The first team of people from various agencies of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government are ready to fly to Japan's Tokyo to bring back its residents under quarantine aboard a cruise ship, at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, south China, Feb. 17, 2020. (Wang Shen/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Coronavirus: Between Reputation and Safety

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, February 17

One of the biggest lessons we can learn from the coronavirus epidemic is that public health is an interconnected issue requiring cooperation by many different actors. Countries cannot combat the virus alone, and any attempt to conceal incidents of the disease might cause it to spread even more. The anger directed toward governments is further exacerbated by various rumors and conspiracy theories that have been spreading around, including the idea that the virus originated from a military laboratory at a biological-weapons hospital. The truth is that epidemics have accompanied people since ancient times. With the boost in global travel and environmental change being brought about by human activity, viral epidemics are only expected to grow. Governments can only be blamed for one thing: if they choose to advance their political reputation over the safety of citizens. The Chinese government, for example, is said to have contacted Li Liang, the first doctor to warn about the corona danger, threatening him to cease his warnings. Unfortunately, Liang was right, and he himself died of the virus he warned the world about. The good news so far is that the spread of infection within China has slowed for the first time since its outbreak. Because of corona, Chinese President Xi Jinping faces the most challenging time of his term since he stepped into office seven years ago. He deliberately took to the streets, accompanied by the media, and visited patients at different hospitals with a mask on his face. Clearly, the current state of panic surrounding the disease is far more dangerous than the virus itself. Despite the fact that coronavirus mortality rates stand at less than 2%, the news coming from China has been causing major concern in the West. The main concerns are that there is no vaccine to prevent the illness, no drug to treat it, and death occurs within three weeks of infection. Popular anger is a natural consequence of helplessness and fear, and if the scientific deficit persists in discovering treatments and vaccines over the next few months, the situation will become even more complicated, particularly at the political level. Economic breakdown, civil disobedience, travel boycotts and halts to trade are only a handful of the possibilities. Governments around the world have already resorted to harsh measures to prevent the virus from spreading in their own jurisdiction, including through the forceful isolation of anyone returning from Asia. These are harsh measures but they are becoming more and more common. They might very well be the only way to stop the spread of the disease. – Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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