Did China Mishandle the Initial Outbreak of Covid-19?

Coronavirus or Covid-19 at this hour doesn’t need an introduction or explanation. As of 27th March 2020, around 700 cases have been reported in India with Kerala being the worst hit with 126 confirmed cases closely followed by Maharashtra at 125. Though there are various precautionary measures taken there is also widespread panic among everyone everywhere. The Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi is well aware of the fact the best way to fight the epidemic would be social distancing of individuals as India doesn’t have enough doctors or facilities if the number of cases rise. While WHO recommends one doctor for every 1000 patients, India has only one doctor for every 11,082 patients. Though WHO statistics don’t include Registered Medical Practitioners (RMPs) and other health professionals, which India has many, the fact of the matter is that India doesn’t have enough capacity to treat a large number of Covid-19 cases. That’s why Mr. Modi had announced a 21-day national lockdown on 24th March to combat the spread of Coronavirus. Thus far, Mr. Modi’s efforts have been praised by most international leaders and experts.

Let’s try to revisit the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in China. On New Year’s Eve 2019, the health officials in China reported a large number of people exhibiting a peculiar bacterial pneumonia – they were developing a dry cough and fever before developing pneumonia. For some people with low immunity it had turned out to be fatal. Officials had traced back its origin which was the wet market in Wuhan where 27 of its 41 patients had been there, and even though it was not official back then, the Chinese officials had quickly shut the market.

Wet markets in China are where live animals are slaughtered and sold for consumption purposes. In these wet markets the cages are stacked one upon the other and animal at the bottom are often soaked with all kinds of liquids including animal excrement, pus, or blood. The novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2) might have probably originated or transmitted in these conditions in Wuhan wet market when the animal food there was consumed by the humans and caused the initial Covid-19 outbreak. A lot of viruses which make us sick, originate from animals. For instance, the HIV transmitted from the chimpanzees, Ebola from bats, and the SARS from bats. The current Covid-19 pandemic had also originated from bats which transmitted to pangolins before catching humans.

During the 1970s, China was falling apart because the food distribution couldn’t keep pace with the humongous population, where a famine has killed more than 36 million people. In 1978 the Government allowed private farming with large farmers raising pork and poultry and the smaller ones raising reptiles in order to sustain themselves. It was in order to protect, sustain and feed the people the Chinese government backed the wet markets, and made a decision to sell all animals or animal food in the same market. The ultimate goal behind this step was to uplift the people from poverty and engage them in productive activities. Farmers too were raising a wide variety of animals in the wet markets which made them a fertile ground for easy virus transmission.

Could this raging pandemic have been less rampant?

On 13th March, the University of Southampton reported that the novel coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95% had China responded to the outbreak three weeks earlier than it did, and that China’s non-pharmaceutical response to the Covid-19 outbreak in the country was three weeks slow. The research further says that had China addressed the problem two weeks earlier it would have reduced the number of cases by by 86%, or even had it addressed the problem at the least a week earlier the number of cases would have been 66% lower. They thought they could contain it till the last moment but eventually they could not.

After the initial Covid-19 outbreak in China, the first patients were detected on 10th December 2019, and it nearly took a month for Chinese President Xi Jinping to make certain decision on controlling the outbreak. By late January this year, hundreds of people were travelling across the country to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which further increased this human to human transmission. This is when the coronavirus may have possibly slipped out of mainland China. China had kept this information about the severity of the deadly virus private for nearly six weeks before it was made public, when the entire nation experienced a shortage of test kits and hospital beds around the first week of February. Around this time, Chinese government became aware of severity of the situation and decided to complete shut off Wuhan – the epicentre of Covid-19. This reduced the number of cases in China, however, by this time the coronavirus has affected East Asia and Europe.

Zhong Nanshan, a leading epidemiologist and who is also among those in the expert groups dispatched by the central government to Wuhan, said that three major coronavirus related epidemics in the 21st century SARS, MERS and Covid-19 have offered a lesson: countries should act quickly in order to prevent them from spreading further. Hence, it can be concluded that this epidemic would have been less severe had the China taken strict measures in early December, or even early January. Some experts claim that a Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, detained for passing on knowledge about Covid-19 when it first originated in China and who had later died at Wuhan Central Hospital, is an example of how China mishandled the coronavirus in its early stages.

As of this writing, the number of cases reported in India is significantly lower than other countries. While there is still a possibility that India might see a surge in the number of cases, some people are of the opinion that India’s tropical weather and the low level of cultural interactions and tourism between India and China has indirectly kept cases in India to a lower number. It is also quite likely that number of cases reported is low in India due to under-reporting by the public as they don’t want to take the hassle of treatment due to the nature of isolation involved for Covid-19 cases.

While all countries are learning a lesson from this pandemic, the most important lesson is for China where the coronavirus had possibly originated. Chinese government must be more transparent and communicative especially when they see the slightest risk of something impacting the worldwide population.

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