26 September, 2020

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Coronavirus: Collective Destinies In Pestilence

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Asanga Abeygoonasekera

“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny. Made for plague and emotions shared by all.” Albert Camus

In 430 BC, an entire chapter of the Peloponnesian war documented by the Greek historian, Thucydides was about a deadly epidemic. According to him, while Athenians prepared for war with Sparta, its course changed dramatically due to a plague. First, Athenians believed it was the work of Spartans who have poisoned their waters, but eventually understood it was a plague. Over the course of history, epidemics have wiped out villages, populations and devastated and transformed empires. They wield much more power than any other security threat that could enter our society and today we all directly confront this threat. While many nations and political leaders marched towards embracing ultra-nationalist sentiments, believing their national interest is important than the other nations, will eventually understand with the growth of the outbreak the importance of transnational cooperation and building trust among nations.

Wuhan is a city of 11 million people. It is described as a city geographically at the very heart of China. It is roughly equidistant from the cities of Beijing and Guangzhou (Canton) on a north-south axis and also is equidistant from Shanghai and Chongqing on an east-west line. Currently, its residents are not allowed to move out of the city. San Fiorano is also barricaded and closed off from the outside world with nine neighbouring towns close to Milan that were the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. Italian Prime Minister[i] says “This is Italy’s darkest hour” as lockdown in the northern regions and riots break out in prisons and country is facing the biggest challenge since the second world war.

The Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) epidemic has spread in 114 countries, as of 11th March there are 118,000 confirmed cases with 4291 deaths from around the world. The outbreak is declared pandemic by world health organization. The daily developments of the outbreak are similar to the incidents illustrated in Albert Camus’s 1947 novel ‘The Plague[ii]’. Seen as a parable about the German occupation of France the plot holds a far much deeper significance to everyday life through chronicling an outbreak in the North African city of Oran. While people suffer from death and isolation, Camus wonders what it means to resist a challenging environment and outlines human courage through a profound optimism about human nature to rise from difficult moments through small kindnesses and solidarity. Just like the authorities blocking people of Oran, police have barricaded the entrance to the Italian town and anyone who attempting escape the blockade faces up to three months in prison or a fine of up to 206 euros ($223). It is as if I am going through the pages of Camu’s chronicle when witnessing the human suffering documented from around the world. Given the current trajectory of the spread, it is poised to reach other cities which could follow the similar oppressive containment methods. It’s worth preparing for the worse.

Distrust and Cooperation 

China is the primus inter pares among the developing countries. As an emerging power with significant economic strength, it is facing a security dilemma with the exiting global power, the United States of America. Apart from the heightened trade war between the two nations and security concerns of Chinese products, another new dimension of conflict inhibiting the dire need for cooperation during epidemics is added to the agenda.

While some reports were published misleading that the virus was a biological weapon either from laboratories in Wuhan or US inflicting Wuhan. Apart from nuclear weapons, China and the US engage in defensive biological warfare research for strategic deterrent or weapons of last resort. Distrust between the two nations at a time like this could aggravate this misleading information. What is required is to strengthen military to military bio-defence cooperation[iii] and trust and transparency between the two to minimize future hazards. Nations will require to work side by side to confront challenges from epidemics. Despite US-China trade wars it’s also an opportune time to strengthen collaboration for global health and epidemic preparedness.

Globalization in action

Was this a ‘black swan[iv]’ moment? A random and unpredictable event. Michele Wucker got it right by calling it a ‘gray rhino[v]’ moment which is a highly probable but neglected threats that have an enormous impact. No matter how powerful the nation, epidemics have no borders. The last time China had a similar outbreak was in in 2003 when the SARS epidemic which took many lives and weakened the economy even at its 10% growth rate. This time the Chinese economy is at 6% growth and the nation will face difficulty to introduce a stimulus with the current deficit. According to Reuters[vi] China’s economic growth is expected to slow to 4.5 percent in the first quarter of 2020—the slowest pace since the 2008 financial crisis and could cost the global economy $1.1 trillion in lost income[vii]. The disease will reshape economies around the world. It has already impacted the oil prices which had the worst fall since the 1991 US invasion of Kuwait[viii].

The estimates of the degree of infection are on the rise and this would directly impact the Chinese economy and the entire global trade. It’s commendable that the Chinese authorities have been transparent, sharing the DNA of the virus, unlike the previous SARS epidemic. In any government, the administrative capacity and competency could be weighed at a time of crisis, particularly at a time like this, so far Chinese authorities have proven their ability to follow the correct procedures and cooperate with the global community to overcome the challenges. At the beginning there was lapses and delay of acknowledgement by the authorities. As clearly explained by Jennifer Bouey Senior Policy Researcher at RAND Corporation “the first common feature response of SARS and 2019-nCoV is the delay in acknowledging the initial case cluster to be a public health threat. If we recognize that stability is what the Chinese political system values most, and an acute public health threat, such as an epidemic, is precisely the “black swan” that can threaten such stability, then it is not too difficult to understand the Chinese government’s reluctance toward acknowledging an epidemic. China’s law prohibits anyone from talking about a public health threat before an official government announcement”[ix].

Unlike in 2003, China is more globalized with around two hundred thousand people a day in and out of the mainland resulting in a higher degree of risk for the outbreak. It is also a time of globalization in action, spreading the virus from one remote corner to another faraway city in a few hours. Unlike in the 1970s where 310 million passengers travel from the air, presently, the number of air travels is in billions[x] for a year. Marc Lipsitch[xi] Harvard University epidemiologist coronavirus says the virus “will ultimately not be containable” and, within a year, will infect somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of humanity, “But don’t be too alarmed. Many of those people won’t have severe illnesses or even show symptoms at all”.

Sri Lankan economy, navigating the global shocks 

In Sri Lanka, there was one Chinese traveller found positive, treated and sent back to China. Seen as a significant achievement by the authorities, the Health Minister took the front page of the news, not realizing its not the end but the beginning of many more to be diagnosed in the coming days. Along with the news cycle, the public focus will shift in a few days to upcoming Parliamentary election which will the cost taxpayers some several billion amidst the global outbreak and global economic slowdown which has already hit the tourism industry. 

Sri Lankan economy which is at the lowest growth rate in South Asia will have further effects from the coronavirus. The tourism industry went through a hard recovery after the 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks and while it was recovering was hit by Coronavirus. Chinese tourist visiting the Island will drop and Chinese infrastructure projects will also face some impact from the construction workers. Depending on the global impact on supply chains and how soon things will be back to normal, the Sri Lankan economy would have to navigate the shocks in the global arena. A caution on recent irrational government policies in the international arena UNHRC and turning down the US MCC loan, decisions are taken for the sake of elections will have ripple effects in post-elections, especially with the prevailing global economic slowdown.

Coronavirus Election and the National Security Policy for Sri Lanka

While the government in power is seeking 2/3rd majority in Parliament in the upcoming Parliamentary elections in April, the political environment will be different from the past elections. You could call it a Coronavirus election. Should there be elections with the global pandemic? Regardless of the global health hazard, does the Government encourage public gatherings? Why can’t the Government postpone elections? Are some useful questions to carefully think twice? Government efficiency and President’s unilateral decision making on managing the epidemic will be a factor. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who came to power projecting a national security threat from the Easter Sunday bombings will face another form of global security threat. Responding to disease outbreak is a multifaceted effort by the whole of Government. It involves provincial and local level to Mayors. 

Successfully managing the spread of the virus relies on the efficiency of the overall system of government, not one individual. Has Sri Lanka prioritized who receives virus test? How fast the results could be delivered? Who is responsible to sanitize public transit places? How effective and efficient are the quarantine facilities managed? are some vital questions that require answers. The Government’s efficiency of managing the crisis will be a daunting challenge which will lead to building trust with the general public and the system in place which will eventually secure the vote in the coming election. A slight lapse or mismanagement would have a drastic public reaction and outcome.

We must understand this new reality to reduce the risk of future epidemics. Having a security policy is an essential ingredient that can add value to the process of preparedness during a national security crisis. National Security Policy (NSP) will capture the holistic security threats (health, climate, economic etc) to the nation in the next several years. An NSP was compiled at the National Security Think Tank(INSSSL) during last three years with several military experts from tri-forces along with the researchers and handed over to the Secretary Ministry of Defence General Shantha Kottegoda in 2019 October. According to the Sri Lankan National Security Policy which highlights that ‘a nation should develop the means and capacities to prevent and control epidemics that might cripple the country’. The document is worth circulating to the public and line Ministries for further inputs and development. Unfortunately, these documents go classified and not shared with the public just like the National Defence Policy (NDP) which was declassified and approved from the cabinet on November 11th 2019[xii]. Not many Sri Lankans know that the nation has a National Defence Policy. These policies belong to the people and not to a particular regime or individual, therefore it should be carried forward with improvements and amendments not to be hidden inside cupboards and shared with a restricted audience.

At a time with of a global crisis such as this with anxiety and uncertainty with multiple socio-political and economic shocks which could engulf distrust among nations what is required is cooperation, solidarity and acts of human kindness to each other. While epidemics teach us, a collective destiny is what we possess, we still tend to be fragmented and glued to our destiny securing our national interest, ignoring others.

End Notes:

[i] https://www.ft.com/content/7e5ee68e-6200-11ea-b3f3-fe4680ea68b5

[ii] La Peste is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947

[iii] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-03-05/us-chinese-distrust-inviting-dangerous-coronavirus-conspiracy

[iv]   Black Swan moment describes an event that comes as a surprise. The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb,

[v] Grey Rhino concept was coined by Michele Wucker, a fellow YGL and policy analyst who came up with the term after the 2012 Greek financial crisis.

[vi] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/02/how-coronavirus-disrupts-global-value-chains/

[vii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/19/coronavirus-could-cost-global-economy-1tn-in-lost-output

[viii] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/09/business/oil-price-crash-explainer/index.html?utm_campaign=wp_todays_worldview&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_todayworld

[ix] Jennifer Bouey, Testimony presented before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation on February 5, 2020. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/testimonies/CT500/CT523/RAND_CT523.pdf

[x] 2018 was 4.2 billion air travel for the year https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IS.AIR.PSGR

[xi] https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-outbreak-could-hit-3-billion-adults-harvard-expert-2020-3

[xii] Approved by Government of Sri Lanka (Cabinet Paper No 19/3132/103/173) on 11th Nov 2019

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Latest comments

  • 5
    0

    This is the most brainless, ignorant snap shot I have ever seen in my life. On one hand when the whole world is aware of the importance of maintaining social distance, our so called health minister is hugging a convalescing woman who had contracted the most deadly virus so far on earth. We can come to two conclusions, either this woman was not sick, this is a staged photo to get votes in the coming elections. Or else our Mrs. Pavithra (actually it should be Apavithra, the way she hugs a convalescing patient) has no clue about basics of health and hygiene. It would have been more suitable had the health minister post was given to a native doctor, if they could not find a qualified allopathic doctor. Even for an ignorant politician this is way too low. And according to our Sri Lankan customs we don’t hug, we say Aayubowan. She being an ultra nationalistic BUDdy from the BUD party, this is a sacrilege ;)

    • 7
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      Playing politics with a pandemic can be dangerous… our idiotic government is making irrational excuses as to why they don’t have a travel ban on China while having them up for other seriously affected countries…

      • 1
        3

        Pure and un-adultrated tosh! Corona is a form of hybrid- bio warfare and an attack on the economy of Asia and an attempt to de-globalize to halt the rise of Asia and Make America Great Again!
        . But China with its history of 3000 years, billion people and technology lead will win.
        Like the Easter Carnage in Sri Lanka that was organized by CIA and Saudi owned and operated ISIS to set up Trumpland’s military bases in Sri Lanka to attack China and Iran, Corona is part of Trump’s hybrid war against the fact that Asia is the center of global power, wealth and influence and the US and EU increasingly a global backwater!

        And well, well RAND has once again revealed the black swan plot as did Jonah Blank when he said that IS was a US terror franchise after the Easter attacks in Lanka!
        Jennifer Bouey Senior Policy Researcher at RAND Corporation has said in a classic tautology revealing the hybrid war/ bio war on China attack strategy “the first common feature response of SARS and 2019-nCoV is the delay in acknowledging the initial case cluster to be a public health threat. If we recognize that stability is what the Chinese political system values most, and an acute public health threat, such as an epidemic, is precisely the “black swan” that can threaten such stability, then it is not too difficult to understand the Chinese government’s reluctance toward acknowledging an epidemic. China’s law prohibits anyone from talking about a public health threat before an official government announcement”!
        Wonder who funds AA to write this Tosh?!

        • 2
          0

          Don Stanley, this is idiotic even trump might get covid 19 and die… even trump thinks it’s fake.

  • 0
    1

    Asanga: Rand corporation is doing top secret military research to USA. Their name was mentioned even when the Malaysian Jet with some Chinese computer scientists attending a Research Conference in China were attending. It says, those scientists had know how abouit some important patents. Now, there is a confrontation among them about 5G. Some where, some important people said, it is 5G that caused this Virus problem.
    Besides China, South Korea, a competing country for technology has the problem. Others are Iran, Italy – why Italy. Germany’s Merkel said, that they have Covid-i9 patients and as high as 70% of the population might get the disease. Why ?
    When they build hypersonic ICBMs why should they think about transnational corporations in biological weapons. Interesting argument ?
    I think, It is commendable, the president talked about SECURITY and he was quick to take action even with this virus spread.
    There are certain thing that no one talk about the virus. That is in addition to lot of false news.
    It is the same Corona virus that produced SARS which produces COVID-19. Vaccine production is not very time consuming. But, there is something hindering vaccine production. Normal flu, chicken flu etc, have so many different. But, vaccines are coming fast. Why COVID-19 VACCINE IS TAKING TIME. It looks countrys want to go on their own. You, a defence analyst I suppose, also suggests International or trans national cooperation

  • 0
    1

    Fatality rates of COVID – 19 is different in different countries. Italy has the highest fatality rate. That, probably, there is more than one strain or something else. Even in China as the time went, fatality increased. It is a RNA virus and information are available in the web.

  • 9
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    Well, there are still several unknowns about COVID-19. But one thing is certain: our Health Minister is one sick individual. Her girlish attempt to impress her leading man Gota, and her bizarre obsequiousness to the Chinese government in front of the cameras was revolting. Her premature downplaying of the danger posed by the virus has now pushed the country to the brink of disaster. In order to protect the health of the nation, she should be fired from her position and quarantined from politics for a certain period of time.

  • 5
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    Corona is just a reminder , who we and our true worth.Imagine the all powerful President Trump who was at his peak after tackling all accusations against him and riding on a booming stock market was poised for another term. But Corona has now taken that one advantage (anyway the credit is not his) out of its equation. Today officially US announced of a BEAR market (already wiped out financial markets more than 10 Trillion world wide). But Silly Lankans are so stupid they never learn from their past. They are so arrogant, egoistic and immoral, that they just cant see what is in front of them. People who behave this way usually end up in far worse places than they imagined. Ambani, the richest lost 75,000 crore in just a fortnight. Canadian PM,s wife, UK minister , Tom Hanks and other famous personalities have already tested positive for virus. This is what a virus can do any human being. Their lives have turned topsy – turvy in a day. Though people like Buddha,Jesus, Mohammed and many others had preached this in past, the believers in Silly Lanka think otherwise.

    • 3
      0

      Sri Lanka’s arrogant and bigoted population is about to learn a bitter lesson. We will all suffer but it can’t be helped. This is a lesson not just for Sri Lanka but for the whole world in all its selfishness, viciousness and greed. This lesson was bound to come, it was not a matter of if but when. We can only hope that humanity in general and our fellow citizens in particular will learn enough of a lesson to mend their vile ways. If they don’t, I fear the next lesson will be worse than this one.

  • 5
    0

    Ajay, you are absolutely right. I was not sure about the person in picture, hence did not comment on t. If it is Minster Pavithra, then it is not a surprise at all(there is nothing better to expect from such people). These are the so called highly competent people hand picked by our very own President/PM. Only people like our minister and Trump , can take selfie with confirmed patients. I reiterate there is nothing wrong doing so, in a fully treated (not contagious) patient, but the message given to public by our responsible minister is ridiculous. Even when Chinese President visited diseased ravaged places in China in a confidence building step , he did not attempt , what Pavithra did with the very first patient. How do we expect citizens to self quarantine with such stupid acts.????? Will she do the same with our own patients too ????

  • 0
    0

    In a lighter vein, if Corona virus has come to stay when wearing a mask will become part of our dress. The ladies will wear masks to match their sarees and handbag, with colourful design or with floral embroidery.

  • 0
    0

    Asanga: One web site explain in two articles and it says both Japanese and Taiwanese scientists have explained that USA is the originated place of COVID-19. China’s Wuhan only one type, while USA has five types. Last year they had LUNG PNEUMONIA in North America and they explain that should be caused not by VAPING of e-cigarettes but by corona virus. Recently, one Brazilian politician visited USA; he met USA president and some other official. When he went home he had Corona Virus Attack but Trump or the other official were not concerned about the virus attack.

  • 0
    1

    The firebrand spokesman for China’s foreign ministry tweeted a conspiracy theory that the US army brought the virus to China in the first place.

    Asanga above is from an article in Yahoo. China openly accuses that US army brought corona virus to china.

  • 1
    0

    A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, tweeted yesterday that “it might be the US army” that brought the coronavirus to China, giving an official boost to a conspiracy theory that had been allowed to circulate on Chinese social media for weeks. The conspiracy posits that 300 athletes from the US military who in October attended the 7th Military World Games in Wuhan, where the epidemic first broke out, were infected with the virus, thereby spreading it in China.

    Zhao’s comment accompanied a video from a US congressional hearing this week on the country’s response to the epidemic. Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in the video that some patients who were previously diagnosed to have died from the flu were found to have actually died from the coronavirus. The video began trending on Chinese social network Weibo, with many commenting that they now believe firmly that the US had covered up facts related to the epidemic.

  • 1
    0

    If this coronavirus is a deadly threat, then what about several millions of monkeys, birds, etc which could have transmitted easily throughout the world. Moreover, the millions of Sanniyasis along the River Ganges and other rivers in India should have by now affected with this coronavirus, given the fact that China is close to India and the said animals and the Sanniyasis are weak. Even in Sri Lanka the situation is same especially when there are more Chinese in South Sri Lanka. I think the issue of coronavirus is been utilized as an election gimmick to mislead the Sinhalese.The logic in mentioning that this new reality to reduce the risk of future epidemics is misleading.

  • 2
    0

    The theories behind Covid is as good as Lankan sterilization tecniques . Less said the better.

  • 2
    0

    For the hell bend conspiracy experts , I have one more suggestion. It is possible the half baked Chinese while 3D printing would have pressed the wrong button to get this varient. We already know about the genetic engineering which went wrong. Chinese are only good at making duplicates and that too, at times turns out a blundder. Already there is enough evidence how animal/pet food industry ended up killing thousand of animals by contamination. The same Chinese are the ones warned and put doctors who gave early warnings, under house arrest. I guess it perfectly suites the current Lankan system, hence the camaraderie.

  • 2
    0

    Chinese belives that it is an out side job like the First, Athenians believed it was the work of Spartans who have poisoned their waters, Thinks can happen doing to transform empires.,or to quarantine from politics. or catastrophic risks to become superioty countries

  • 1
    0

    Collective Destinies Wear burqa to cover eye face nose to screen from virous terrorist foreign particle then you can cover the baby the mother instead of having many gadjets on the head. most important kind of freedom to keep away for terror viruses. protection from identity, from bactria & deposits & sweat.

  • 1
    0

    The outbreak of a pandemic without any remedy in sight and its response by any society has occurred many times in the history of mankind. History repeating it self? YES. The author of this article says that in not so many words. The existence of all kinds of theories pointing to an act of sabotage is neither here nor there. I am told that there is a very effective way of screening all outgoing and incoming passengers in the Singapore Airport. That is worthy of studying and to examine ways and means of implementing the same. Further, we had all kinds of road blocks in the past to check vehicles for possible terrorist connections. However, bizarre it may be it may be helpful in Sri Lanka to do spot checks on individuals in a manner similar to what is done in Singapore Airport. All this means expenses and space of quarantining people. But what options do we have when there is no cure at sight? As the author of this article suggested International co-operation and knowledge sharing is essential. Alas! This is going to hit the world in a big way.

  • 0
    0

    RBH, countries including Silly Lanka banned religious wear, India recently banned wearing helmets when not ridding , now every citizen is told to cover their faces ??? I guess the virus thinks for it self.

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