The world is reeling under impact of the new coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak. Detected first in China, the disease has now spread to South Korea, Iran, Italy, Japan, France, Germany and some other nations. As per the latest estimates, at least 1,00,000 people have been infected while more than 3,000 lost their lives across the world. The disease is spreading fast, making it difficult to contain it in particular locations. China has recorded 80,124 cases since January 22 and confirmed 2,945 deaths. South Korea has 5,186 cases and had 34 deaths reported. Iran lost 77 lives out of 2,336 cases. In Europe, Italy has been the worst sufferer with 2,036 cases and 52 deaths.
Is there any difference between the spread of Covid-19 and other epidemics of the twenty-first century? Compare the current crisis with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-16. Ebola spread fast and ended up with a heavy death toll. The difference is that Ebola originated in a poor country and WHO and other multilateral agencies were successful in containing it in a particular location. Covid-19 appeared in a middle-income country which is also the most populous in the world.
Like the Ebola virus, new coronavirus also originated among wild animals and later spread among humans. Many researchers believe that the animal fair organized as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations was the trigger. In both cases, the disease control relies on a package of interventions that include identifying and isolating the patients, application of infection prevention and control practices, surveillance and contact tracing mechanism, implementation of laboratory testing protocols, and a safe and dignified burial system. Here end the similarities.
The amount of panic and anxiety over the coronavirus outbreak was absent in the case of Ebola. While scanning the media, it is clear that the world is worried about the economic impact of the disease than the ability or disability of the Chinese health system to contain the epidemic. China is a key player in the global supply chain and the spread of the disease will have a cascading effect on the world economy, especially on the developed world. If the Chinese industrial engine is stalled for a few weeks, it will create a ripple effect on the companies and economies that are dependent on the industrial behemoth. For example, any problem that affects the Chinese industrial base will directly impact the global transportation industry, especially shipping and logistics. China has most of the 10 busiest ports in the world. If Chinese authorities decide to close them down, the global economy will take a big hit.
The pattern of the spread of Covid-19 reveals that the East Asian and Southeast Asian countries that are closely connected to China are the most affected. South Korea, Japan and Singapore are dependent on the Chinese economy and so are the US and European economies. In a globalized world, China is the engine that powers growth. In other words, the new coronavirus is attacking the very core of globalization.
China seems to be taking effective measures and contain the spread of the virus. According to the latest reports, China is dismantling the make-shift hospitals created to handle the rush of patients at the peak of the outbreak. The healthcare machinery looks good enough to reach the nooks and corners of the country with advanced medical support.
The global response to Ebola was entirely different. The Ebola outbreak occurred in one of the poorest regions of the world. The news of the epidemic outbreak took days to attract the attention of health authorities and international agencies. Though the World Health Organisation and other international agencies did a wonderful job to contain it in Africa, the response of global nations did not reveal the sense of urgency as in the case of the coronavirus outbreak. This is because the African countries affected by Ebola were not as important to the world economy as China. They are in the peripheries of the world economy as exporters of raw materials.
Ebola was much more deadly compared with the new coronavirus with a 50% possibility of death. Ebola originated in Guinea and spread across West Africa, wreaking havoc in Guinea, Sierra Leon and Liberia between 2014 and 2016. Guinea had 3,811 reported cases of which 2,543 patients (67%) died. Sierra Leon and Liberia had 14124 and 10675 reported cases and lost 3,956 and 4809 lives (28% and 45%), respectively. EVD spread across the world, but not in the same intensity with which the coronavirus spread. In Africa, few countries reached three-digit numbers in suspected cases, while a few cases were reported in Italy, Spain, UK and the US. The scientific community was successful in identifying and isolating the virus family, but they are still a long way away from developing a vaccine.
Had the EVD outbreak happened in a developed country, the casualties would have been much less. The real reason for the higher death toll was the vulnerability of the people and the inability of the nations to handle a healthcare threat of that magnitude. Unlike China and the western world, African nations were not in a position to mobilise resources to fight such outbreaks. Still, the African countries managed to contain the spread of EVD in two years with the help of international organisations.
The question is whether the African countries will be able to act like China or the southeast Asian nations to handle a Covid-19 like situation. People in China, South Korea, Japan and southeast Asian countries enjoy better living standards and advanced medical facilities. Still, the number of affected people and the amount of panic generated are alarming. In these circumstances, Africa should be more prepared to take on the spread of coronavirus in the region. The spread of coronavirus to the more vulnerable regions would be a bigger threat for the humanity as it could take a huge toll on the most vulnerable populations.
(Dr P Ravindranathan teaches at the department of geopolitics and international relations of Manipal Academy of Higher Education.)