By Swaran Singh/newsin.asia
As the world begins to emerge from self-imposed lockdowns and seeks a new balance between lives-and-livelihoods, China will be holding its much delayed annual mega ‘Two Sessions’ — of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
To be held next week, the Two Sessions will bring over 5,000 senior delegates, officials and media personnel to Beijing.
But recent reports of fresh infections in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and now not just in China’s northeast but in its original epicenter Wuhan can no longer be taken lightly.
The first wave of the Spanish flu in the spring of 1918 had spread like wildfire yet the infected people were mostly incapacitated; except, of course, for those too young or with multi-morbidity histories. It was its second wave from August 1918 that was most virulent and killed nearly 40 per cent of total infected. These included healthy young people who died within twenty-four hours of first revealing any symptoms. Infections continued to come and go till about early 1921 when influenza just disappeared.
Scientists believe that today again this ‘second wave’ is not a question of if, but when? They also believe that the ‘second wave’ will show whether the recovery from the ‘first wave’ will prove itself to be robust and provide immunity to future viruses or prove to be fragile and see even those recovered from Covid-19 relapsing or becoming prey to its new mutations or other coronaviruses that are likely to keep appearing.
The last two decades have seen a whole flush of viral diseases such as Zika, Ebola, Avian flu, H1N1, SARS and now Covid-19 and the trend is not likely to diminish. This is what makes debates on ‘second wave’ so existential and animating.
What is equally interesting is that unlike the first wave of Spanish flu, China managed Covid-19 within a limited population and geography. Wuhan city was its hardest hit epicenter: of the total of 4,633 deaths nationwide, 4,512 (97 per cent) were in Hubei province with 3,869 (over 83 per cent) in Wuhan city.
Soon China was declared as having overcome the Covid-19 crisis and began opening up the country for normal life till this Monday (May 11) when it revealed two new ‘clusters’ of six infected people each: first in Shulan city in Jilin province and second in the Qiaokou neighborhood of Dongxihu district of Wuhan — a city that had seen its last case of Covid-19 infection on 3rd April and opened up to normal life on 8th April.
The shock of these new ‘clusters’ on Monday was such that the Party Secretary of that neighborhood was dismissed immediately. Local officials have since been scurrying around first to submit plans within twenty-four hours and now making necessary arrangements to conduct nucleic acid tests for the entire population of 11 million in Wuhan and do so before the May 28 deadline.
In times of such panic and social distancing, China is going ahead and hosting its ‘Two Sessions’ which have been China’s most majestic annual orchestrations by its united leadership. Led by a well-defined hierarchy within a select group of leaders these sessions see them provide their work reports and outline their future initiatives making ambitious promises of growth rates and doubling of gross domestic product in x number of years. This time, of course, China faces very different sets of questions including those about the logistical challenges of such a large gathering.
What does this portend for Chinese orchestration-laden politics? Will China allow these ‘Two Sessions’ be conducted, at least partially, online?
The deeper question is how far the ‘second wave’ will dent or jeopardize China’s historic and much touted decorum and discipline driven ‘Two Sessions’ at the majestic Great Hall of the People. At first glance, the ‘second wave’ seems pregnant with possibilities of recasting the ‘Two Sessions’ with far reaching implications for Chinese politics. Already, in their preparatory meetings, for instance, delegates from outside Beijing were allowed to participate online. But it is also a fact that their physical presence has been integral to this formal and symbolic showcasing of united or uncontested party leadership.
The sessions could also ignite several related questions on China’s Covid-19 statistics like its counting methodologies. China has not been counting what are called asymptomatic cases — people who tested positive and could infect others but did not yet exhibit any clinical signs like cough or fever. According to China’s National Health Authority a total of 712 people with such asymptomatic infections have been under medical observation of which 574 were in Hubei province, most of them in Wuhan city.
Could there be asymptomatic delegates from these infected spaces who could spread Covid-19 to China’s high-profile elite? Remember the case of Iran where 26 members of national legislature were infected. China has already once revised its numbers of Covid-19 infections and causalities.
Likewise, China’s three provinces in its northeast region bordering Russia and North Korea were seen as having stayed virtually clean though Russia had faced serious infections and North Korean claims of no infections had been widely contested. Now, China’s northeast has also come under the spotlight with new cases emerging.
Monday saw Shulan city of Jilin province report a total of 11 new case resulting in its complete lockdown while the entire northeast has reimposed restrictions with a revised opening up plan. There are questions as to what happens to delegates of ‘Two Sessions’ coming from these three provinces of China’s Northeast?
Experts building future trajectory of Covid-19 premised on 90 per cent world population being susceptible to influenza infections believe herd-immunity thesis is a daring strategy. Also, while multiple alternatives are being tried and tested, the vaccine is expected to arrive anywhere between 12 to 18 months’ time. The world is, therefore, reconciling to the ‘new normal’ way of life based on increased hygiene and social distancing.
These will have long term challenges not just for Chinese orchestration driven politics but for all forms of people’s participation in governance and decision making. This is especially true as Covid-19 is not going to disappear in any hurry.
Historians show how all pandemics have gone through their waves of highs-and-lows before disappearing; and that, the recent onset of infections can make the ‘first’ waive — which the world still continues struggling with — just a trailer of what lies in store for our shared future.
What makes it all the more scary is that several world leaders continue to be prisoners of panic: sealing boundaries; protecting their political privileges and busy in blame-fixing to hide their myopic worldview and incompetence. Most strategic experts likewise seem boxed in their inherent Neanderthal stereotypy, failing to step out from their worst-case scenario-building and geopolitical frames of comfort and ease.
Pandemics cannot be reduced to politics or geopolitics. These have to be understood as humanitarian crises; slow motion disasters that last much longer than most health emergencies and may see several political leaders rising and falling.
President George Bush Jr. had once compared these to forest fires prescribing deterrence, disruption and defense as the three pronged long-term countering strategy. Remember the 9/11 and the reset button it pressed on everyday life getting surrounded by frisking and all public spaces becoming infested by gun toting guardians of ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ with little respite from the original disease – terrorism.
Just like terrorism, pandemics are also deceptive; they have their bouts of morbidity and mortality challenges each separated by months or even years. Though this need not be necessarily the case with Covid-19, yet, the history of pandemics shows how the second wave has usually been far more destructive.
Much of world however does not seem to be either in full grip of what seems to be coming or fully prepared to protect human lives from such exigencies. This requires world leaders to view this as a shared destiny of humankind and work towards turning their responses into a people’s movement and thereby connecting lives-and-livelihoods. No amount of official injection of financial stimuli can guarantee return to normalcy.
(The author is Chairperson and Professor, Center for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)