Notes from the Sub-continent (Jan 15 - Feb 14)
Mayuri Mukherjee

In this fortnight’s compilation of some of the big ideas being debated in the media across the Indian sub-continent, we look at the coverage of the coronavirus (CoVid-19) outbreak--and it’s interesting to note the many similar strands of concern that have emerged. As developing countries with distressed healthcare systems, all states--Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal--have expressed concern about their ability to manage the situation especially if it becomes an epidemic in their country. Another area of concern has been the status of their stranded citizens in China, the centre of the coronavirus epidemic. Apart from Pakistan, most countries seemed to agree that the state was responsible for bringing back its citizens and then taking the necessary steps at home to ensure that they were not infected etc.

Bangladesh: Be Alert and Open

Without being unnecessarily alarmist but at the same time, highlighting the scope of the problem at hand, the Prothom Alo editorial rightly noted that, “In a densely populated country like Bangladesh, it will be very difficult to stop the spread of such a disease. We have already seen how China is struggling. We have to remain very very alert.” On similar lines, the Daily Star editorial called upon the government to “go on full gear on the public information mode to make people aware of the ways to take precaution against a virus that causes mainly respiratory illness”. Interestingly, in an oped in the same newspaper, commentator Meer Ahsan Habib took a line that was critical of China. He said that while its efforts to combat the outbreak are praiseworthy, “China had failed its people” -- in particular, the likes of Dr Li (who had first flagged the virus and was immediately shut down by the government). Habib noted that how this showed that there is a price to be paid for “censorship” and “the lack of freedom of expression” -- even if this was only to be expected in an “authoritarian state” like China.

Sri Lanka: The Cost of ‘Coronimics’

In Sri Lanka, there was a lot of focus on the economic impact of the China-centred epidemic--which is of course not surprising given the close trade and tourism ties between China and Sri Lanka. In oped in the Financial Times, Ajith de Alwis coined the term “Coronimics”and argued that, “The new coronavirus has tipped the scale of discussion to an emerging global pandemic and a consequent economic meltdown as well. Along with lives, economies across the world too are likely to tumble”. However, de Alwis noted that, “Once the situation comes under control, China will rebound quite faster while the economies that are dependent may not find the rebound to be quite that easy”. Another issue that the commentator flagged was that those in Sri Lanka “who may solely rely on tourist arrivals for their cash flow – China today provides the biggest outbound tourist numbers to the world in addition to being the biggest spender as well! – would have suffered quite a few non-reversible setbacks during this period.” He noted, “Our economy has only a few eggs and most of them are in one basket.”

Another commentator, Ameen Izzadeen, used the outbreak as a peg to talk about the biological weapons. He noted that the UN convention on biological and chemical weapons “lacks a formal investigation mechanism to deal with violations” and that now is the time “to reinforce the convention”. However, he also took care to add that “This is not to imply that the latest coronavirus outbreak is a biological weapon test going wrong at a Wuhan laboratory -- or an enemy nation has released a deadly virus in a highly populated Chinese town with the aim of sabotaging China’s global ambition”.

Taking a similarly global outlook to the issue, commentator Harinda Vidanage, in the Daily Mirror, compared the epidemic to Brexit and said that, “both are symptomatic of a turbulent 21st century which is rigged with shocks and disruptions to the global political and economic systems”. He added that, “The virus has generated a massive negative image campaign” for China, and that even though “China always managed its social media sphere with a carrots and sticks approach rewarding self-censorship among citizens and aggressively controlling content online, yet it is facing a global netizen community and brunt of a disinformation campaign that depicts negativity, especially on its food culture.” He concluded that the “outbreak has exposed a rare chink in the armour of Modern China”.

Pakistan: Be Pragmatic

In Pakistan, there was much heartburn over its citizens in China whom the government had decided not to bring back home. The Express Tribune justified the government’s decision in its editorial titled, “Our Response”. It noted that, “It’s indeed not an easy situation for Pakistan to be in. The choice is between ‘leaving its citizens in China at the mercy of the mysterious coronavirus’ and ‘bringing them back risking the deadly infection to spread in the country’. Pakistan’s refusal to evacuate its citizens is being interpreted as an admission of its incapacity… and a sign of its callousness towards the terrified countrymen stranded in China”. Then the editorial asked: “The question is: how far can Pakistan realistically go about taking care of the plight of its citizens?”

The Dawn newspaper also argued on similar lines. In its editorial, it said that, “the Pakistani government has taken the position that it will not bring these expats home in light of the risk that unwitting carriers of the virus could lead to a spread of the disease in this country. Certainly, the state has valid reasons to be concerned… pragmatism must dictate the state’s response”. It highlighted the fact that, “Given our shambolic health infrastructure and far from robust infection-control practices, our high population density and hospitals teeming with people, the conditions are ripe for an infection to spread like wildfire”.

Interestingly, in a separate editorial, the newspaper also criticised China, Pakistan’s all-weather benefactor, for shutting down Dr Li Wenliang who had first warned against the epidemic. It said, “Instead of paying heed to his warning, the Chinese authorities tried to silence him for ‘rumour-mongering’ and began an investigation against him for having ‘severely disturbed the social order’. It highlighted, “There is a lesson here: when states do not listen to experts, and instead, persecute them for speaking up, or when they try to control the narrative to such an extent that it glosses over harsh realities, problems do not disappear. They only fester and return in the shape of a bigger monster.”

Nepal: What about our border with India?

Unlike Pakistan, the commentariat in Nepal seemed to largely agree that its citizens stranded in China should be brought back. The Rising Nepal urged Nepal and the China to “work in close coordination for the early evacuation of Nepalis from Wuhan” and also called upon Nepali citizens to “show kindness and warm support to the Nepali students who are set to return home. We must stop negative reporting about them”. Similarly, The Kathmandu Post said in its editorial that, “Nepal cannot, and must not, fail in its duty towards all its citizens—even the ones stuck in China. At the same time, it cannot afford to fail in quarantine and treatment measures.” The newspaper also used this opportunity to call upon the government to improve the country’s healthcare infrastructure. It reminded its readers that, “Nepal’s approach to preventative measures in public health has always been suspect. It is suspected that a lackadaisical approach to dengue in the 2000s brought the virus into the country through tourist carriers, since the health posts failed to catch carriers and quarantine measures were not implemented effectively, and the country has been struggling to keep a check on dengue outbreaks ever since.”

The Himalayan Times brought in an India-factor and noted that, “it is necessary to thoroughly screen all visitors coming to this country by air or land. At times like this, regulating the long open border with India at short notice is a major challenge, where a second case of the novel coronavirus has been reported. But there is no alternative.”

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