Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 11, 2020
Nature, politics and Covid-19

Humanity’s search for understanding Nature is as old as humanity itself. While it progressed through largely unsystematic processes of trial and error through the millennia, Enlightenment gave it the confidence that knowledge about phenomenal reality was possible and it could be generated by identifying cause-and-effect relations. In the following centuries massive knowledge about Nature, scientific and reliable, was accumulated which helped humanity not only to expand understanding of Nature but also to assume that it could rule over her. But Nature had her own ways of humbling humanity. Covid-19 outbreak is the latest one.

The short history of this outbreak is instructive in many ways. According to the WHO, a pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China was first reported to its Country Office in China on 31 December 2019. The disease, reportedly was found among operating dealers or vendors in the Huanan Seafood market.<1> But increasingly, to many, this theory that the virus was spread by people who ate contaminated animals at the Huanan Seafood Market  is becoming questionable. The Lancet in its 15 February 2020 issue reported a research on 41 first admitted and infected cases in Wuhan by 2 January 2020. It traced 27 of the 41 cases to seafood market.  It concluded that “Both SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV were believed to originate in bats, and these infections were transmitted directly to humans from market civets and dromedary camels, respectively. Extensive research has led to the discovery of coronaviruses in bats.”<2>

Alternatively, it is being argued that the spread of infection could be the result of an accidental release of bat coronavirus in a laboratory. It is reported that less than 300 yards from the seafood market is the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and close by is the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Researchers from these two facilities posted articles ‘about collecting coronaviruses from around China for study of future illness’. Could it be that some such samples had leaked? Of course, the bio-safety levels maintained by researchers in these institutes were not at desirable levels. Richard Ebright, a Rutgers microbiologist and bio-safety expert, informed that “the first human infection could have occurred as a natural accident” with the virus passing from bat to human through another animal or “it could also have occurred as a laboratory accident.”<3>

Writing for Science News, and corroborating above view, Dr. Kristian Anderson, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research, claimed, "By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes." He and his co-authors suggested two alternatives scenarios: “In one scenario, the virus evolved to its current pathogenic state through natural selection in a non-human host and then jumped to humans. In the other proposed scenario, a non-pathogenic version of the virus jumped from an animal host into humans and then evolved to its current pathogenic state within the human population.”<4>

US President Trump controversially called the virus “China virus” or “Wuhan virus” encouraging Chinese retort that it was brought by the US army when they attended the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019. The Chinese retreated from their charge within ten days and a 27 March  phone call between the two presidents settled the matter by calling for “co-operative behavior.” Reportedly, “US intelligence officials don’t think the pandemic was caused by deliberate wrongdoing,” or “that the coronavirus was created in a laboratory as a potential bio-weapon.”<5>

Could we assume that the 41 cases in Wuhan hospital reported by Lancet were the first/only cases or had there been other detected /undetected/unreported cases as well? Was China hiding anything from the WHO?  It is now admitted by China that the group chat posted by Dr. Li Wenliang about signs of a new Sars-like illness in early December, well before Chinese authorities admitted to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus, had truth in it which was why the official reprimand for “spreading rumours” against him had to be withdrawn post his death.<6> It is also necessary to know the nature and purpose of research on bats, if there was any. As it is proving to be enormously costly for the humankind the truth needs to be told either by China or through a neutral scientific inquiry.

On January 13, China shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus so that researchers and public health officials in any country could access them. On the same day the first coronavirus case outside China, in Thailand, was officially reported. On 21 January the first official WHO delegation visited Wuhan, China and China released the primers and probes used in the test kit for novel coronavirus to help detection by other countries. Within two days more cases were reported in Korea, Japan and Singapore. On 28 January Director-General of the WHO, Dr. Tedros, met Mr. Xi Jinping in Beijing and in two days the Emergency Committee of WHO declared Coronavirus outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). On 11 February the WHO formally named novel coronavirus as Covid-19 to prevent the use of other names that might be inaccurate or stigmatizing.

An uncomfortable question lies here too. Did the WHO delay declaration of the outbreak as PHEIC until Dr Tedros met President Xi? Whether as a response to such possible suspicions or not, Dr Tedros tweeted on 15 February that “We are encouraged that the steps China has taken to contain the outbreak at its source appear to have bought the world time — even though those steps have come at greater cost to China itself.” On the same day, he further reminded the international community, "The greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other." On 11 March the WHO characterized the outbreak as a pandemic, the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. On 13 March, it declared Europe as the epicenter of the pandemic.

It is interesting as well as tragic that even if the WHO did not act with sufficient dispatch or that the world body chose to toe the wishes of one great power, namely China, to the detriment of global interests, the concerned governments were acutely lackadaisical in following the steps suggested by the world health body. If on 17 February the WHO issued warnings against mass gatherings, authorities in India continued to allow such gatherings for religious, marriage, ritualistic and social purposes well into the middle of March. Similarly, while it advised against open airports and air traffics at the end of February and the US closed aerial borders with Europe on 11 March, India took two more weeks to ground international flights.

Of course, in terms of sheer tragedy, Italy perhaps stands alone. Her first brush with the killer virus happened when several Chinese tourists coming from Wuhan via Beijing were admitted to a hospital in Rome on 30 January. It was another folly on the part of China that she allowed her people to travel abroad even after the outbreak had happened within China. Paeans have been sung about the positives of international tourism in recent years; yet, one of the reasons for Italy’s tragedy is that Italy happens to be the one country in Europe with highest number of air connections for massive tourism with China.<7>  Authorities everywhere need to take a relook at international tourism as a money spinner in the years to come.

Italy indeed could be a lesson for other countries in this case. When the outbreak started in northern Italy, the government took strong measures there leaving the other fronts open underestimating its reach. Despite warnings of a possible catastrophe by scientists, the Italian public and even many in policy circles took it lightly unable to get rid of their cognitive biases.<8> Italy also suffered from data paucity and lack of data precision.

India has a lot to learn. We are a big and federal country. Certain mis-steps have already been committed, for instance, with regard to unorganized workers. Its fall out could be long drawn both on the demand side and on the supply side apart from the sheer human tragedy. If harvesting crops suffer badly, not only the farmers will suffer; the urban markets will feel the pinch next year and thereafter. Cash needs to be made available to many below the middle class. Further, there is no idea about how many of these migrating workers are infected already and are about to infect an unknown number as they are back in their villages. Secondly, for addressing the threat, the central government will have to do out-of-the-box thinking and strengthen the states both financially and materially. It is leaderships in the states which will make a difference. Thirdly, states will have to be efficient and stringent with regard to data collection and data sharing. Fudging data upward or downward with regard to the number of cases and deaths should be considered like criminal offence.

Globally, political leaders should rethink their respective development policies. The difference between democratic and authoritarian regimes has proved to be of no significance in the management of the pandemic. Both regimes have been equally guilty of inefficiency and neglect of public interest even though China can perhaps be accused of dilly-dallying public acknowledgement of the outbreak. The crisis should teach global leaders the need for enhanced co-operation at the international level as much as for sharing information honestly. Both politics and science should come together in developing a sustainable and tolerant approach to Nature. Remember the figure of Kali put up on the Empire State building in New York a couple of years back? Perhaps that was the work of some “crazy environmentalists,” but the time has come to reflect on the meaning of that symbolism. For Covid-19 is the latest, but not the last, natural catastrophe.

<1> accessed 02 April 2020.

<2> accessed 04 April 2020.

<3> accessed 02 April 2020.

<4>  “The Covid-19 coronavirus epidemic has a natural origin,” published in Nature Medicine 17 March 2020

<5> Op.cit. Washington Post.

<6>Chinese inquiry exonerates coronavirus whistleblower doctor”,  accessed 05 April 2020.

<7>     Praveen Duddu, "Coronavirus in Italy: Outbreak, measures and impact”, accessed 01 April 2020.

<8> Garry Pisano, Rafealla Sadun and Michele Zanini, “Lessons from Italy’s Response to Coronavirus”,  accessed 02 April 2020.

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Samantha Keen

Samantha Keen

Samantha Keen Researcher Strengthening National Climate Policy Implementation (SNAPFI) project University of Cape Town South Africa

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