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Wednesday, March 25, 2020, 10:46
A crisis can bring out the best and worst in us
By Daniel de Blocq van Scheltinga
Wednesday, March 25, 2020, 10:46 By Daniel de Blocq van Scheltinga

At first, there was only the smell of burning, and it took awhile before the people realized that the house across the street was on fire. As the flames grew in intensity and scale, it soon engulfed the house. But the reaction of the onlookers was limited to some perfunctory expressions of sympathy and of curiosity regarding the cause. No thought was given to helping douse the flames.

Maybe this was deterred by the fact that a birthday party was being planned. “It cannot be canceled as guests were arriving. And it’s not our problem,” the host thought to himself. As the bottles of champagne and wine were being uncorked, a sudden strong gust of wind blew some sparks from the burning house, and they landed among the dry leaves that were neatly raked into a pile to make room for the party being held on the lawn. The leaf pile quickly ignited, but the partygoers thought the nearby smell of burning must have come from the burning house across the street; they paid no further attention.

Yet when it started to dawn on the partygoers that their house was on fire as well, they still refused to panic after their host reassured them that his house was built to a high standard and the fire would surely go out by itself.

Sadly, it didn’t, and the party house was also engulfed in flames, and there were many fatalities. The survivors immediately blamed the residents of the house that caught fire first for starting the fiery destruction, and a war of words ensued that overshadowed all else.

The sacrifice and suffering of many people in China served, among other things, to give the rest of the world time to prepare for the virus’s onslaught. The world was given more than two months to get ready. This precious opportunity was mindlessly squandered

The above fictional story illustrates the reality of the COVID-19 situation. Reports of a new coronavirus surfaced in December, and by mid-January the whole world was fully aware of the rapid virus spread in Wuhan. Some neighboring countries like Japan did offer substantial aid to China, but by and large, the global response seemed much less substantive than if it had been a terrorist attack or an earthquake. It was disappointingly feeble. Perhaps the human psyche struggles with understanding an invisible enemy like a virus?

As the expression goes, “Hindsight is 20/20”. If, heaven forbid, China ever again has to go through a similar experience, the government and the people will react in an even more effective way, having learned much from this crisis. Clearly the reason that the containment of the virus is so successful in both Hong Kong and Singapore is related to the lessons learned from the SARS epidemic 17 years ago. The hypocrisy in some quarters in criticizing the Chinese government’s handling of this pandemic is staggering, as well as extremely insensitive, in view of the thousands of Chinese nationals who have succumbed to it. As in any crisis situation, due to the need to deal with the immediate threat, mistakes can be made under extreme pressure. When they do occur, they should be quickly remedied and explained. This was actually the case with the initial botched official reaction, and China should be applauded for its transparency.

What is regrettable is the smugness with which much of the West viewed the unfolding medical crisis in China. Very few governments took it seriously enough to stock up on medical supplies or put their national health departments on higher alerts for the impending virus assault on their shores. Citizens were not informed of the likelihood that the coronavirus epidemic could very well become a pandemic that respects no borders. Airports did not implement any additional screening measures for passengers arriving from COVID-19-hit areas. When I landed in Amsterdam only three weeks ago, my temperature was not checked, nor were any questions asked about my health status when I stepped from my direct flight from Hong Kong. The sacrifice and suffering of many people in China served, among other things, to give the rest of the world time to prepare for the virus’s onslaught. The world was given more than two months to get ready. This precious opportunity was mindlessly squandered.

The natural reaction for many is to blame others when you make mistakes. Instead of reaching out to China at this critical juncture to learn from the painful experiences of the front-line doctors in Wuhan, and from the work done in Chinese medical laboratories, US President Donald Trump, true to his aggressive and bullying character, relentlessly attacks China instead in a futile attempt to divert public attention from his government’s lack of preparedness. It goes without saying that as this is a pandemic, it requires a coordinated global approach to overcome it. Even though it is an election year in America and China-bashing is practically de rigueur on such an occasion among American politicians, it does not require great statesmanship to realize that taking cheap shots at China will make it that much more difficult to fight this deadly virus. Trump’s insistent reference to COVID-19 in a manner considered to be stigmatizing Chinese people only further enhances his notorious xenophobic credentials. He continued with this distortion despite the World Health Organization’s criticism. A dangerous fallout from Trump’s irresponsible characterization of the virus is that he imperils the lives of American-Chinese and Chinese students and tourists in the US, not to mention that it will also have a deleterious effect on Sino-US relations.

Just when the world needs the closest cooperation between its two mightiest economic powers, the relationship turns sour over what seems like trivial spats. At the beginning of this month, the State Department reclassified Chinese press representatives in America as agents of China’s foreign mission in the US, reducing its 160 representatives down to 100 by expelling 60 of them. Since Beijing cannot remain passive in the face of such a provocation, this led to a tit-for-tat response for American journalists in China. The result is that just when both countries need more detailed coverage of each other, the number of professionals tasked to do so is significantly reduced. The press plays a crucial role in building and maintaining good bilateral relations at both the state level and people-to-people level. It’s a role clearly understood by Chinese entrepreneur and media mogul Jack Ma Yun, who recently donated 500,000 coronavirus test kits and 1 million surgical face masks to the US. The leaders in Beijing and Washington probably can take a leaf from this noble gesture.

The author is a specialist in international public law and an adviser on China-related matters to both the private and public sectors. He has lived in Hong Kong for over 18 years.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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