Some say the COVID-19 pandemic is blurring the lines between developed and developing countries. The "200,000" on the cover of Time magazine (nearly 200,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US) is shocking, and India, with more than 5 million confirmed cases, is still on an upward curve. A week ago, China held a national rally to honor its anti-epidemic work.
Teachers hands out face masks to students in Huizhi Middle School in Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, April 7, 2020. Students in the final year of junior high schools or vocational schools returned to school on April 7 in Shaanxi. (Xinhua/Liu Xiao)
More than seven months have passed since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a public health emergency of international concern. Looking back at the epidemic, we can see a lot, especially in terms of national governance and protection of people's lives and health.
The Global Times reporter Bai Yunyi (GT) recently interviewed Huang Yanzhong (Huang), a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations of the US, and asked him to put in context the response to the pandemic in China and in the global community.
GT: On September 8, China held a ceremony to honor the heroes in the anti-pandemic fight, which is regarded as a summation of the current stage in the fight against of the epidemic. How do you comment on China's response to COVID-19 over the past six months? What experiences and lessons can we learn from them for the future?
Huang: The most outstanding achievement in China's fight against COVID-19 is gaining control of the epidemic in a relatively short period of time.
Especially for China, a country with a huge population of 1.4 billion, the epidemic was brought under control in less than 10 weeks. So far, except for a few local outbreaks, most Chinese people's lives and economic production and development have gradually returned to normal.
I think this is the biggest highlight of China's anti-epidemic efforts.
Considering the novel coronavirus is a completely unknown virus and spreads very fast, without a specific treatment or a vaccine, China used its own state system and a strong force of mobilization, respecting the opinions of scientists and experts, to take a series of measures to contain the spread of the virus effectively. The executive ability and achievements are very commendable.
In my opinion, at least for the response to COVID-19, such a mechanism of unified central government decision-making and coordinating departments is very much needed.
If there is anything to be improved on, I think it may be that the public health system was not responsive enough in the initial stages, especially at the local level.
On the one hand, this may be due to a lack of understanding of the virus. On the other hand, the local accountability mechanism may need to be improved. In the future reporting of an epidemic, local governments need to be more proactive and take on their due responsibilities.
Medical team members encourage each other before leaving for Wuhan in Nanning, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Feb. 21, 2020. (Xinhua/Zhou Hua)
GT: What do you think should be paid more attention to in China's fight against COVID-19, especially this autumn and winter?
Huang: The first priority this autumn and winter is to prevent a possible second pandemic.
The second wave of the 1918 pandemic occurred in the autumn of that year and was the most deadly and destructive. Although COVID-19 is different from influenza and history may not repeat itself, we should try our best to prevent it.
Second, autumn and winter are also flu seasons, so we need to avoid the double impact of influenza and COVID-19. If both influenza and COVID-19 break out at the same time, it will be more costly to distinguish between the two infectious diseases. If a person is infected with influenza and COVID-19 simultaneously, the probability of a severe illness is likely to be greater, and it is easy to cause pressure on medical resources.
Therefore, I suggest that the Chinese government should actively encourage the public to get a flu shot now, so as to provide protection for the public in advance and avoid the worst situation. At present, the proportion of the Chinese public who get a flu shot is still relatively low, and the authorities can strengthen publicity on this aspect.
The third is to balance prevention of imported cases and opening to the outside world.
After all, none of us knows how long the pandemic will last, and China cannot live entirely behind closed doors all the time. It may consider a gradual relaxation of some travel restrictions without affecting pandemic prevention, taking into account the necessary needs of individuals for international travel, including those of foreign citizens.
People are seen at the outdoor catering zone of the Chelsea Market in New York, the United States, Sept. 7, 2020. Parts of the catering and retail shops in the Chelsea Market have resumed operation during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Xinhua/Wang Ying)
GT: China's relatively successful anti-pandemic efforts do not seem to have changed the negative view of China in the US. Instead, it has fueled fierce anti-China sentiment in the US, from the government to the public. Why does this happen? How much do you think US society knows about the real situation in China?
Huang: I have also observed this phenomenon. In fact, in the early days of the outbreak in China, the attitude of the American public and elites toward China did not change much, or at least there was no more criticism.
In fact, some people's sympathy towards China actually increased. I remember in early February, when the US wasn't affected by the epidemic, I made a report at the US-China Business Council, saying the US should be more proactive in helping China's response to the outbreak. President Craig Allen immediately stood up and agreed, calling for the business leaders present to raise money and materials to support China. I feel a lot of Americans had sympathy toward fighting against the epidemic in China at that time.
However, the epidemic situation itself changed soon. The US had to deal with the pandemic, rather than just watching how China dealt with it. There was a huge psychological gap when they found that only China had controlled the virus effectively. Therefore, the idea that it was an epidemic from China which affected the world came about.
In addition, the domestic political situation in the US, namely, the political parties and the presidential election, is also an important factor. Some recent polls show that the general public's attitude toward China has also been influenced by the elites' narrative, with a significant rise in negative perceptions of China.
There is also a psychological sense of grievance among some Americans that, as the pandemic situation improved, the Chinese government appears to have watered down its initial missteps. As the two sides interact with each other in a negative way, the epidemic issue is constantly being politicized.
When China donates masks and medical supplies, it may have to take a more careful approach to avoid the unintended consequences of its Chinese-style approach, such as asking recipients to write thank-you notes, which can be seen as more than just humanitarian.
GT: The US, which has the strongest medical and public health resources in the world, has surprised by becoming the country with the highest number of infections and deaths. Looking back at the past six months, what went wrong?
Huang: In 2019, two US agencies developed a Global Health Security Index, which rates each country's preparedness for an epidemic. The US is one of the countries with the highest scores, while China scored low. However, the actual situation of the COVID-19 pandemic shows that the number of infections and deaths in China and the US is completely out of proportion to that Index.
The US did not pay enough attention to the seriousness of COVID-19. In early February, a former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) kept warning that the US was ill-prepared for the outbreak, but everyone ignored him.
At the same time, the ability of the US to respond to the outbreak has been very weak. The US has conducted many anti-epidemic exercises in the past, which concluded that it was highly unlikely that it would be able to respond effectively to a pandemic. But in the face of such a negative result, the government did not take any concrete measures to solve the problems.
The effective coordination of various departments against the pandemic was also not done well. Although the White House set up an outbreak response task force headed by the vice president Mike Pence, the decentralization between federal and state governments, combined with political party constraints, make it difficult for centralized decision-making and coordinated responses to achieve good results.
GT: One thing that surprised us most is that there have been a lot of anti-scientific or anti-intellectual statements in the US during the epidemic, and even many elites publicized such statements. What problems do you think this reflects?
Huang: The phenomenon of anti-intellectualism is widespread. People tend to disseminate the information they already believe, and pay selective attention to the content that benefits them or conforms to their existing cognition. Hence, there are all kinds of conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 outbreak.
In terms of the public health emergency response and anti-epidemic decision-making, we have seen that Chinese leaders more respected the opinions of experts, which makes the government's anti-epidemic decision-making more credible and therefore the implementation went more smoothly.
By contrast, there are more political considerations mixed in the US government's epidemic prevention decisions. For example, the US government showed their distrust of Dr Anthony Fauci, who has been a completely professional judge of the pandemic, because President Donald Trump is more concerned about the economy and his popularity in the election.
GT: You published an article in Foreign Policy titled "America's political immune system is overreacting to China." What's wrong with the US' political immune system?
Huang: My point of view is mainly aimed at the phenomenon in the US that the COVID-19 pandemic solidified support for disengagement with China. In a speech on July 23, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the Soviet empire to draw an analogy with China. In fact, China is completely different from the Soviet Union. At the time of its collapse, the ruling party's popularity among the Soviet Union was very low, unlike in China, especially after the pandemic, public support for the Communist Party of China (CPC) is even higher.
In addition, Pompeo has underestimated the benefits of cooperating with China. He has greatly overemphasized the damage that China would cause to the US. At a moment when Beijing-bashing is at fever pitch, a sober policymaker should do more to provide an antidote rather than add fuel to the fire.
US foreign policymakers have fueled a cytokine storm that overproduces anti-China immune cells in the US body politic, which may become the worst enemies to their benefits in the end. Some of the US' concerns about China's rise are reasonable, but that is not a justification for overreacting to China, or in particular, to open up a third battleground in the ideological struggle.
GT: At present, the US and India are still facing a severe COVID-19 pandemic situation, Europe has seen a significant rebound, China also continues to strictly control the risk of imported cases from abroad. Is a vaccine the only way out?
Huang: That's true. So far, herd immunity has been proven to be ineffective, and some treatments and specific drugs that we thought might be effective, such as Remdesivir, have been shown to be less promising.
There are more than 30 vaccines in clinical trials around the world, and I think at least one of them will prove to be safe and effective. The next question is how to mass-produce and distribute it while the novel coronavirus is not producing a significant variation to the current strain. If we do all of these things, the end of the pandemic is expected to come much sooner.
GT: Do you think global health cooperation has been attacked by the pandemic? What should we reflect on?
Huang: Globalization will likely be one of the biggest victims of the pandemic. The outbreak has shown us the fragility of international cooperation, whether in information sharing, the maintenance of global supply chains, or the development of medicines and vaccines. There is a great shortage of international cooperation and coordination.
Many American politicians have argued that the supply chain for medicines and medical supplies should no longer be reliant on China, and some Chinese experts also claimed to counter the US by using drugs as a weapon. All of these ideas have a negative impact on international health cooperation.
This lack of effective cooperation is largely due to the lack of trust between major countries and the inadequate coordination provided by international organizations such as the WHO. I think in the future, not only should countries normalize and institutionalize their public health emergency response mechanisms, but the role of international health regulations and the global health cooperation system needs to be further strengthened.