi certainly are brother birds of the same feather in that department.

Epidemics have no political preference; they are apolitical equal-opportunity killers. Even a democracy with a reputedly strong national-health system such as South Korea finds itself in the shadow of the coronavirus menace.

Another “country” with a reputed strong health system is Taiwan, which one hastens to add (before Beijing has an official epileptic fit) is not by any means a U.N.-recognized country, of course. But it is a place with lots of human beings (24 million … roughly the population of Shanghai, China’s largest city).

And so the argument of the PRC government against the admission of Taiwan to the World Health Organization now feels particularly patriarchal and parochial: It’s that China can handle Taiwan’s health problems.

Well, no it cannot ― it has its hands full with its own mainland-wide issues, as the coronavirus contagion reveals. Beijing’s motive was always one of politics, not proper governance: China wants to keep Taiwan boxed in ― and far clear of international organizations to the greatest extent possible.

In the coronavirus post-mortem, the world will have plenty of time to think these things through, But at some point President Xi owes it to the world ― and the Taiwanese people ― a serious honest and second look at the Taiwan WHO inclusion issue. Maybe he can made WHO entry an exception?

If the coronavirus contagion does prove of pandemic proportions, the world in its aftermath will be anything but the same. Might a new political psychology accommodate more serious science and less narrow-minded nationalism?

Sure, world governance is a phantom ship floating mainly in the minds of fools, we all are quick to say; it would trigger a political Third Law of Politics ― for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction: Just look at the United Nations and its hamstrung Security Council with its veto-clipped wings of peace.

So the question is not only how to we get out of the epidemic, but what do we do that’s new when it looks like it’s behind us? The world may come to find a measure of peace after it has to work together to repulse this daunting and potentially overwhelming global evil.

Ideally, the lesson of the epidemic will raise our standards for how we want to live on this planet.


Professor Tom Plate, author of the “Giants of Asia” book quartet (Marshall Cavendish International), Loyola Marymount University’s distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Pacific Century Institute’s vice president, is a regular op-ed contributor to the South China Morning Post.

 

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