Coronavirus: China and responsible action

China is providing urgently needed assistance to Europe in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. But what is needed in the long-term is a complete ban on trade in wild animals. Otherwise, the next pandemic is as good as certain
Alexander Freund
Alexander Freund


We help others in need. That’s considered normal. When the COVID-19 crisis began in January, the European Union swiftly sent 50 tonnes of protective gear and medical equipment to Hubei, the Chinese province where the virus first emerged. 
Now Europe has become one of the main battlegrounds in the war against COVID-19 — to deploy the military rhetoric much in favour with politicians around the world right now. And Europe is not faring all that well. China is sending supplies to Italy, Spain and Greece as well as other European countries that are not members of the EU.
Aid from China is welcome where healthcare systems are desperately overstretched. Many countries are going it alone and closing their borders. Solidarity is being sorely tested. Thousands of people are dying, millions face losing their livelihoods. Personal freedoms are being curtailed in once unimaginable ways. Even after the pandemic has been overcome, it will take years for the world to recover.
A US-Chinese propaganda war
Chinese President Xi Jinping has said solidarity and cooperation are the most powerful weapons against public health crises. In a period of trade wars and nationalism, assistance as a gesture of solidarity has become a tool in a war of propaganda. The German newspaper Handelsblatt writes that “Beijing is presenting itself as a knight in shining armour. The coronavirus pandemic is shifting the balance of power. China wants to overtake the USA as a responsible and generous world power.” 
The article argues that a new era in global politics is dawning, in which the very country where the pandemic began is claiming the role as leader. “China’s willingness to help is also being met with mistrust in Europe. For years, Beijing has been seeking to extend its influence. Now it sees an opportunity. Aid deliveries are intended not only to save lives but also to form the basis of partnerships — and help rewrite the story of the pandemic,” writes Handelsblatt.
Polemics vs co-operative crisis management
Beijing reacted angrily to US President Donald Trump’s polemic claims about China’s supposed failures in dealing with a homegrown virus. A photo of Trump’s prepared remarks for a news briefing show he crossed out the phrase “corona virus” and replaced it with “Chinese virus.” After his rhetoric fuelled a rise in attacks on Asian-Americans, Trump began to tone down his racist polemics. The current crisis is bringing home to the US and Europe just how dependent they are on the emergent Chinese superpower, and not just in economic terms.
Beijing has responded sharply to criticism. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang has said, “For those who label products made in China as ‘contaminated with virus,’ they’d better not wear those made-in-China masks, protective suits and ventilators.” Zhao Lijian, another Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, tweeted, “It might be the US army that brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” Truth is the first casualty in war, as this propaganda battle demonstrates. The US has more than 1,43,000 documented cases and 2,500 deaths; it hardly needs saying that SARSCoV2 coronavirus was not created in a US laboratory. It crossed from an animal host to humans.
COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease. And like most zoonotic diseases, it probably originated in another mammal species. That was the case with HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS and now, in all likelihood, COVID-19.
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond and virologist Nathan Wolfe discuss the role of wild animal markets in China and elsewhere in facilitating the transmission of disease from animal hosts to humans. In China, wild animals, sold live, are a source of food and substances used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Tracking zoonotic transmission
SARS may have reached humans via civet cats who got the virus from bats. According to a paper in the scientific journal Nature, pangolins are a plausible host of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. As Diamond and Wolfe note, the scales of the pangolin are a valued ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.
In densely populated cities across a globalised world, an emergent zoonotic disease can spread quickly and become a pandemic.
The wild animal market in the city of Wuhan was closed once the coronavirus outbreak was identified. But not even the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party evidently dares to permanently ban the trade in wild animals, which are central to the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.
As National Geographic magazine has reported, China’s National Health Commission recently recommended the use of Tan Re Qing, an “injection containing bear bile, to treat severe and critical COVID-19 cases.” The traditional Chinese medicine formula has been used since the 8th century to treat bronchitis and upper respiratory tract infections.
Xinhua, China’s national news agency, recently ran an article titled “Traditional Chinese medicine offers oriental wisdom in fight against novel virus.” The article says “TCM has never missed a single fight against epidemics throughout Chinese history. The 2003 battle against SARS was a recent example. TCM offered timely and effective solutions to the treatment of SARS patients.”
The article also says that Wuhan saw “integrated treatment of TCM and Western medicine, especially among non-critical patients.” It quotes Zhang Boli, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, saying, ‘Western medicine offers important life-supporting measures such as respiratory and circulatory assistance, while TCM focuses on improving patients’ physical conditions and immune function. They complement each other.” 
It is unlikely that the coronavirus pandemic will end the trade in wild animals as a source of substances for traditional Chinese medicine. After all, the SARS epidemic did not put an end to the practice either. For this reason, Jared Diamond and Nathan Wolfe argue that COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last viral pandemic: “There will be others, as long as wild animals are widely exploited for food and for other purposes, whether in China or elsewhere.” But no matter how difficult it may be to implement in practice, a global ban on the trade in wild animals could help reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases.
— Alexander Freund is a journalist with Deutsche Welle

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