JUST THIS WEEKEND, news had it that the total number of cases of infections of Coronavirus (code-named COVID-19) infections worldwide has exceeded 100,000 while the total number of deaths arising from or associated with the infections is now in excess of 3,000. It was also indicated that over 55,000 of those infected have recovered. These are only reported cases. Many more obviously passed unreported. All these figures were recorded within a space of less than three months. What make the huge figures interesting are not the explanations that have been traditionally woven together to allay people’s fears. Instead, they are the narratives that heighten those fears, the ensuing
realities as well as the spread and diversity of impacts. At the very onset of the Coronavirus infection, the official denial, high-handedness and tendencies to suppress information for political reasons destroyed rather than enhanced the chances of keeping the virus spread under control. A terrible error of judgment would later backfire so terribly that it has ignited questions, debates, reviews of forecasts and policies, changes in business strategies and international relations, even if for the time being.
The world is waking up to a reality of the pre-eminence of information and the futility of any deliberate efforts on restricting its flow. The Chinese authorities, for reasons of internal politics, would prefer to censor information flow, monitor people’s electronic media channels of communication and restrict public discussions on issues, particularly those it considers an affront to its authoritarian leadership. The hypocrisy in this system has been exposed by COVID-19 epidemic and its handling at the beginning. The new global pluralism brought about by the electronic media through the worldwide web is such a double-edged sword. Although it provides an opportunity for everyone to become content providers, the rooms for authentic sources still remain wide. Individual and corporate authoritative sources of information still have their relevance despite the presence of multiple players, impostors, charlatans and fake news bearers. China didn’t seem interested in sifting the chaff from the wheat in this case.
Arrogating expert knowledge to itself, the political establishment made a wrong and – as we can now see – ill-informed move by dismissing the online posting of the whistleblower doctor in the first instance. Let’s assume that the whistleblower was trying to spread fake news, this wouldn’t have been the first health crisis associated with online misinformation. Ebola was beset by online misinformation, although its impact was probably less due to the size of population affected, the limitations to its spread and the speed of response due to the fears generated by commentators. So, for good or for bad, what many would prefer to characterise as misinformation probably helped to ensure early containment. By contrast, China, with such a huge human population, home to increasingly diverse population of people who work in formal and informal sectors, a steadily growing economy and an international travel hub, should have taken the information on the face value first, objectively assessing and even-handed in responding. It is counterintuitive that China, the world’s most populous country, home to the largest market of internet users globally – one-fifth of the world’s 3.8 billion internet users – would want to have it both ways, boasting of such a big internet-driven economy, while at the same time subjecting the users to inordinate surveillance.
Although China’s top leadership later admitted “shortcomings and deficiencies” in the initial response to COVID-19 outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO) did far below expectation as a global ‘competent authority’ by its choice of preoccupation with fears of misinformation, disinformation or its own coinage of “infodemic.” It didn’t have the control it thought to have over the narratives even while using the most popular of social media outlets. Its initial response to the epidemic was compromising and disappointing. For an organisation that was roundly condemned a year ago over the poor handling of funds for Ebola control, a big cloud of aspersion still hangs precariously over the WHO as it didn’t come out strong in its warnings to China. That was a clear indication of double standards as the organisation would probably have been more forceful in its warnings if a third world country was involved. Rather than dissipating much energy on fighting “infodemic” on social media, WHO experts should have created its own plan and a more impactful communication strategy. Such a strategy would have involved telling its own stories of operations, prioritised scenario thinking, disease modelling, emergency response plans, realistic prognosis, risk management and policy advice to governments of China and elsewhere as well as to the business community in advance. It should then have been disseminating these through the same social media channels it was using to counter misinformation, not by sharing textbook stuffs. These should have become operational manuals and guide handbooks for the policy makers in the public and private sector globally. It may have helped to prevent much of panic, conjectures and speculations in many industries and sectors of the global economy now.
One of the points missed by both the Chinese authorities and the WHO in the COVID-19 case was their failure to reckon with the fact that China is currently about the largest by volume of outputs in the industrial sector, rising from less than five per cent of global manufacturing value added in 1994 to about 25 per cent in 2015. Although its service sector is also steadily growing, the contribution of manufacturing to the Chinese economy is an important factor that epidemiologists cannot afford to overlook in disease modelling, from the standpoints of supply chains and movement of people. Now, the realities are unfolding at lightning speed and the ripple effects are felt all over the world. Aviation, an industry at the centre of today’s globalisation, has taken a hit, with a hitherto struggling airline in the UK on the verge of collapse.
International relations are beginning to come under pressure as some countries have suspended flights to other countries, while one country – particularly Israel – turned back an aircraft that made a successful journey from South Korea, on the fears of coronavirus infection. It is scientifically inconceivable how more than 200 people would be packed into a pressurised fuselage of an aircraft, kept afloat for hours, with one or two passengers having subclinical cases of respiratory infection and none else would have been infected within the period.
The reports of new cases in countries of Europe, Asia, America, Middle East and Africa lend credence to this, especially when the calibre of people reported as infected is considered. Religious groups are feeling the impact. A large church in South Korea has been ordered closed for the time being as a result of reported cases of coronavirus infections in members of the Church, and the leader of the church is now under litigation for the same reasons. The Vatican has reportedly closed all of Italy’s ancient catacombs normally open to the public because of the country’s coronavirus outbreak. As the Coronavirus epidemic gets bigger in the Middle East, the Saudi Authorities have halted the lesser hajj pilgrimage, while reports had it that the vice president of Iran has been infected and an adviser to the Foreign Affairs Minister had died of the infection.
Even China itself is feeling the slowing of business as suppliers of oil are slashing their supplies to China. For instance, Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, is reducing crude supplies to China in March by at least 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) due to slower refinery demand following the coronavirus outbreak, according to Reuters News Agency. The decision was in response to the drop in consumption caused by the outbreak in the world’s top oil importer. Within the financial institutions, the fears of a worldwide recession have been intensified with the continued spread of coronavirus, with the global stock markets racking up more than $3 trillion of losses. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), in a recent announcement, disclosed that it is likely to downgrade global growth forecasts due to virus. Although it may be too early to say, some people are already expressing concerns that the COVID-19 epidemic could spark off global financial meltdown of the scale that rocked the world in 2007 and 2008. Some major sporting events have been kept on hold sequel to the spread of the virus globally.
The world, no doubt, has learnt some lessons in COVID-19. Whether China has learnt much is debatable. Although some commentators are optimistic that the epidemic would be under control in some months’ time, the irreversible and irreparable damage to the various nations’ economies and to the global economy is a cause for concern. It is hoped, however, that China, the WHO and indeed the national and global authorities will seek and find consensus of opinions on how to avoid a repeat of COVID-19 or any other potentially destructive epidemics in the future. The lessons learnt in this particular case should serve as a learning curve and a wealth of experience for the future. China
needs to stop playing hide-and-seek games with public information, particularly any that has public health implications. Doing so will always boomerang in ways beyond imagination and the consequences will almost always be upsetting.
Dr. Oyeleye, a consultant, journalist and policy analyst, can be reached via: