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Society & Culture

The Dangers of Politicising the Pandemic, and the Room for Sino-American Collaboration in Health

May 26, 2022
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought seismic transformations to global politics and governance, thrusting many countries – in both the developed and developing worlds – into the most severe public health crises in their national histories. The nature of the virus does not discriminate – and the dire consequences have been borne out by largely the most vulnerable and disempowered across all countries. 

China and America, as two of the world’s largest economies, bear a distinct moral responsibility to collaborate in tackling not just the ongoing pandemic, but also future public health crises. A prerequisite to that, however, is that all parties involved should cease with undue politicisation of the pandemic. Politicisation – not in the sense of treating and processing public health questions through taking into consideration the people (which could be construed as political, through a mass-oriented lens); but in the sense of dragging in unnecessary ideological and politically charged rhetoric that seeks to demonise rival parties, whilst promoting individual self-interest. 

To this effect, the first point to note here is that groundless and factually unsound speculation over the origins of the pandemic is fundamentally perilous – and must be eschewed. The zealous freneticism with which certain segments of the American commentariat have embraced by accusing China through the lab leak conspiracy theory – no less amplified by the xenophobic bombast projected by former President Donald Trump – not only drowns out valid discussions as championed by the investigations undertaken by the World Health Organisation (WHO) into the general, epidemiological question concerning COVID-19’s natural reservoirs, but has also contributed towards the callous racism targeting Asian-Americans on the streets of America. If the truth is to come to light, the debate precipitating the truth must be measured, qualified, and rooted in facts – not conjectures, not rumours, and certainly not half-baked hearsay. Similarly, the charge widely circulated in certain quarters that the virus is ostensibly created in an American laboratory, with the objective of sabotaging Chinese interests, must be equally treated with scepticism and repudiated. 

Neither of these speculative discourses surrounding the virus’ origins, could possibly have anything but the most detrimental effects on bilateral cooperation between Washington and Beijing. Indeed, the overt politicisation by radical, zealous individual commentators and internet users, has indirectly amplified the undue barrage of attacks that the WHO Organisation has consistently faced – and fended off: whilst the WHO does have its flaws, the deranged call-outs and smearing that has befallen it, in relation to the substantial volume of investment China and America alike have made into it (with fruitful effects), set back global public health progress in more ways than one. Such irrational criticisms have weakened the WHO’s ability to mobilise resources, put forth much-needed vaccination campaigns, and work with local stakeholders in implementing responsive and responsible public health regimes. Petty politics derails instrumental cross-national collaboration. 

A second prong to the question of de-politicising public health, is that China and U.S. collaboration is vital for global health efforts across a range of fields – the financial-economic, the information-knowledge, and, above all, the institutional, in both parties’ mutual support for WHO and other, regional health organisations. American political scientist Deborah Seligsohn eloquently noted that “as Americans move toward a vaccinated future, there are two crucial pandemic tasks to accomplish, and both would fare better with robust U.S.-China cooperation. The first is to vaccinate the world. The second is to prevent the next pandemic.” These should be priorities not just for America, but also China, as it looks to step up to a greater role to play in global governance frameworks, specifically over humanitarian and public health policies. 

As Toby Ord puts it, we live on the Precipice – where the future of humanity is inevitably intertwined with existential risks that could threaten to wipe out significant portions of the world’s population. Much ink has been spilled over our reckless decisions of letting global warming persist and turning a blind eye to the millions of displaced and endangered persons under climate change. A similar level of attention ought to be paid to the prospects of the next Disease X, after SARS-CoV-2. We need a robust, resilient, and mutually integrated public health response system on a global scale – in order to take on the challenges ahead. 

And to get there, Beijing and Washington must collaborate. There must be more forthcoming, open-minded, and pragmatic engagements across all levels of research and technology, as opposed to the closing-off of channels for communication and collaboration on spurious grounds of alleged espionage or infiltration. There needs to be a comprehensive balancing of both sides’ interests – in ensuring that their public health and medical research systems are most certainly not sabotaged by undue foreign interference on one hand, whilst preserving organic exchanges between academic institutions and laboratories on the other. Maintaining fruitful and productive dialogue is in the interests of scientific research teams and field leaders across public and private sectors, on both sides of the Pacific. 

China and the U.S. alike have much to gain from transparency and data sharing over outbreaks of contagious diseases – indeed, learning from each other remains possible, and is likely the best path forward in face of pathogens that take no heed of one’s political or ideological stance. Viruses aren’t political; human beings are. 

This leads us onto the final point to be made: when it comes to tackling the pandemic, both countries would benefit from embracing a less ideologically infused, more results-oriented approach. There seems to be a tendency on the part of some to construe the juxtaposition between China and America in their respective pandemic responses, as the product of ‘different’, or ‘superior-inferior’ regime logics. This is non-conducive towards acknowledging and adopting the merits of the other. Not everything in global or international relations can be reduced into questions of “democracy vs. autocracy.” These terms are best reserved for the domain of debates between academics, intellectuals, and political spokespersons – as opposed to the scientists and medics. 

There is much to be learnt from both sides – whether it be America’s emphasis upon vaccination under President Joe Biden, or China’s efficiency in the early stages of the outbreak. Yet there is also much to be unlearnt and critical towards – whether it be inept bureaucratism, over-rigid and stringent public health protocol, and/or fixation over one or two criteria measuring success, to the exclusion of competing and alternative indicators. Reducing what really ought to be a scientific process of learning and unlearning how to contain pandemics, into crass and over-simplistic politico-ideological debates, would benefit absolutely no one. 

As China rises, its prominence and role to play in global institutions and governance is likely to continually increase. Sino-American collaboration over public health can enhance China’s standing and capacity to lead, and should be recognised as such.

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