In 1959, convinced of the Stalinist ideology that heavy industry i.e. steel was the key to a nation’s growth, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward and asked millions of peasants to mine local iron ore and limestone deposits and convert them into iron on an ancient Chinese furnace design. Problem is that the furnace didn’t really work.
In villages unable to meet targets, farmers were forced to melt their tools. This, mixed with famine led to conditions of hunger that caused depravities like murder and cannibalism and caused deaths of anywhere between 17 million to 45 million (4.5 crores) people in 3 years. Up to 2 million more were killed during the Cultural Revolution later, another Mao Zedong brainchild.
The truth of what happened then has begun trickling out of China only in the last couple of decades. But only to outsiders. Propaganda has led those inside the country to know little or nothing about it.
The same CPC – Communist Party of China - responsible for those millions of deaths, continues to be in power in China and has come under fire from the rest of the world for their role in the COVID-19 pandemic and for hiding real figures of the diseased and dead in China.
This is led credence by China revising its official COVID-19 death toll in Wuhan to over 50% on April 17th by adding 1,290 fatalities. Many researchers, scientists and journalists believe – from statistical models now available – that actual death and infection rate in China is many times the official figure.
These have inspired conspiracy theories the worst of which claims that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was created in a Wuhan lab to bring the world to its knees.
It doesn’t help that China continues to make advances in international waters off the South China Sea even during the pandemic or have brought stakes in companies suffering due to the virus leading to alarm bells ringing. India rushed to check takeover of its companies by tweaking FDI rules.
Considering these factors, it would seem that all criticisms of China are justified. The truth – like relationships – is complicated.
The theory that SARS-CoV-2 is a bioweapon – considering circumstantial evidence - is just that – a conspiracy theory. Any nation with the knowhow to create bioweapons from viruses and bacteria, would know that once released, they are uncontrollable and unpredictable and can even evade usability of vaccines as they mutate. SARS-CoV-2 has mutated into at least 30 variants so far.
The theory that it was a bioweapon accidentally released in Wuhan that has virology labs, seems possible but can never be fully verified. If true, the world needs to step up vigilance in other such facilities across the world. Who knows what pathogens are being cooked there.
As for the Chinese economy benefiting from the virus, we forget that the virus posed the greatest challenge to the CPC since Tiananmen square in 1989. And it dealt a devastating blow to their economy in the first three months. It is only now that they seem to have got the virus under control after over 2 months of severe lockdowns.
We also forget that the strength of China’s economy comes from its dealing with the rest of the world. Even if it’s economy goes back to pre-virus days, who do they do business with if the rest of the world has shut shop?
Yet, China did hide facts about the virus in December. The delays in reporting to WHO, locking up the country and allowing a WHO team to study, proved crucial in the rapid spread of the virus across the world. The reason for this is that China – which despite having experience of SARS and H1N1 earlier – was in denial.
Yet, if we look at the rest of the world, except a handful like Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, very few countries understood the full import of what was happening even when they could literally see China’s condition.
USA confirmed their first case on January 20, UK on January 29, Italy and Spain on January 31, India on 30th January. Yet all of these countries, not only lived under different shades of denial but also experimented with dangerous ideas like herd immunity for which they have paid a heavy price.
India was lucky that its first cases cropped up in Kerala, which just a year and a half ago had battled the Nipah outbreak. The health system of Kerala – in the words of World Health Organization “is known for achieving impressive health outcomes at modest incomes compared to the rest of the states in India. Accordingly, Kerala relied on the strengths of its health system to contain the outbreak. The leadership and commitment of all levels of Indian health authorities were seen (state authorities, MoHFW, NCDC, EMR, ICMR (NIE, NIV)) and private sector (inside and outside Kerala).”
The spread of the virus was thus slowed considerably and though India was actually slower to react to the infection, its complete lockdown ensured lesser transmission in comparison despite inadequate testing not showing the full spread.
Even in India, various theories – like the one about heat magically killing the virus – were talked about leading perhaps to early hubris. If India had done the lockdown a week earlier our numbers could have been much lesser but the percentage increase in numbers if the lockdown were imposed a week later, would have been much more devastating.
Nation after nation did what China did – live in denial about the impact COVID-19 would have, thus wasting crucial time that could have been used to ensure that the curve they’re trying to flatten, was never allowed to form. Indeed, if you compare the reaction time of most countries from first reported case to a semblance of or complete lockdown, you find it’s nearly the same - 2 months.
The most important point to remember about SARS-CoV-2 is the simplicity and ease of its spread with asymptomatic patients carrying and spreading it. This means that one patient of this virus was one too many for the world and that sooner or later it would have spread in some form or other.
Yet what has caused the nearly 200,000 deaths so far, is the shaky nature of international cooperation. Today conflict seems to be the way to the negotiation table rather than mutual interest with humans forgetting that their cooperative nature made civilization possible in the first place. Thus, even if China had moved faster and been more open, it was still unlikely the world would have acted much differently. It would have delayed the spread, not stopped it.
Also, consider how fast the virus would have spread if it had first emerged in a country with a worse health infrastructure, like a South Asian or African nation. The human and economic toll would have been higher, with the virus spreading quicker, wider and with more mutations. China may have woken up late, but when they did, they acted swiftly and created models for treatment and containment that the world is now following.
Yet, the greatest sin of China and where it deserves condemnation is allowing the killing and consumption of rare wildlife. First H5N1 or bird flu, then SARS, and now COVID-19, the exotic animals wet markets in China where different species are stacked on top of another, provide perfect conditions for viruses to jump species, mutate. The CPC has not stopped supporting wildlife trade despite knowing how dangerous it is? Why is it so?
Here we come back to Mao Zedong and the events described at the beginning of this column.
In 1967 the newspaper of the Chinese Armed forces wrote, “…Chairman Mao is the most outstanding, greatest genius in the world... his thought is the unbreakable truth. In implementing Chairman Mao’s directives, we must completely disregard the fact whether we understand them or not.”
Even after the CPC managed to contain the famine in 1961, it struggled to feed and economically engage its huge populace. That is when it turned to animals. The communist party not only allowed farming of all sorts of animals, but actively encouraged it as it was a means of both employment and food for a hungry population. In 1988 it passed a Wildlife protection law that turned wildlife into resource owned by the state and encouraged domestication and breeding of wildlife for consumption, giving birth to an industry unique to China.
And that has led the world to first SARS and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
What the world is doing now, is wondering how to make China pay? The truth though is, it has paid the price and will continue to pay. Like stated above, it cannot do business if the rest of the world is shut.
This is the short term price. Over time, the world would realize the importance of two things: benefits of localized production and import from multiple, spread-out sources rather than concentration in one country like China. Production of many goods will get out of China and the nation that stands to benefit most, is India.
Investments would also want to diversify out of China in the long-run, causing enough suffering to a nation which after changes in its constitution making Ji Xinping’s president for life, has become a tacit dictatorship with a horrendous human rights records especially with regards to its Uyghurs, has malintention towards its neighbours, steals intellectual properties of nations and has a massive propaganda machine that uses nationalism to keep its own population in the dark about its horrendous past and which it is trying to spread across the world.
Pandemics are not created in a vacuum. A whole mix of ingredients makes up the conundrum. When the coronavirus pandemic wanes, China should become a case study and warning to the rest against a government that suppresses people brutally, a thieving autocratic dictatorship indulging in excessive surveillance and propaganda, and of how all these create conditions that endanger not just one country, but all of humanity.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)