There is a plaque in the English seaside town of Weymouth which records, matter-of-factly: “The Black Death entered England in 1348 through this port. It killed 30-50 per cent of the country’s total
International epidemics are a centuries-old phenomenon that have often changed the course of history. The Black Death, which some believe originated in China and others trace to the Crimea, caused devastation across Europe — bringing social, economic and political turmoil in its wake. Centuries later, it was European explorers who carried new diseases across the Atlantic — creating epidemics that decimated indigenous populations in the Americas.
Since the coronavirus appears to have a mortality rate of around 2 per cent it will not have the impact of history’s worst pandemics. But, for a modern society, the worst-case scenarios are still shocking. This week a leaked British government estimate outlined an extreme case in which 80 per cent of the UK public is infected, leading to 500,000 deaths. Professor Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health has predicted that between 40 and 70 per cent of people worldwide are likely to be infected in the coming year — although many will have only mild symptoms or none at all.
A public health emergency, combined with a global recession, has the potential to change politics around the world. At this stage, the most obvious risks concern China, the US presidential election, a rise in international tensions, and the threat to the world’s poorest countries and to refugees.
Donald Trump, US president, said this week that “coronavirus is very much under control in the USA” and suggested that now might be a good time to buy stocks. Mr Trump has always believed a soaring stock market would be a huge asset in his bid for re-election in November. Now he seems anxious that a potential pandemic could upend the election. But if the president’s predictions that the epidemic will be contained prove over-optimistic, he may have increased his own political vulnerability.
The Trump administration’s record on preparing for epidemics is also vulnerable to attack. After the Ebola virus outbreak of 2014, the Obama administration hosted an international summit to set up global arrangements to deal with future epidemics — and it created a unit in the National Security Council to focus on the issue. But that unit was disbanded by the Trump administration in 2018 and America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also suffered drastic cuts to its epidemic prevention activities.
A pandemic — if one is eventually declared — could increase calls for more government direction of the US health system, which might bolster the arguments made for nationalised healthcare by Senator Bernie Sanders, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
Given the strong libertarian tradition on the American far-right — and the popularity of conspiracy theories about the federal government’s plan to remove the liberties of ordinary Americans — the US government would struggle to quarantine towns in the manner seen in China and on a smaller scale, in Italy.
Any effort to do so could potentially spark violence between the federal authorities and gun-toting militias.
A threat to legitimacy
Unlike Mr Trump, Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, does not have to worry about re-election. Yet, the coronavirus still poses a threat to his popularity and legitimacy — and even, conceivably, to his leadership.
With travel outside the country sharply curtailed and major Chinese cities effectively shut down, it is clear that Xi’s China is simultaneously facing a health emergency, an economic crisis and international embarrassment.
The government in Beijing has sought to portray the virus as a natural disaster — with no fault attached to Mr Xi or his administration. The official line stresses Beijing’s ability to take rapid and effective action, and the social solidarity displayed by ordinary Chinese people as they battle to contain the epidemic. With more than half the country of 1.4bn facing some restrictions on their freedom of movement and 150m facing controls on leaving their homes, China has arguably initiated the largest cordon sanitaire in history.
Nonetheless, the official story is clearly open to challenge — as was demonstrated by the outcry sparked by the death of Li Wenliang, a young doctor working in Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic. In the early days of the crisis, Li had raised the alarm in an online chat group. This earned him a visit from the police, who forced him to promise to stop spreading rumours and to sign a confession. On his deathbed, Li made a statement that later went viral — “I think a healthy society should not only have one kind of voice”. Without mentioning China’s president, Li’s dying testament was an elegant and poignant condemnation of the style of strongman politics that Mr Xi has pursued.
Virus feeds enmity
The global blame game has already begun to intensify tensions between nations as conspiracy theories proliferate and borders close.
In internet chat rooms in China, speculation that the virus was manufactured in America to damage China is common. Officials in Beijing have not voiced conspiracy theories of this sort, but some of their counterparts in the US have not been so restrained. Senator Tom Cotton, a hawkish Republican with presidential ambitions, has suggested that the coronavirus was spawned by a bio-weapons programme in a government laboratory in Wuhan. In Iran, where senior members of the government have become infected with the virus, President Hassan Rouhani has called the fears spread by coronavirus “a conspiracy by the enemies of Iran”.
Directly blaming other countries for the manufacture or spread of the virus remains comparatively rare. But the adoption of quarantines and travel bans across the world is causing friction between nations.
Chinese officials have criticised the Trump administration’s decision to deny entry to foreign nationals who had been in China in the previous 14 days — as well as a travel advisory warning Americans not to visit the country — saying the measures had “triggered unnecessary panic”. Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, has criticised China and Iran for withholding information. Yet Beijing wants praise from the international community for its efforts to contain the virus. Wang Yi, Chinese foreign minister, insisted: “China is not only protecting its own people but also the rest of the world.”
But as the situation rapidly deteriorated in South Korea there was a proliferation of anti-Chinese sentiment, in part directed at Beijing but also at President Moon Jae-in for his government’s reluctance to ban Chinese visitors. Despite their difficult relationship, Japan has studiously avoided any criticism of Beijing over the outbreak. But Japan’s public reaction has been more hostile, with some restaurants putting up signs refusing Chinese customers.
With a major outbreak of the virus confirmed in Italy, the EU is now concerned about a threat to the Schengen border-free travel zone, which covers 26 European countries. The continent’s refugee crisis has already put Schengen under strain — with countries such as France and Austria re-establishing border checks. Under EU law, countries are allowed to close their frontiers in the case of a public health emergency. But such actions are meant to follow clear guidelines issued by Brussels. The danger is that, as the political pressure mounts, EU countries may take haphazard and uncoordinated actions.
International trade could suffer as much as international travel. Globalisation has not been a fashionable cause for some years — as protectionists blame trade for job losses, and Green politicians highlight the environmental costs. The epidemic gives the anti-globalisers another argument, allowing them to highlight the dangers of relying on supply chains vulnerable to the kinds of disruption caused by the virus.
Refugees and poor countries:
Can health systems cope?
Up to now, the biggest confirmed outbreaks of the virus have mostly taken place in rich or middle-income countries with strong central governments — such as China, Japan, Italy and South Korea. But the virus will be much harder to contain, if and when it spreads to poorer nations, with less-developed health systems. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has reported its first case. And there are fears that there may already be significant numbers of cases in nations such as Indonesia and India — which have not yet been reported. Indonesia, with a population of 270m and close economic and transport ties to China, is a particular concern.
In Europe and the Middle East, refugees are often living in crowded camps in unhealthy conditions, with 12m scattered across Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Syria — and a further 1m (mainly Afghans) in Iran. The situation of the Syrians fleeing the current military assault on Idlib — many of whom are living in tents along the Turkish border — is already desperate, and looks vulnerable to the spread of contagion. In that context, the Turkish government’s announcement this week that it will no longer restrict the flow of refugees to Europe will alarm the EU.
The past week has seen the coronavirus mutate into a truly global crisis. The worst-case health scenarios will probably be avoided. But the political effects of the outbreak are only just beginning.