Can Coronavirus ‘diplomacy’ isolate or strengthen ties with China?

epaselect epa08186486 A quarantine worker carries out a disinfection operation at the National Human Resources Development Center in Jincheon, South Korea, 02 February 2020. The facility is being used to house South Koreans who have been brought back from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Chinese authorities confirmed on 02 February that the virus has so far killed at least 304 people with over 14,000 infected, mostly in China. EPA-EFE/YONHAP SOUTH KOREA OUT

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The world’s news headlines are currently dominated by the alarming speed with which the infections of the coronavirus are spreading from the Chinese borders to, one can say, every corner of the world.

China’s National Health Commission said there were 2,102 new confirmed infections in China as of Friday, bringing the total to 11,791. Around two dozen other countries have reported more than 130 cases.

All of the reported deaths from the virus have been in China.

Medical implications apart, the rapid spread is the fruit of the way the world has developed mainly through globalization and easy access to worldwide travel. A factor that just made the spread faster and more difficult to control at a global level.

China faced mounting isolation in the face of increasing international travel curbs and flight suspensions on Saturday, as the death toll from a spreading coronavirus outbreak rose to 259.

The fact that China is currently celebrating its biggest annual holiday, the Lunar New Year, characterized by the mass travel of Chinese, doesn’t help either.

Celebrations apart, the virus outbreak comes at a particularly bad time for China – fresh off the heels of continued unrest in Hong Kong and the re-election victory for pro-sovereignty President Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan.

It has exposed that, for all the country’s military, economic and political clout, nature is a force that has to be reckoned with. Just in these last days, newly available data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). suggests that China has established itself as the world’s second-biggest arms producer, behind the United States and ahead of Russia. But the lethal outbreak is a lesson that other powers throughout history have learnt, although unfortunately quickly forgotten.\

The epidemic has led to mass evacuations of foreign citizens as world airlines halt flights, and risks exacerbating a slowdown in growth in the world’s second-largest economy.

The list of international airlines suspending all or some flights to China is growing.

The latest were Qantas Airways Ltd <QAN.AX> and Air New Zealand <AIR.NZ>, who said travel bans forced them to suspend their direct flights to China from Feb. 9. All three major U.S. airlines said on Friday they would cancel flights to mainland China.

The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific banned travel to China for all service members and civilian personnel under his authority and ordered those now in China to leave immediately, officials said.

U.S. health officials on Saturday confirmed an eighth case of the virus, a person in Massachusetts who recently returned from Hubei province.

Many nations have sent charter flights to repatriate citizens from China and then place them in isolation for around two weeks, believed to be the incubation period of the virus.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn called for calm and warned against hysteria as more than 100 Germans and family members landed in Frankfurt, none showing any symptoms of the virus. As of Saturday evening Germany had eight confirmed cases.

Britain, which has had two confirmed cases, said it was withdrawing some staff from its embassy and consulates in China.

Many of the private clinics catering to foreigners in China have started to turn away people with fevers.

“I don’t want to go to the local hospital with a sore throat only to catch something else,” said Czech national Veronika Krubner in Tianjin

This is the second time in as many decades that China is dealing with a pandemic disease, after the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002. Whilst the Chinese authorities this time have been more forthcoming in sharing information with the global community, China still lacks the effective social and institutional systems for coping with it.

The spread of the virus, known officially as the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), is also leaving an impact on the global economy.

Global stock and commodity markets have been rocked by the outbreak in China, where the death toll and infection rates continue to climb. Meanwhile, and the virus has rapidly spread to other countries.

There is also concern that it could become the straw that breaks the camel’s back for an already anaemic Chinese economy.

The infection is still in its early stages and the impact on the Chinese and global economy will become more noticeable as the transmissibility and fatality rates increase. If it is controlled, then so will the economic impact.

As the Saudi Arabian energy minister rightly pointed out, during the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 there was a similar amount of pessimism, but the virus did not cause a significant reduction in oil demand and he cautioned against “extreme pessimism”.

Doom and gloom apart, this can transform into a key opportunity for strategic cooperation by China with neighbouring countries and beyond, primarily the United States. Russia and China are already working to develop a coronavirus vaccine and Beijing has handed over the genome of the virus to Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi discussed cooperation in fighting the coronavirus outbreak in a phone call on Saturday, the Russian foreign ministry said.

“The Russian side gave a high appraisal of the measures that China is taking to fight the spreading of the disease caused by the coronavirus,” the ministry said in a statement.

This week, a top U.S. health official said that he offered to send a team from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention to China to help with the coronavirus outbreak. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar did not reveal the Chinese health minister’s response but said he hopes that Beijing will accept the offer.

 There has already been an important step this week in Australia, a team of scientists in Australia said on Wednesday that they have successfully developed a lab-grown version of coronavirus, the first to be recreated outside of China. This represents  a breakthrough that could help combat the global spread of the illness.

Global risk level – Low, but growing, and may be upgraded to medium in the weeks ahead, unless these cases are isolated effectively and prevent the outbreak from spreading further.

The Malta perspective: Malta’s links with China are minimal, with only a small portion of its tourists coming from that country, and one would deduce that a smaller portion still would be from the affected area, if at all. However, if some of Malta’s main air links are impacted, this would change the equation considerably. One would need to keep an eye on the UK, Germany and Italy for any spread of the virus. Should those countries be impacted, then Malta would need to be extra vigilant.

Malta risk level – Low, so far.


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