Social Distancing: Wuhan Virus and a Changing Socio-Political Order
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 22 Mar , 2020

Amidst the state measures being taken to contain COVID-19 and the ensuing public panic, the element of maintaining physical distances between individuals and nations is seen as a common denominator among all precautions taken across the board.  Whips issued by governments and educational institutions that moot online classes, and corporate houses encouraging employees to work from home have combined with the pandemic’s uncertain future to create an introverted atmosphere where physical distancing from others looks like the safer and healthier way to continue with one’s regular routine. 

As Europe emerges as the ‘new epicentre’ of the pandemic, the once exemplary open borders that created the super-state now look more like a bane than a boon.  Free global movement of people, cultures and commodities came at the cost of a virus that broke through all trade tariffs and border checks to become the most feared export by China to the entire world.  The more the future remains unpredictable, the more will people get used to a social order devoid of person-to-person interactions, and lifestyles cocooned in a virtual web. 

It is important, at this stage, to retrospect a few months and think pragmatically before deciding how one should gear up for a future after a solution is found, without slipping into the hands of a few companies and countries with ambitions of market and world domination.

It is now widely believed that the novel coronavirus emerged around December 2019 in Wuhan of China’s Hubei province and its source was a bat in the South China Seafood Wholesale market of the city, also known as Huanan Seafood Market.  So far so good, but let’s rewind to the discovery of a ‘Pneumonic Plague’ in Beijing in early November 2019. 

Two people, reportedly from Inner Mongolia, with symptoms similar to COVID-19 were diagnosed at Beijing Chaoyang Hospital.  Dr. Li Jifeng, who diagnosed the patients, wrote on WeChat that he could not guess what rare pathogen caused this form of pneumonia.  Mention of the term Pathogen demonstrates that Dr. Li was not sure whether the disease was caused by a bacteria or a virus, hence debunking the assertion that the patients from Inner Mongolia were actually victims of a plague. 

Dr. Li’s post on the Chinese social networking site was deleted and Chinese authorities instructed online news aggregators to ‘block and control’ online discussion related to news about the plague.  A discussion was sparked on the Chinese micro-blogging site, Weibo, where users called upon the authorities to disclose information on the movement of the patients etc.  The New York Times investigated and reported this story on November 13, 2019. 

So far so good – again; assuming that this so-called plague has nothing to do with the novel coronavirus, China’s cover-up operation to brush any news of the ‘plague’ under the carpet cannot be denied in the same fashion as their initial attempts to suppress information on the spread of COVID-19, then known as the Wuhan virus. 

Such surreptitious actions leave a lot open to the imagination that the ‘plague’ of November 2019 was actually COVID-19 and going by China’s words that the latter first infected humans in Wuhan, it means that the pathogen had spread quite far from its source much before it became the outbreak that we are familiar with now. 

On the other hand, if we debunk the Wuhan origin theory but look at the extant of the outbreak in the region, then we have every reason to believe that a virus that albeit did not originate in Wuhan, had entered the city and ultimately gave rise to COVID-19.

On January 24, a paper written by a group of Chinese researchers was published in The Lancet that categorically rejected the theory that the origin of the virus was the notorious seafood market.  The paper stated (with substantial primary data based on lab test reports of the initial patients) that 14 out of 41 initial cases consisted of persons not exposed to the market and the first cases were diagnosed on December 1 and not December 8 as the Chinese authorities and the WHO made the world believe. 

A notice published by Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on January 11, 2020, hammered the idea into the public domain that the infected were mainly operating and purchasing staff of the market (notice in Chinese translated through Google).  Kristian Andersen, an Evolutionary Biologist at Scripps Research Institute who has analyzed sequences of COVID-19 to try to clarify its origin, posted his analysis of 27 available genomes of the same on January 25 on a virology research website, suggesting that they had a ‘most recent common ancestor’– meaning a common source – as early as October 1, 2019.

Let us, for a moment, stick to opinions closer to home, and not sail far from the Wuhan origin for some time.  Steven Mosher, a social scientist and president of Population Research Institute, Virginia, believes that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may have been accidentally spread by China’s National Biosafety Laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers have studied bat coronaviruses. 

While admitting that animals were the likely origin of the virus, Mosher does not debunk the idea that the virus wasn’t collected, brought to the lab, and was being tested upon before it escaped the lab.  Mosher also does not claim that China genetically engineered the virus, as stated in an interview to The Scientist (article published on March 5, 2020), but points out that China collects dangerous pathogens, and have a history of letting them escape from their labs.

The origins of the virus will remain a matter of research and debate for some time to come, but what’s clear is the fact that it was neither the seafood market nor December 8, 2019 that marked the origin points of the outbreak.  What also might never be known is whether it was a weapon gone wrong or a weapon unleashed or whether China was simply trying to study the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus that they had discovered, but not announced to the world. 

For the purposes of this article, one shall stick to the narrative that is being built around the pandemic and some of the possible changes that the post-pandemic period will bring to the global and social order and add value to the businesses and ambitions of certain entities that would take advantage of the physical and mental bloodbath that the virus has unleashed upon the world.

Social Distancing and Technology

Nothing could be more ideal for digital developers whose revenue curves are directly proportional to heads-down, introverted activities of the population.  Under such circumstances, the faster the connectivity the better and any concerns that exist for 5G, 6G etc in terms or security and environment, will take a backseat in front of necessity. 

Digital entrepreneurs are looking at the ‘positive side’ of matters because they possess the requisite tools and kits to move on from offline ways of working to the online platform. The more people’s activities move online, the more will be the demand for cloud services, big data and faster internet.  Concerns for security and confidentiality would be second priority, the moment a student’s degree and a white collar worker’s attendance depended on online networks. 

For digital business planners or countries with far-reaching geopolitical ambitions, the time is now to build a humane sounding narrative and make the right investments in such infrastructure – all for the benefit of a world-in-crisis and for boosting one’s economy.                   

At a Politburo meeting held on March 4, in the middle of the pandemic, Xi Jinping said, ‘We must quicken the pace of building an economic and social order in line with epidemic control…’  He further announced unprecedented spending on ‘new infrastructure’, including 5G networks and data centres, as well as accelerated expenditure on traditional projects including high-speed railway lines.  These investments, according to him, will top China’s response to the economic impact caused by the coronavirus outbreak. 

Stocks related to 5G, big data storage centres, artificial intelligence etc surged the following day and both Shanghai Composite Index and Shenzhen Component Index closed almost 2 per cent up.

In 2015, China announced a Made in China 2025 (MIC 2025) policy, a ten-year plan to update China’s manufacturing base by rapidly developing ten high-tech industries – chiefly next-generation information technology (IT) and telecommunications, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, electric cars and other new energy vehicles. 

All these industries are looked upon as drivers of the fourth industrial revolution and China, through this blueprint, aimed to achieve its goals through a slew of measures that included subsidies to forced technology transfers.  The policy was lambasted by the Trump administration as being unreasonable, discriminatory and a threat not only to the US, but to the global innovation system as a whole.  Since last year, the Xi administration maintained an eerie silence on the grand policy (although critics have reasonable reasons to believe that they have been pursuing it unofficially anyway).

China’s capital spending on next generation communication technology, including 5G networks, is expected to be around USD 28.7 billion in 2020, with investment over the next eight years expected to total around USD 216 billion.  In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Xi has re-communicated his MIC 2025 vision without going to the extent of terming it as such.  The infamous tech giant Huawei is an important pivot in this game plan.

While governments across the world have closed down educational institutions and replaced classroom learning with online learning, and companies encourage their employees to work from home, Huawei has stepped up its efforts in the same direction by providing free Cloud services to SMEs in China, and providing online teaching and learning services through its Learn Anytime Education Alliance. 

Add to that the fact that Huawei is one of the few global players offering 5G solutions and has already started research on 6G.  They have attracted global caution due to their affiliation to the CCP, but notoriety and security concerns are elements that can easily be forgiven for the sake of necessity in times of crisis.

And it’s not just China or Huawei that’s looking at the expanded market catalyzed by COVID-19. Digital companies across the world would be (and are) excited in the face of a social order that would minimize people-to-people contact and create a forced ecosystem of online operations, from the corporate sector to international politics; from classrooms to the ways in which people date. 

Robert J. Glass, a scientist specialising in social diseases has said in reference to COVID-19, ‘Responsible individuals will choose to forgo dating entirely or shift it to online interaction instead’ in an article published on Wired.  The same article goes on to say that dating apps are seeing the phenomenon of people staying indoors and looking for love, as a good thing for their business.  As repulsive as it might sound, sci-fi style pseudo-physical encounters through virtual reality might not be impossible in the future if the fear of pandemics forms a part of day-to-day life. 

On a broader and more realistic note, the pandemic has prompted tech giant HTC to shift their industry conference on their VR system, VIVE, from the usual venue in Shenzen to the Virtual Reality realm through a platform designed by an Irish company called Immersive VR Education.  Highlighting the HTC event as the ‘first time an official physical industry event is fully replaced by VR’, the company’s CEO also expresses excitement at the opportunity to showcase the capabilities of his platform to the world. 

The author of the story, published on on March 11, goes on to state, ‘With the coronavirus situation changing daily, it definitely a medium that can help connect people, without risks’.  The event is a win-win scenario for both HTC’s VR system and VR Education’s platform.                          

The Narrative, Corona Diplomacy and a Broken World Order

The narrative of the World Health Organization has been perfectly in line with that of the Chinese authorities.  Right from recording the first case as being diagnosed on December 8, to some of their officials praising China for containing the disease successfully, WHO is coming across as the vindicator for China after the mess that the country has put the world into.  They have issued no serious criticism or reprimand for the Chinese delay in divulging the initial outbreak. 

In a phase where most countries have become inward looking to protect their citizens from foreign carriers of the virus, China is taking on the role of world-redeemer.  Besides projecting itself as having almost come out of the epidemic, as can be seen from their propaganda news and videos, the middle kingdom has already promised help across Europe, Iran and Iraq. 

As the US closes its borders to Europe, after initial careless remarks (on the pandemic) by its president, China’s Corona Diplomacy has started full throttle with its plane-load of supplies and doctors to Italy, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledging medical support for Spain on the day the Hispanic nation goes into lockdown. It is just a matter of days before the Chinese government starts blowing its trumpet as a humanitarian nation with the experience and tools to save the world from crisis and the previews have just been screened in Italy and Spain. 

Italy developed close relations with the Chinese of late, to the extent of harbouring Chinese policemen in the country – perhaps such close contact between the two peoples is another contributor to the outbreak first breaking out in Italy among the European countries – under the current circumstances when other EU nations did not listen to Italy’s SOS call, Chinese help would obviously be appreciated across the Italian society.  The nonchalant attitude of the European Central Bank added to Italy’s woes when the ECB president refused to extend all possible financial help to the Eurozone at this critical juncture, thus pulling down Milan’s stock exchange by almost 17 percent. 

Italy’s EU ambassador wrote in an op-ed for Politico that not a single EU country responded to the Commission’s call, despite his country asking to activate the European Union Mechanism of Civil Protection for the supply of medical equipment for individual protection.  He further added, with a chilly undertone, ‘Only China responded bilaterally. Certainly, this is not a good sign of European solidarity’.  Italian sentiments against the Eurozone are high at the moment, as underscored by opinions on international media. 

Britain has already shown the way for a fragmented Europe and the Union must be careful about its actions lest Italy joins the bandwagon too. Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya tweeted, hours before lockdown day, about facilitating trade exchanges between Spain and China with emphasis on medical supplies.    

Regardless of any Chinese pivot, all countries will now be looking inward as far as people-to-people contact is concerned, for some time to come.  Nothing is clear about how the virus can be contained and how many strains it will break into (from the existing two).   A single vaccine, when developed, might not be enough to contain SARS-CoV-2 if it mutates into more strains. 

No other pandemic, in recent human history, has seized the globe as COVID-19, and the phenomenon happening in this day and age of uncontrolled social media has added to the awareness and confusion surrounding the same.  From families to nations, the disease has sowed enough seeds for a changed social and global order. 

It is the responsibility of each and every individual and nation to draw the line between caution and panic and not strain relations of any kind.  Although advances in clean technology is an asset for humanity, it will be sad to walk towards a world as seen in doomsday sci-fi movies that project individuals interacting through cyberspace only – it will be also dangerous to allow hegemonic forces to enter the spectrum of human civilization through this fragile, impersonal and literally untouchable plane.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Bhaskar Dutta Baruah

is currently a publisher by profession and was a Market Researcher in London earlier.  He analyses relevant issues out of interest.

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