When the 2011 film, Contagion, broke box office records in the US and around the world, some people thought it was because of its all-star cast, which included Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet, to name a few. But that was not the case. The reason why Contagion succeeded was that the world had not forgotten the “outbreak” [another hugely successful film released in 1995 starring Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman, among others] of Sars in 2002-3, which also began in China.
That disease had killed 774 people worldwide, a number surpassed on Feb.ruary 9 by the Coronavirus with the toll of 1500, all but two of them in China. Even so, cautious optimism had begun to be expressed, with China’s senior epidemiologist, Zhong Nanshan, quoted as saying he believed the pandemic would peak in late February and be over by April. However, according to the figures released on 13 February, 14,840 new cases were reported in Hubei province, compared to 1,638 new cases the day before. The reason was that Hubei had expanded its criteria for identifying new COVID-19 (the official name given to the virus by the World Health Organization on February 11) infections on the same day, triggering a dramatic rise in reported cases at the epicenter of the disease.
According to the revised criteria, a new category of “clinical cases” has been added to the reporting of the disease. Now, patients who exhibit all the symptoms of COVID-19-including fever, cough and shortness of breath will be included. They have either not been tested or tested negative for the virus itself. The change, likely to have been caused by the scarcity of test kits and questions about their reliability, caused a ninefold increase in new reported cases in the province. Hubei also reported 242 new deaths on 13 February, more than double the 94 reported on 12 February. So far, Hubei is the only province that has revised its definition of new cases. Others have not publicly reported “clinical” or asymptomatic cases.
The new numbers from Hubei added significantly to the latest China-wide figures reported on 13 February ~ 15,152 new cases and 254 deaths. In its latest “situation report” dated 13 February, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported a total of 441 confirmed cases and one death (in the Philippines) in 24 countries outside China. WHO’s risk assessment for the virus is “very high” for China and “high” regionally and globally. With the latest numbers, there have been nearly 60,000 cases worldwide and more than 1,500 deaths. Meanwhile, there has been a high-level shake-up of officials in Hubei. The Communist Party chief in the province has been changed by Beijing, reflecting how seriously it is taking criticism from abroad and, most unusually, from the public at home.
Academics in China, angered by the silencing of a whistleblower doctor who tried to sound the alarm in the early days of the epidemic and later tragically died of the disease, have signed a public petition to “demand free speech,” according to the South China Morning Post. In Japan, the Diamond Princess cruise liner has been in quarantine for days in the port of Yokohama, near Tokyo, as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise. Japan’s health ministry said on 13 February that 44 new cases have been identified on the giant cruise ship, bringing the total to 218 among the vessel’s 3,700 passengers and crew.
Another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, which made port calls last month in Singapore and Hong Kong ~ two places that have reported coronavirus cases ~ has caused fear and concern among officials in many countries. Despite having no reported cases of coronavirus among its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members, the vessel, operated has been turned away by Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Guam and Thailand. Its saga went on for days until Cambodia finally allowed it to dock at the port of Sihanoukville, where the cruise will end. Guests will then be flown home. India has so far been swift in taking measures to ensure that those of its nationals who had anything to do with China or its nationals were tracked, evacuated, quarantined, tested, and isolated, if necessary.
Considering that it has a population of 1.3 billion, India simply cannot take any chances with this deadly new virus. Its medical infrastructure, creaky at the best of times, would simply collapse, if COVID- 19 were to hit it on a significant scale. India has also provided moral support to China in its hour of need and distress. Prime Minister Modi has written to President Xi Jinping, expressing solidarity with the President and the people of China. He has also expressed India’s readiness to provide assistance to China in dealing with the outbreak of COVID-19. There have been reports in Indian and global media of Indian researchers trying to decipher the DNA of the virus, which would be helpful in developing a vaccine.
This is the type of help which India could provide to China. However, there has been a report in a prominent Indian economic daily stating that “India is all set to dispatch the first consignment of medical supplies to China” consisting of one million pairs of surgical gloves, one million surgical masks, and one million nitrile gloves. The report claims that these items would be airlifted to China on Saturday, 15 February by the Indian Air Force. A question would arise in the minds of many Indians ~ Is it wise to expose the crew of the IAF aircraft to COVID-19? The virus has spread to the whole of China, so the crew would be vulnerable wherever the aircraft lands. At a time when all countries in the world are distancing themselves from China, is it sensible for India to embrace it? Our policymakers would do well to ponder over this question before the aircraft takes off. It is still not too late.
(The writer is India’s former Ambassador to Denmark and Uganda)