The Novel Coronavirus and its impact on China-Italy relations
March 15, 2020
Introduction: the author of this article is Dr Maria Adele Carrai, holder of Marie Curie Fellowship at the Leuven Centre for Global Governance—KU Leuven, Fellow at Harvard University Asia Center, and Associate Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute of Columbia University.
The following is the original article written by Dr Carrai.
On December 31, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission sent its first report to the World Health Organization (WHO), revealing that it had recorded a significant number of pneumonia cases from unknown causes throughout the Chinese province of Hubei. The virus has been named COVID-19, more commonly known as the coronavirus, started from China around mid-December. In light of the rapid spreading of the virus—which has now reached over 114 countries, with nearly120,000 confirmed cases and 4,300 deaths—1the WHO defined the situation as a “global pandemic” on March 11. Since the epidemic began, the economic consequences have been catastrophic. The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted not only the frontier sectors such as tourism and air transport, but also crucial links along the global value chain linking distant places together.
Although there are no definitive answers yet, the disease seems to have started from Wuhan, the capital of central China’s Hubei province, through trade of wildlife for food. According to various sources, the coronavirus likely jumped from bats to other hosts before being transmitted to human beings. The total number of cases in China have reached 81,000—with 3,200 deaths—albeit the number of the contagions appears on the decline. In the past two weeks, Italy has become the second-largest epicenter of the viral outbreak, with 16,000 cases in total and over a thousand deaths. The virus primarily spread from Codogno, a small town about 70 kilometers from Milan in southern Lombardy, the wealthiest region of Italy.
Before the first outbreak of the virus in the Lombardy town, the Italian government, in tandem with the Vatican, donated thousands of masks to China.2 A move intended to show solidarity with Beijing in the year of Chinese culture and tourism in Italy and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Italy. However, the moment coronavirus started to spread in Italy, in response to the epidemic, the Italian government became the first European country to unilaterally suspend all the direct flights to mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.3 The unilateral decision of suspending flights disappointed Chinese officials, especially under a timing when it has not been even a year since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Italy and China in support of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Meanwhile, the Italian stock market exchange ended on March 12, recording one of the worse results in its history: negative 17%. Stock markets in London, Frankfurt, and Paris also plunged amid increasing concerns over the coronavirus epidemic.4 Estimates are that the Italian GDP will drop 1% in 2020, as a consequence of the coronavirus crisis. The Italian tourism sector has already been hit, as Chinese tourism collapsed. Italy’s luxury-related companies are also suffering as Chinese people represent one of the primary buyers of luxury goods. Also, projects that are parts of the BRI MoU, as the development of the Port of Trieste with China Communications Construction Company Limited, are on hold due to the virus.5
The coronavirus is immediately politicized and racialized in the mountingly tense international arena. While the U.S.-China trade war has mostly remained at a more abstract and political level, the coronavirus lowered these tensions to an individual constituent level, where instances of open racism against Chinese people have emerged in various countries, including Italy.6 While the UK-originated Mad cow disease or the U.S.-originated Swine flu were not racialized, the coronavirus akin to SARS (which became an Asian disease and Ebola, that became an African disease), has been immediately racialized and labeled the “Chinese virus”.
The front-page headline of the local French Press Courrier Picard referred to the coronavirus with the “Alerte Jaune” (Yellow alert), as other newspapers carelessly called it the “Chinese virus”.7 One headline of the Wall Street Journal even gave the false impression that China bore responsibility for the crisis. The headline reads: “How it all started: China botched its early response to the coronavirus, dating back to the very first patients. The result is a global crisis”.8 On March 10, U.S. President Trump retweeted a message from a supporter Charlie Kirk, who referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus” and argued that “we need the Wall more than ever!”9 While it is easy to blame someone externally, this inaccurate rhetoric is a distraction from the real challenge that the pandemic is posing and is harmful. This is a time when we need to seek out common solutions and maintain solidarity.
The politicization of the coronavirus partially derives from the association of China’s political system and the draconian measures taken by the central government to control the diffusion of the virus. The Chinese government has utilized technology, and deployed data and AI that would be deemed a violation of individual civil liberties in a Western country for surveillance, mass-testing and contact tracing to quarantine over 60 million people successfully.10 The high human and economic costs were justified in the name of collectivity and enforced by the Chinese state-led model.11 Although earlier interventions would have further decreased the spread of the virus, China reported 114,325 cases by the end of February, a figure that could have been 67 times higher if not for interventions including early detection, isolation of those infected, and travel restrictions.12 The state-led economy was also able to mobilize resources in a wartime-like shift in industrial policy, increasing the production of masks from 20 million per day before the outbreak to more than 100 million afterward.13 The extraordinary mobilization that occurred in China’s centrally-planned economy and that of its large manufacturing sector would likely be impossible in virtually any other nation.
In many Western media outlets, the rhetoric has focused on the dichotomy between market-led democracies and more authoritarian state-led regimes. In democracies, where control is often less centralized to foster a market economy, leaders must assess whether their citizens can tolerate a harsh regime of isolation and surveillance. As a result, many leaders choose to focus and rely on civic responsibility. However, Western democracies seem to be struggling with the virus, especially the U.S. The slow response to the pandemic seems to be an uncoordinated patchwork of measures and results, as authority over public health is delegated to states and cities. President Trump has sent conflicting messages on his Twitter account, downplaying the risks and comparing it to a common flu. He only declared a State of National Emergency to confront the coronavirus on March 13. Despite several weeks of advance notice, the system continues to look unprepared for the virus, fraught with decentralized authority, expensive healthcare costs, a severe lack of tests, and faulty test-kits.14 Only time will tell the human cost resultant from the Trump administration’s initial denial of the virus and its grave ramifications.
If at the beginning the severity of the epidemic was downplayed by Italy and other countries, the rapid diffusion of the coronavirus ensured that things changed quickly. The Italian situation has become severe, as Lombardy’s world-class health care system crumbles under the pressure of massive waves of people showing up with pneumonia. Lacking an adequate supply of ventilators, oxygen, space, and medical staff, some hospitals are being forced to leave untreated patients to die. The Italian government has begun taking more drastic measures to combat the outbreak by using the Chinese government as a model. Nevertheless, there remains great ignorance about China, as it is not easy to accept the drastic measures that the country has undertaken.
On March 8, the Italian government approved a decree restricting the movement of people in 15 central and northern provinces of the country until April 3. Police and armed forces control have accessed to the areas under quarantine, and people are only allowed to enter or leave if they have self-certificates that justify their movement. Schools, movie theaters, and gyms have closed in the restricted areas, and restaurants and bars are only allowed to operate between 6 am and 6 pm.15 In a rare commentary published on the Italian left-wing newspaper Il Manifesto, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, commented that these executive decrees, approved by the Italian government to protect hygiene and public safety, have created a “state of exception” that severely limits freedoms.16 He argued that a fear of the epidemic engenders states of collective panic, and in the name of security, measures are accepted that severely limit freedom by justifying the state of exception. This raises issues about democracies and fundamental liberties in the case of pandemics. However, Italy’s lockdown is mainly self-policed and does not heavily infringe people’s rights. Simultaneously, it is less effective and more broken than the Chinese one.
In this pandemic context, Italy feels being abandoned by Europe, where Germany and France blocked their selling of masks to Italy, and Austria closed its borders with Italy. Besides, the U.S. blocked flights unilaterally with Italy and other European countries (arbitrarily excluding at first the United Kingdom). However, the coronavirus is already spreading from within. The virus is further straining transatlantic relations, deepening the divide between European countries and the U.S. on health policies. Armed with their robust welfare system, European countries are surprised that in the U.S., a person can die or cannot diagnose the virus because he or she cannot pay the insurance, or even worse because the limited amount of kits available to diagnose the virus are faulty.
As the U.S. seems unable and unwilling to lead the fight against the coronavirus, China is emerging as a global public goods provider. After a phone call between Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, they agreed to an export deal. The Italian government is set to take a shipment of 1,000 ventilators, 2 million masks, 100,000 respirators, 200,000 protective suits, and 50,000 testing kits from China.17 Nine specialized doctors and 31 tons of medical material from China have already arrived in Rome. By implementing harsh control measures, China was able to limit the spread of the virus and save thousands of lives. Now, it has become not only capable of providing masks and medical supplies to countries actively fighting the coronavirus, but also a country that can share its knowledge, personnel, and methods. This could give rise to newfound cooperation between China and Italy.
While the human and economic costs are enormous, any crisis always accompanies with new opportunities. This pandemic is forcing us to entirely rethink international relations, globalization, and a vulnerable supply chain that we have taken for granted in the past few decades. This crisis could be a wakeup call for politicians and societies to make the necessary investment into future emergency preparedness and strengthen their supply chains. It is also an opportunity for countries to come together and incite another wave of multilateralism. In the case of pandemic, both control measures and civic responsibility are essential to coordinate efforts—not only within a nation, but also among different countries. Each country can decide how to balance the clear benefits of tracking the disease and the invasion of privacy. So far, the use of big data and mass-testing by South Korea and China has exhibited the power of technology to identify cases of the coronavirus and limit its spread. Without proper surveillance, small clusters of the coronavirus can quickly become epidemic and later, pandemic. The best solution seems to be a full-scale quarantine, rather than the adoption of incremental measures.
The challenge for China remains combatting the historically rooted misperceptions and ignorance that led to a racialization of the disease that has become “a Chinese disease”. The media should be more careful in how they characterize the virus and ensure they avoid fomenting existing harmful prejudices toward China that can be dated back to the colonial times. At a time when countries shut down and lift borders, China can continue to show solidarity. This virus and future pandemic are international matters. These crises can be resolved if countries can unite together to create a common treatment and hopefully, a vaccine.
(The author would like to thank William Yuen Yee, student at Columbia University, for helping revising the piece.)
The latest real-time status map of the COVID-19 pandemic
A report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on March 9, warned that limiting diagnostic tests to a narrow group of people and problems with the test kits had left the US with 'minimal diagnostic capacity during the first few weeks of the epidemic.' 'In the early stages, Covid-19 has spread beyond the nation's ability to detect it,' they wrote.
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