For the first time in history, maybe, the whole world is on one side of a war, engaged as nations are for several weeks now in fighting an invisible enemy. What started as a 'mystery' respiratory illness in China in December 2019 has now grown into a pandemic of global proportions in just about 12 weeks’ time—earning the moniker COVID-19—with its cause being traced back to a newly discovered coronavirus.
While governments the world over are still devising means and strategies to deal with this enemy that has seemingly blindsided them, there is also a growing debate on the events that precipitated this crisis as well as issues of culpability. This article is the first in a series that takes a close look at the issues concerned. It uses the case of the six most COVID-19 impacted countries and tries to dissect some of the key issues and pin culpability.
With over 1.64 million cases and counting and about 134,492 deaths, the United States of America (US), Spain, Italy, France, Germany and United Kingdom (UK) are the major countries reeling under the impact of COVID-19. Table 1 (below) presents the status of COVID-19 in these six countries and it is, indeed, very serious and alarming.
Take the US, for instance. With about 819,175 COVID-19 cases, over 45,300 COVID-19 deaths, nearly 22 million having filed unemployment status in the recent months and the economy at a virtual standstill, it is witnessing unprecedented protests for reopening the country.
Who is responsible for this situation in the United States and the other five countries?
Is it China? China, in my opinion, was neither forthcoming nor transparent about the outbreak (of COVID-19 in late 2019), in terms of its seriousness, the numbers infected, rate of spread of the contagion and other aspects. This information, had it come at the appropriate time (i.e., December 2019) from China, could have easily helped the world prevent the spread of the disease. In reality, as the New York Times
reported on 6 January 2020, “China Grapples With Mystery Pneumonia-Like Illness
”, China suppressed information surrounding the outbreak, using force and authority. As the Foreign Policy
wrote in an article on 8 January 2020, ‘Just in Time for Lunar New Year, Another SARS-like Epidemic Is Brewing in China
’, “scores of people in Wuhan and Hong Kong have been sent to hospitals because of a mystery respiratory ailment—and true to form, China is trying to keep it quiet.
Or is it the World Health Organization (the WHO)? The WHO, in my, opinion failed in alerting the world (well in advance) to a catastrophic pandemic that was on the prowl. No serious warnings were provided by the WHO prior to 30 January 2020, by which date it was too late as many (infected) travellers from Wuhan had already reached several countries globally (by 21 January 2020). On 14 January 2020, “WHO's technical lead for the response noted in a press briefing there may have been limited human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus (in the 41 confirmed cases), mainly through family members, and that there was a risk of a possible wider outbreak. The lead also said that human-to-human transmission would not be surprising given our experience with SARS, MERS and other respiratory pathogens
.” Yet, even then the WHO did not provide any travel-related warnings. This contradicts WHO’s own guidelines which were said to be in place as per WHO’s disease outbreak news of 5 January 2020
which says, “Based on information provided by national authorities, WHO’s recommendations on public health measures and surveillance of influenza and severe acute respiratory infections still apply.” See the Infection prevention and control of epidemic-and pandemic prone acute respiratory infections in health care, WHO guidelines
, that were said to be in place as per WHO’s 5 January 2020 communiqué, which stated, “increased international travel and commerce;” were deemed as one of the key factors “associated with the emergence and spread of infectious diseases (22, 45)” (see WHO guidelines
, page 7, 1.3.3).
That is not all. On 22 January 2020, the “WHO mission to China issued a statement
saying that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan” Yet, there was no advisory prohibiting travel to and from China by the WHO.
Thus, clearly, China and the WHO are answerable to the global community in a large measure, as noted above.
That said, did the policy makers and other stakeholders in the above-countries also miss the bus and take late action on COVID-19, despite knowing in early January (i.e., 6 or 8 January 2020) that something serious was in the offing as far as the mysterious disease in China was concerned?
In fact, between 6 and 10 January 2020, the New York Times
had three major articles devoted to the puzzling pneumonia like illness in China: (1) ‘China Grapples With Mystery Pneumonia-Like Illness
’, 6 January 2020; (2) ‘China Identifies New Virus Causing Pneumonia like Illness
’, 8 January 2020; and (3) ‘China Reports First Death From New Virus
’, 10 January 2020. And the Foreign Policy had one article, Just in Time for Lunar New Year, Another SARS-like Epidemic Is Brewing in China
’, 8 January 2020. Several other public domain articles were available around the same time, providing coverage on the strange illness in China. And all these should have been good enough to grab the attention of all key stakeholders concerned (from policy makers to those in the intelligence community and others). But apparently, it did not in these countries and as a result, they are in the alarming situation that they face today as outlined in Table 1 above.
Furthermore, on 21 January 2020, when China was busy warning its people not to travel to Wuhan, the New York Times
reported that the ‘First Patient With Wuhan Coronavirus Is Identified in the US
And on 22 January 2020 the New York Times
further reported, ‘Wuhan, Center of Coronavirus Outbreak, Is Being Cut Off by Chinese Authorities
’. Yet, by this time (22 January 2020), according to a New York Times
estimate given in a later article, “How the Virus Got Out?
”, almost seven million people (with thousands of infected travellers) had left Wuhan during the period 1 January 2020 to 21 January 2020—i.e., before travel from Wuhan was restricted. This included at least 175,000 people who left Wuhan on 1 January 2020.
And ironically, there was no concrete warning from the WHO to anyone worldwide even as policy makers in these countries—US, UK, Italy, Spain, France and other countries—did very little to stop the incoming flow of (infected) travellers from Wuhan and China, who would later turn out to be carriers and spreaders of the deadly disease.
WHO’s belated warning came on 30 January 2020, declaring the novel coronavirus outbreak (2019-nCoV) as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)
, by which time travel from Wuhan had virtually stopped according to the New York Times
. In my opinion, WHO’s actions were too little, too late and it must shoulder much of the blame for the spread of this horrific disease because had the world been alerted in early January, 2020 by the WHO, the spread of COVID-19 could have been stopped. It goes without saying that China is also to blame very significantly for its lack of transparent sharing of information about COVID-19 (and its depth and spread within China), both to the WHO and the entire world during the period, from 1 December 2019 to 22 January 2020.
And last, but not the least, the policy-makers in the United States and other countries mentioned above are also responsible for the present sorry state of affairs (as shown in Table 1) in their respective countries. This fact gets somewhat amplified in the case of United States because it has been reported that the CIA had reportedly informed president Donald Trump about the breakout of a serious illness in China. This was also somewhere in early January, 2020 and the date given was 3 January 2020. See the CNN article, which had the following headlines—“US intelligence agencies started tracking coronavirus outbreak in China as early as November
That said, if these countries had acted swiftly in early- to mid-January 2020, the disease would not have turned into a pandemic, at least on a global scale. Sadly, now, for no fault of theirs, citizens in these countries and all of us are paying a huge, huge price.
(Ramesh S Arunachalam is the author of 12 critically acclaimed books. His latest released in January 2020 and is titled, “Powering India to Double Digit Growth: Five Key Steps to A Robust Economy”. Apart from being an author, Ramesh provides strategic advice on a wide variety of financial sector/economic development issues. He has worked on over 311 assignments with multi-laterals, governments, private sector, banks, NBFCs, regulators, supervisors, MFIs and other stakeholders in 31 countries globally in five continents and 640 districts of India during the last 31 years