More than 100 countries and regions had reported confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus as of March 9. Outside China, the number of newly confirmed cases is approaching 30,000, with South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran being the worst hit. The World Health Organization has not declared COVID-19 a pandemic, but nonetheless upgraded the global risk of the outbreak to “very high” on Feb. 28.
Threatened by a disease that is more contagious than SARS and MERS, will the world unify in solidarity to stop it from becoming a pandemic? Or will nations be so overwhelmed by growing fears that they resort to beggar-thy-neighbor policies, weakening the foundation of global public health cooperation? Is the fast-spreading virus a wake-up call for the international community to act swiftly and in concert to build a safer globalized world? Or does it portend further deglobalization in a world already beset by virulent nationalism?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Things may go in either direction. For example, upon learning about the coronavirus outbreak, the WHO gathered more than 400 world-class virologists and disease control experts via physical and virtual platforms to examine the possible origins of the virus, make containment plans and identify research priorities. As WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan put it, this scientific solidarity in the face of a common enemy is unprecedented.
At the same time, stigmas associated with the disease are proliferating, and racism and xenophobia against people of Chinese and Asian ancestry are growing. Worse still, some senior officials in the United States are looking at the epidemic through an ideological prism, further poisoning China-U.S. relations at a time when the U.S. should be expressing sympathy and working with their Chinese counterparts to kick-start bilateral health cooperation. The outcome of the current battle and, by extension, the prospects of global public health cooperation, depend on which perspective dominates — uplifting stories or negative narratives.
Viruses respect no borders. The novel coronavirus epidemic could widen into a pandemic. Reviewing the results of international cooperation on the coronavirus battle and the lessons it holds is especially relevant at this critical juncture. Three questions , in my view, deserve special mention.
First, why does international cooperation matter in a globalized world?
Human experience with epidemics, from SARS to H1N1 and from Ebola to the current COVID-19, have proved that internationally coordinated responses are essential in any global public health emergency.
Take the COVID-19 outbreak as an example. As the first line of defense against a newly identified and potentially deadly virus, China made great efforts and sacrifices to open a precious window of opportunity for others to take precautions. At the same time, closer international cooperation in such forms as joint research programs, assistance with medical materials, engagement with leading research institutes and the WHO’s indispensable role in countering all virus-induced stigmatization and politicization helps the international community set up well-coordinated, science-based response mechanisms.
Given the many flaws and vulnerabilities in today’s global public health governance system, had China not acted decisively and coordinated with the rest of the world during the early stages of the epidemic, we may now be seeing a far more serious health crisis around the world.
Second, how should others evaluate China’s response measures and their worldwide applicability?
Countries vary in their national conditions and capabilities, and each epidemic outbreak has its own characteristics. Because there is no silver bullet to address all epidemics, control measures should be customized and contextualized.
But timely interruption of transmission routes, early detection and effective treatment are essential elements of any prevention measures. As the main battlefront of the global anti-virus war, China made immense efforts, adopted the strictest measures, gained the most firsthand experience and achieved the most remarkable results. Many Chinese practices have been commended by the WHO — for example, its whole-of-government, whole-of-society mobilization, unprecedented social-distancing measures, timely sharing of information and knowledge with the WHO and deep involvement in international medical research cooperation.
Beijing’s holistic, science-based, targeted and highly contextual approach, which has been guiding all its response measures, I believe, is the most valuable lesson for every country impacted by the virus.
Third, what should be done to strengthen the global public health governance system?
The unfolding coronavirus crisis has exposed many flaws and vulnerabilities in public health emergency preparedness around the world. Countries differ starkly from each other in terms of their political and value systems, social norms, cultures and traditions, emergency preparedness and capacity.
Given the uneven distribution of global health risks and disparate levels of national preparedness, as well as geopolitical factors such as regional and global security contingencies and crises, a health emergency in one country may trigger different reactions and responses, making consensus-building difficult and international coordination even more so.
To address these challenges, we must:
• update our outmoded health security concept to overcome the “panic-neglect” cycle;
• mend flawed health emergency response mechanisms and build up core monitoring and response capabilities in developing countries so that the International Health Regulations (2005) can be upheld amid health crises;
• strengthen leadership and bridge resource shortfalls in global health cooperation, and make earnest efforts to counter politicization and stigmatization of health crises;
• increase experience and knowledge sharing related to public health emergency responses so that the world does not have to start from scratch in every crisis.
Humanity’s past encounters with viruses and epidemics have proved, and will prove again, that empathy, solidarity and coordination are the only rational responses to massive outbreaks of infectious diseases and are will lead us to a safer world as a community with a shared future.