Butterfly Effect: Should We Thank ‘Papa Xi’ for Saving Us From Coronavirus? | OZY

Xi Jinping faces criticism domestically for his handling of the public health crisis. Globally though, he deserves credit.

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Xi Jinping faces criticism domestically for his handling of the public health crisis. Globally though, he deserves credit.

The numbers are scary. China’s government has placed 150 million citizens under partial or complete lockdown as it grapples with the coronavirus crisis. More than 73,000 people in China have been infected. The number of fatalities has crossed 2,000.

But amid those grim statistics, there’s one figure that stands out because it isn’t as large. Less than 1.5 percent of the total reported coronavirus cases are from outside China, a majority of them from a cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, that’s currently docked off the coast of Japan. And of the range of actors — from the World Health Organization and airports to doctors and governments — who’ve helped contain the global spread of the virus, there’s one that deserves special credit: China’s administration.

President Xi Jinping is not a popular man in China these days, going by critical posts on the country’s social media (and we’re only seeing what’s slipped past an army of censors). He thrust Premier Li Keqiang forward as the face of the country’s response in the initial days of the outbreak, and only emerged in carefully curated images with health workers after a public backlash. Given China’s antipathy toward any transparency, there’s plenty we don’t know about how the country is tackling its worst public health crisis in decades. And suspicions of cover-ups are natural given China’s track record. Indeed, with the coronavirus too, authorities penalized Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who revealed the new sickness among patients. Li later passed away, himself a victim of the virus.

Yet a two-tier restriction on movement has helped to significantly curb the reach of the virus. More than two-thirds of all confirmed cases are from the province of Hubei, the epicenter of the crisis that’s home to only 4 percent of China’s population. Strictly controlling who goes in and out of the province allows China to focus its medical resources where they’re needed most.

The second level of restrictions kicked in late January, when China banned all outbound group travel so its nationals don’t unknowingly spread the virus, now formally called COVID-19. To consider the significance of that step, ask yourself this: When was the last time the U.S. forbade all American tourist groups from traveling abroad — with or without any manifest symptoms of illness? Never.

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Scenes from the temporary Fangcai Hospital set up in a sports stadium in Wuhan.

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In some ways, China appears to have learned lessons from the 2002 SARS epidemic, which also originated in the country. SARS — another coronavirus, or single-stranded RNA virus — infected only about 8,000 people in all, but it spread unchecked to 37 countries, and killed almost 10 percent of patients. By comparison, COVID-19, which has already infected nine times the total number of SARS patients, is so far restricted to 25 countries.

The 2009 swine flu started in Mexico but spread globally, infecting — using conservative estimates — more than 100 million people. The WHO called it a pandemic because of its truly global reach. The Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 emerged from the Arab world and infected only around 1,300 people — but more than 15 percent of them were from outside the region. The Zika virus first reported in Brazil in 2015 has spread to more than 80 countries.

And some of the biggest concerns around the global spread of the coronavirus now involve not China but callousness from others, such as Cambodian authorities, who allowed passengers from a cruise ship to disembark and return to their countries. At least one passenger has since tested positive.   

To be sure, doctors and researchers say restricting the movement of people only slows down — and doesn’t eliminate the risk of — the spread of the virus. But that additional time could prove critical as researchers race against the clock to develop a vaccine.

You might think it’s no big deal for a regime like China’s to restrict the movement of its citizens. Isn’t that what socialist countries did during the Cold War — though for political reasons? You would be wrong.

They might both call themselves “communist,” but China’s no North Korea when it comes to letting citizens travel — if you’re a political dissident, it’s a different matter, of course.

In some ways, China’s the polar opposite of North Korea. China engages in more global trade than any other country — including the U.S. No one travels more than the Chinese: They were expected to make 160 million overseas trips this year, compared to 100 million trips by Americans. If the ban on outbound group travel persists for six months, the global tourism industry is estimated to suffer loses worth $83 billion. The impact will be felt in Fifth Avenue stores in Manhattan, on London’s double decker buses and in queues outside the Louvre in Paris.

You could say that points to how today, when China sneezes, the world catches a cold. Except that China’s actually trying its best to ensure the opposite: that the rest of the planet doesn’t catch the virus it’s battling.