FocusGetachew Engida: The novel coronavirus will be defeated

Getachew Engida, Distinguished Visiting Professor and Co-President, China-Africa Leadership Development Institute (CALDI), Tsinghua University and former Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, wrote a letter to Tsinghua, outlining his view on the current battle against the novel coronavirus pneumonia.

The text is as follows:

Humanity has been battling against viruses since time immemorial. The technological and scientific progress we have made over the years has enabled us to contain the spread of such viruses and limit the loss of human lives. Our health systems are much stronger now than they have ever been. International cooperation in dealing with emerging diseases is remarkable. In places where health systems are weak, we have the capacity to assemble experts from around the world under the World Health Organization to deal with the outbreak of new and recurrent viruses - remember that HIV AIDS originated in Africa. More often than not, we have been able to arrest the spread of such viruses and treat victims successfully. We all understand that such deadly viruses know no boundaries and our only option is to work together, pull in the same direction and put aside whatever differences we may have as societies.

Scientists tell us that viruses emerge randomly and they certainly do not have nationalities. Only fools and irrational people among us would think that viruses, such as the novel coronavirus, are a problem of this nationality or that. They are our collective challenges. Over the years, we have faced a number of pandemics. The Black Death, which killed an estimated 75 to 100 million people across Eurasia in the 14th century, is a notable example. The 1918 influenza pandemic (Spanish Flu) was yet another deadly flu that may have infected about 500 million people and killed an estimated 50 million plus people (3 percent to 6 percent of the world's population). In the recent past, we faced the H1N1 pandemic with the deaths of 150,000 to 575,000 people, a much lower fatality rate than previous strains of the virus. This is clearly an indication of our increased and collective capacity to deal with such viruses.

The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) originated in Wuhan, China. The Chinese authorities shared the emergence of the virus with the international community as soon as it was practicable to do so, including the DNA sequence. They have taken unprecedented measures to contain the spread of the virus with lockdowns and building health facilities in record time to treat those infected. The latest information indicates that mortality among known 2019-nCoV is around 2 percent. The World Health Organization, through its Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom, has nothing but praise for what the government and people of China are doing to control the spread of the virus. While declaring an international health emergency, the WHO has not elevated the novel coronavirus to a pandemic. It is pleasing to note messages of solidarity coming out from governments, prominent international leaders and the international community at large, including my former boss, former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

Several countries have discouraged travel to China as a whole, citing health risks and many airlines have cancelled flights to or from China. This clearly overlooks the vast territory of China and the measures taken by national and local governments to contain the spread of the virus from Wuhan to neighboring regions. To date, there is only one fatality outside of China. Certainly, there are no rational justifications for such drastic measures on the part of some countries. The virus, at least at this stage, has not been declared a pandemic.

When humanity is faced with a shared danger, we can either band together with compassion or allow fear to get the better of us. "We are going through a panic phase," said Graham Medley, director of the Center for the Mathematical Modeling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "Governments don’t know what to do, people don't know how to react. When we understand the risks, reactions will change."

I share this enlightened view.

We must refrain from discriminating against people simply because of their nationality, as it is immoral and does nothing to protect us from contracting the virus. A person's ethnicity or nationality are not indicators of whether or not they carry the virus.

While some react negatively to the Chinese out of ignorance of the virus, others use it for a more sinister objective, to slow down and/or arrest the ascendancy of China and its growing influence in the international arena. This is impossible. China has shown that there is 'no one size fits' model for a political-economic system. That dogma has long been proved unworkable and in many cases a source of misery for millions. The international community will be better served by having choices in crafting strategic political-economic directions fit for and designed for individual societies.

For most of us who follow developments in China closely, we cannot but admire its resilience against adversity. It's miraculous development over the last few years is a clear testimony to this. It has taken over 700 million people out of abject poverty in record time. No one can doubt President Xi's message that "nothing matters more than people's safety and health". While the challenges ahead are enormous in tackling the novel coronavirus, it is hard not to be optimistic that the Chinese, with the support of the international community, will defeat this scourge.

Let's stay optimistic, do what we are all supposed to do and not submit to fear mongering.