When COVID-19 hit a chronically ill society
Wuhan, a Chinese mega-city, seemed like an unlikely backdrop for the horror that has unfolded, but the onslaught of COVID-19 has taught us so much about human nature, society, our medical services, and pride & prejudice.
When 34-year-old Dr Li had barely reached out to blow the whistle on his fears about the deadly virus, he was swiftly silenced by the Chinese authorities. Li was made to sign a letter where he was accused of ‘making false comments’ and of ‘severely disturbing the social order’. Quickly we got our first lesson. The Chinese reaction to the outbreak only confirmed our fears of their sense of transparency and it is likely to remain a matter of grave concern in the future. While the world was ringing in the New Year, Wuhan erupted as the epicentre of a virus whose origins remain dubious. We still do not know the identity of patient ‘zero’ and we are unlikely to get to the bottom of the matter anytime soon. Meanwhile, considering our inherent distrust of each other and penchant for conspiracy theories, we now have all kinds of stories going viral. The Chinese authorities accuse the invisible American military hand, while Sinophobes are certain that China unleashed hell on the world.
China’s inability to take responsibility in the early stages meant that globetrotting citizens would unwittingly transport the trouble across the world and into the heart of Europe. By 29 January 2020, two Chinese tourists collapsed in Rome and it became clear that the virus had made its way to Italy. Lucrative tourism did its bit as people of Central and Eastern Europe decided to ignore the virus and take advantage of lesser crowded ski slopes. The happy skiers made their way back home with little or no concern of the consequences of their actions. By mid-February, it became clear that the only way to contain the virus was to close the borders, but governments refused to act in time. In fact, any recommendation was met with accusations of racism and alarmism. Meanwhile, social media took to entertainment and the coronavirus became the subject of derision. Oddly, the globalised world fully endorses the movement of people, but their gullible mindset assumes that only goodness makes its way around the world and that trouble and tragedy simply do not cross barriers.
When Italy sent out SOS messages and urgently requested medical assistance and supplies, the rest of the European Union turned a blind eye and instead stocked up for themselves. One might argue that it was a practical decision, but the cracks within the EU begin to widen every time it comes to matters of sharing the burden. The rest of Europe likes to holiday in Italy, but is not willing to stretch out and help the average Italian. Italy was ignored even during the migration crisis and many felt it was fair game to say it was an Italian problem. In a nutshell, their coast, their concussion! Our sense of solidarity has been ailing for quite some time and our sense of sovereignty is flawed to a dangerous extent. French President, Macron declared war on the virus because he is incapable of standing up to civil unrest and the inevitable civil war in his country. Germany announced its intentions to localise produce and ensure the flow of medication, and the Finance Minister, Peter Altmaier, even used the ‘taboo N word’ – nationalisation – in order to safeguard their needs. He even made comments on the need for a common European Project for medicine production. One cannot help wondering why so many European businesses were packed off lock stock and barrel in the first place, with no plan B for a scenario of this kind. Churchill’s comments ‘Experts should be on tap not on top’ has a ring of truth in it.
Now more than ever, we need to rethink our supply chains, our mass production and mass consumption. From Australia to Britain, people descended into panic mode for toilet rolls and eventually buyers got their blood up for a bottle of red. For some reason, Central and East Europe did not see this kind of beating and bashing, perhaps because most neighbourhoods have corner shops where one can buy their daily needs and although the culture of big supermarkets is on the rise, it is thanks to the smaller businesses than people do not stock unreasonable quantities of groceries. But the panic is bound to hit all of us in unexpected ways.
Around 541 AD, Yersinia pestis ravaged the Mediterranean coast and made its way from the coast to the inlands. Yet, the Arbs dismissed the plague as a disease of the Roman lands until it spread death beyond their deserts. Back then, Alexandria was famed for its prestigious medical schools, libraries, and teaching specialists, but they all drew a blank on the source of the plague that finished off populations within weeks. That was then, but today we are technically equipped and claim to be a global community of communities, yet Italy has been abandoned by all the other European countries. For well over a month, we dismissed the coronavirus as a ‘Chinese virus’ until it dawned upon us that the globalised world has its own rhythm and we have still not tuned ourselves to its beat. People laughed off self-containment and went viral with quarantine jokes. People today seem as oblivious to the dangers of diseases as they did in the 1850s when they mocked Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian scientist for his theory on cadaverous poisoning. All he wanted was for surgeons to wash their hands and their surgical instruments, but his views were dismissed by his colleagues and the wider society. Eventually, the medical society accepted the germ theory disease and realised the importance of hygiene, but the harsh reality of the matter is that even hygiene seems to be a subjective matter. In that context, it is alarming that 80% of the active ingredient of paracetamol imported into France comes from China and India. When hit with a disaster of this magnitude, the supply chain is ruptured and the lives of innocent people could be further endangered by the nation’s policies. Europe’s giant nations, France and Germany, are unprepared and ill-equipped for a trauma of this magnitude.
Speaking of dependency and unity, France depends heavily on imports from her Latin neighbour so when Italy was locked down it sent chills down operatic spines to hear their quarantined tenor, Maurizio Marchini sing ‘Nessun Dorma’ from his balcony. The poignant aria meaning, ‘Let no one sleep’, is a surreal reminder of how Europe sleepwalked into this nightmare.