SG News (Straits Times)

World feared China over coronavirus, but now the tables are turned

By March 21, 2020 No Comments
Members of a neighborhood committee check temperatures and IDs in Beijing on March 18, 2020.

Members of a neighborhood committee check temperatures and IDs in Beijing on March 18, 2020.

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – The fear and suspicion directed at China in the devastating early days of the coronavirus outbreak have made a 180-degree turn: It is the West that now frightens Asia and the rest of the world.

With Italy, Spain and the United States surging in contagion, many countries in Asia that suffered through the pandemic first seem to have wrestled it into submission, particularly China, and are now fighting to protect against a new wave of infection from outside.

Across Asia, travellers from Europe and the US are being barred or forced into quarantine. Gyms, private clinics and restaurants in Hong Kong warn them to stay away. Even Chinese parents who proudly sent their children to study in New York or London are now mailing them masks and sanitiser or rushing them home on flights that can cost US$25,000 (S$36,000).

“We came back because we think going back to China is safer than staying in New York,” said Ms Farrah Lyu, a 24-year-old recent college graduate who flew home to eastern China with her roommate this month.

The reversal of fortune would have been unimaginable a few weeks ago. At the time, China was the outbreak’s global epicentre, with people dying by the hundreds each day.

But on Thursday (March 19), it reported no new local cases for the first time since the outbreak began. Its uncompromising response – locking down cities, shutting factories, testing thousands – seems to have brought China’s contagion under control.

Now, the pandemic that originated in China is migrating and starting to recirculate. Across Asia, where Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea successfully grappled with the virus early, alongside China, there is a growing sense of fear and dismay. Much of the region looks West and asks: We’re getting it right – why can’t you?

For US President Donald Trump, the answer has been deflection. Facing a torrent of criticism for playing down the epidemic in its crucial early stages, he has been trying to push blame back to China, worsening existing tensions between the two superpowers. Despite warnings that he is encouraging xenophobia, Mr Trump has repeatedly used the term “China virus” in what critics see as an effort to distance himself from the problem.

Beijing has retaliated by falsely suggesting that the virus started with US troops, while portraying itself as a heroic warrior against the contagion and a model for the world.

Especially in China and for the Chinese diaspora, there is a growing demand for recognition of the hard work and sacrifices that tamed the outbreak, and a desire to tell the world what has gone right and wrong, and why.

“People in Western countries said China’s response was too authoritarian, didn’t respect people’s democracy and freedom enough,” said Mr Yin Choi Lam, a Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant owner in Melbourne, Australia. “Now compare it to places like Italy, where the death rate is so high, or America, where no one knows how many people are sick. Would you rather have freedom or keep your life?”

 
 
 
 

Similar arguments are flooding Chinese social media. One popular comic shows China sick as the world watches behind a glass barrier, followed by a panel with an angry, healthy China behind the glass as other countries play and tussle without masks like unruly children.

Some of the heaviest scorn, however, has been saved for those who return to China and question the country’s harsh approach. A video that went viral this week showed a Chinese-Australian woman being confronted by police in Beijing after she evaded quarantine in order to exercise.

Users of the microblogging platform Weibo called for her to be sent back to Australia.

Critics both inside and outside China note that the country’s authoritarian response is not the only or the best way to fight an epidemic. Officials kept the virus secret for weeks, allowing it to spread uncontrolled in central China, then forced people to remain in overwhelmed cities.

By contrast, South Korea, a vibrant capitalist democracy, along with Taiwan and Singapore, have managed the virus with transparency, efficiency and solidarity, while preserving freedom of movement.

Part of what has set some Asian countries apart is experience, said Professor Leighanne Yuh, a historian at Korea University.

“From the outset of the epidemic, South Koreans took the situation very seriously, perhaps because of their previous experiences with Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome),” she said. “Wearing masks, washing our hands, social distancing – these were all familiar actions.”

In the US and Europe, there was more hesitation. And now, they are hubs of infection sending disease across the globe. In Australia, the US is now the leading source of coronavirus cases, followed by Italy, then China.

Infections in China are also coming from outside. Officials said on Thursday that 34 new cases had been confirmed among people who had arrived from elsewhere.

 
 
 

Many people in China now want their government to completely block access from the US and other hot spots in the same way other countries suspended arrivals from China.

“I hope China can tighten its national borders and significantly reduce the number of people entering the country,” said Shanghai plastic surgery manager Tang Xiaozhao. “Governments and people of most countries disappoint me.”

In Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory that has often acted as a bridge between China and the West, the shifting sense of angst can be seen in warnings from businesses where people gather.

One online warning, posted by a pub called Hemingway’s DB, tells expats that they will be reported to the police if they violate a new official requirement for 14 days of self-isolation upon returning from overseas. And a large fitness chain e-mailed customers to tell anyone who has returned from abroad since March 10, or lives with someone who did: “Kindly do not visit.”

For those with family members in the US or Europe, there is also a frantic rush to help. On Wednesday at Hong Kong’s main post office, people lined up to send boxes of masks and alcohol wipes.

“During Sars, my mother drove from Canada to the United States to buy masks, so I had to send some back to her,” said Mr Eric Chan, 45, a financier.

He was down to his last box in Hong Kong but had gone from pharmacy to pharmacy until he snagged a few boxes for his mother and siblings at inflated prices.

His own face was covered – most people in Hong Kong are still wearing masks.

The city, with a population of seven million, has avoided total shutdowns, even as the virus peaked in mainland China. But this week, Hong Kong moved to tighten its borders as it recorded a significant uptick in infections, most of them imported. The authorities are investigating five cases linked to Lan Kwai Fong, a nightlife area that is thronged with expatriates on weekends.

Many of those who recently returned to China might have predicted just such a cluster. They see in the US and Europe a greater urge to go it alone – and studies have found that Americans and Europeans tend to focus on the individual rather than what is interconnected.

 
 
 

Ms Lyu, 24, and her roommate in New York, Ms Tianran Qian, 23 – who flew back to their homes in Hangzhou, in eastern China – said they found the US response disorienting. They had both been reading about outbreak clusters around the world for weeks, and for a time, they stayed inside and wore masks as they would have at home.

But their American friends continued to socialise, describing the virus as little more than the flu.

“On your phone, you see what’s happening around the world, in Japan and Korea, and when you go into real life, people act as if it’s a normal day,” Ms Lyu said, describing what it was like in New York before she left.

“They either don’t get it or they just ignore it,” Ms Qian said. “People were so indifferent.”

At home in China, they said, they felt safer. They self-quarantined in their rooms, with their parents leaving food and novels at their bedroom doors.

Their groceries were delivered and even their trash was collected and treated by hospital employees in hazmat suits.

“Everything was planned,” Ms Lyu said. “We don’t have to worry about everything.”

 
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