Coronavirus: Lessons already learnt, and more to come

Oh, the irony: Humans are now captive to dislocation and fear from an animal-linked virus. What lies ahead for the world, and especially Asia, which is no stranger to contagion?

One day, 2020 will probably come to be known as the year the animals got their revenge and put humans in cages.

How else to describe the plight of the elderly woman in Italy - now the nation that has logged the most coronavirus deaths - who could only watch as her dead husband's body was taken away for a funeral she was not allowed to attend because of the strict quarantine orders placed on her?

Or the family near New York where three of the seven who caught the virus died and the others live on, wondering if the only reason the doors would open for them is for another householder to be released into Death's sly hands?

The world's been turned upside down these past weeks by a virus that scientists say made a leap from bats to humans. Our dogs, cats, roosters - and if you are in India, cows - roam free while their owners are captives to disease, dislocations and fear.

From Japan to Italy, Britain and the United States, the developed world is a sea of confusion, while some days it looks as though it is the developing world that is doing a better job at keeping a clear head.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo painted the best description of what is going on. At a press conference televised live by CNN on Tuesday night in Asia, he likened the situation to the snow globes you had as a child: Touch one part of it and the whole image fuzzes over.

Not a continent has been unaffected. As of yesterday, the disease has sickened more than 281,000 and killed nearly 11,500. Frighteningly, the numbers have begun rising in Africa, itself just emerging from a long battle with Ebola.


History's wheels move in circles.

In the past quarter-century, the world was first forced to take notice of a contagion emanating from Asia with the onset of the Asian financial crisis, often called the East Asian flu.

Just as now, its origin lay in China, when it devalued its currency sharply in 1994, cutting the competitiveness of exports from Japan to Thailand.

Like a boxer rocked on his feet, the rest of East Asia staggered around for a couple of years. Speculators began attacking Asian assets. By July 1997, the Thai baht collapsed and in no time, the Asian flu had swept through the region, toppling the Indonesian regime and devastating the Thai, South Korean, Malaysian and Indonesian economies.

Then in 2002, the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, began to afflict people in Guangdong. Thought to be an animal virus, it was identified in 2003. This time it was not a metaphorical flu and was deadly while it lasted.

Then came another respiratory illness new to humans. This time, it originated in West Asia. Middle East respiratory syndrome was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to several other countries, including the US.

In some respects, Covid-19, as we have come to know the coronavirus currently tormenting us, is all of the above and possibly far more durable.

At its source, it has crushed the Chinese economy. The world's No. 2 had already been slowing, weighed down by a debt to gross domestic product ratio that crossed a staggering 300 per cent last year, according to the Institute of International Finance. Today, new bond defaults in China are reportedly topping US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion). Little surprise, too, that the country has not published data on business closures for the past six months.

In the US, the biggest economy, the US$1.2 trillion market for loans to junk-rated firms, which survived the 2008 housing-led financial crisis, is under severe strain. Wider afield, 12 years of cheap and easy money policies have built a US$10 trillion debt mountain. A hefty shove, which would be the equivalent of the virus crisis persisting for another six months, could topple the edifice.

Instructively, the US$1 trillion rescue plan unveiled by the Trump administration on Wednesday could not prevent economic panic from accelerating.


Several smaller but significant economies are in worse shape.

India was facing a consumption demand and banking crisis even before the virus hit home. Now, the Indian government, terrified of the enormity of the challenge, has stopped its own nationals abroad from coming home despite its strident nationalism.

It has good reason to do so; the country has less than one hospital bed for every thousand people, a third of the global average.

In South-east Asia, speculators are eyeing Thailand, the region's No. 2 economy, as the one most vulnerable, now that its last engine - tourism - has stopped firing. Indonesia' currency has suffered some of the steepest falls. Talk about a sense of deja vu.

What's worrying is that we still do not know enough about this virus. In January, China's top epidemiologist, who won fame for identifying the Sars virus in 2003, had said that Covid-19 would not be as harmful as Sars and would be controlled sooner. Neither prediction has proved accurate.

Millennials in London and New York, confident they will live forever and cheered by early reports that the very young and the old are most vulnerable, had partied ceaselessly. Now, it appears that the medical evidence does not support the theory that the young are that invincible: In Italy, almost a quarter of the patients are aged between 19 and 50.

Britain, which had set out on a path of building "herd immunity" by not standing in the way of large-scale exposure to the virus, reversed course after seeing calamitous projection from Imperial College London and after the World Heath Organisation (WHO) pointed out that while it took three months for the number of coronavirus cases to reach 100,000, it took a mere 12 days for the next 100,000.

An Indonesian police officer spraying disinfectant at a local school in Palu, Central Sulawesi, on Friday, amid the coronavirus outbreak. Indonesia's currency has suffered some of the steepest falls in the wake of the pandemic. History's wheels move
An Indonesian police officer spraying disinfectant at a local school in Palu, Central Sulawesi, on Friday, amid the coronavirus outbreak. Indonesia's currency has suffered some of the steepest falls in the wake of the pandemic. History's wheels move in circles, and this is a case of deja vu, says the writer, recalling the Asian financial crisis of the past quarter-century which swept through the region and eventually toppled the Indonesian regime. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

China claims to have licked the disease and that the new cases it is seeing mostly originated abroad, but oddly, many of its workers and students aren't back in factories and colleges. Could a vast nation that has more than 60 cities with populations of more than a million be so certain that it has stopped all domestically originated cases of the disease?

As Dr Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the director-general of WHO, said in a recent Time magazine interview: "Never, never underestimate a new disease, there's just too much unknown."


What happens when the chips are done falling? The world that will emerge is probably going to look a lot different - industrially, commercially, politically and socially.

Start with global institutions. There will be close scrutiny of the role played by WHO in combating the crisis. Questions will be raised about whether its role as a scientific body got mixed up with its responsibilities as a diplomatic institution under the Charter of the United Nations, causing it to be ultra-careful about not getting on the wrong side of the Chinese government.

For instance, did it really have to wait so long to declare a disease outbreak a pandemic?

What about the International Monetary Fund (IMF)? On Feb 19, it released a surveillance note that maintained its January projection that global growth will accelerate to 3.3 per cent this year from 2.9 per cent last year.

A month later, that assessment looks plain silly.

Supply chains will be upended. Even if China sends its factory workers back to work, many companies are facing massive supply disruptions - from the US and from South-east Asia. Who will they supply finished goods to when global demand has collapsed?

It is rare to see both supply and demand cratering simultaneously, as they are now.

What about China, where the disease originated and whose first instinct was to prevent the news from leaking rather than warn the world of the danger?

Global diplomacy will probably go through a severe reassessment, too. Whatever embers of good feeling that existed between the US and China have disappeared in the wake of the "China virus", as President Donald Trump insists on calling it, fuelling Chinese fury.

European solidarity has been exposed as a fig leaf as each country rushed to protect its own, starting with Germany, the European Union's biggest economy. It is China that is coming to the aid of countries such as Italy and Estonia as they fight Covid-19.

At the same time, some analysts are linking the virus outbreak in Italy and in the Iranian city of Qom to both countries being enthusiastic participants in China's Belt and Road Initiative.

There is major concern in Europe that its industry will not be able to withstand another bout of state-subsidised Chinese exports that will inevitably follow once there is a measure of check on the disease.

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Meanwhile, respected China specialists such as Mr Daniel Rosen of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies suggest that Beijing's inclination to massage the numbers hasn't abated despite its mishandling of the virus emanating from Wuhan. Senior officials are compelling juniors to go into offices over the weekend and keep the air-conditioners running in order to show higher power consumption, a key indicator of economic activity.

Without question, just as in an earlier era when the success of the East Asian tiger economies spawned literature on the superiority of "Asian" governance models, there already is plenty of discussion on whether authoritarian models such as the Chinese example are more of a help than a hindrance in crises than "messy" democracies.

The Italians, some will likely point out, have had more than 60 governments since World War II. China, which showed remarkable ability to control the outbreak, has had one.

Economic shibboleths have already been rewritten; after the Asian financial flu, the IMF second-guessed many of the policies it had applied for decades, particularly its advice to tighten interest rates in order to protect free-falling currencies. It is not unreasonable to believe that political systems could be put under a similar lens.

To be sure, there's been stuff to cheer about amid the gloom. Dolphins and swans have reportedly reappeared in Venetian canals.

Big fat Indian weddings are being toned down, even as the air in the nation's capital has never felt cleaner. In countless homes, cupboards unattended for years are getting a cleaning and teenagers are talking to their parents.

The world has suffered - and survived - so many cataclysmic events just this century. The Indian Ocean undersea earthquake and tsunami in 2004 originated in northern Sumatra and killed more than 200,000 people, including on the faraway African coast. Deadly typhoons with names like Katrina and Haiyan killed thousands in New Orleans and in the Philippines in 2005 and 2013, respectively.

The combined toll from the great earthquakes in Kashmir in 2005 and in Haiti in 2010 topped 300,000.

The US should have been a leader in meeting this crisis. Sadly, it has turned out to be a laggard, all too eager to shift the blame elsewhere. The US President who dismisses climate change as fiction and the coronavirus outbreak as a hoax has had to eat crow, to borrow an Americanism. It is time humans realised that they don't own the world so much as share it with other forms of life.

This crisis, too, will pass but more will doubtless follow and we need to prepare. A disproportionately large number of these calamities are occurring around us, in Asia. Even as average lifespans are lengthening owing to advances in science, deaths from unnatural events get more commonplace.

Maybe we will get used to it.

That would make us rather like the animals we capture for pleasure and profit - watching some you know and love leave ahead of you even as you are aware that, fine as you might feel just now, one day the bell will toll for you.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020, with the headline Lessons already learnt from coronavirus, and more to come. Subscribe