The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) China Office heard the first reports of a previously unknown virus behind a number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, a City in Eastern China with a population of over 11 million.
What started as an epidemic mainly limited to China has now become a truly global pandemic.
There have now been over 664,621 confirmed cases and over 30,800 deaths, according to the John Hopkins University, which collates information from national and international health authorities. The disease has been detected in more 199 countries and territories, with Italy, Iran and Spain experiencing the most widespread outbreaks outside of China.
The Chinese government responded to the initial outbreak by placing Wuhan and nearby cities under a de-facto quarantine encompassing roughly 50 million people in Hubei province.
This quarantine is now slowly being lifted, as authorities watch to see whether cases will rise again. In Italy, which is experiencing the largest outbreak outside of China, the government took the unprecedented step of extending a lockdown to the entire country, shutting cinemas, theatres, gyms, discos and pubs and banning funerals and weddings.
In the UK, the government has shut pubs, restaurants, bars and cafés, advised people to avoid all unnecessary social interaction or travel and directed households in which one person falls ill with coronavirus symptoms to quarantine themselves for 14 days.
By making the Belt & Road Initiative endeavour a multitrillion dollar program to expand Chinese trade and infrastructure around the world-the centrepiece of his foreign and economic policy, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it possible for a local disease to become a global menace.
The New Virus, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) scientists, has a reproductive rate of as high as 2.5, meaning each infected individual on average infects as many as 2.5 more people.
China is also, however, a nation deeply connected to the rest of the world-far more so than was the case when SARS erupted in 2003. Since 2013, the centre of China’s foreign and trade policies is the Belt & Road Initiative, a massive loan project that includes land and maritime infrastructure, extending to northern Germany, across southern Russia and the Central Asian nations, and down the eastern coast of Africa.
In what is surely the largest infrastructure and investment project in history, covering 70 core countries, the Belt & Road will eventually reach two-thirds of the world population.
The Spread of Coronavirus to Italy & Iran
This infection has spread to 190 countries throughout the world, but Italy and Iran have been the worst hit. While the total number of people infected by a virus in Italy is over 92,000 and the number of deaths is over 10,000, the country alone has the highest number of deaths and has even surpassed China. The third-highest number of deaths was recorded in Iran.
According to a report, China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR), i.e Belt & Road Project, is a major contributor to the spread of this infection in Italy and Iran. Despite being so far away from China, the cause of the outbreak of the coronavirus in these two countries can be easily explained by OBOR linkages.
China has been aggressively pursuing this project for some time to advance its strategic and economic interests. Italy and Iran are two countries that are major stakeholders in this project. Italy has opened its infrastructure to transport, and even four major ports, to Chinese investment. Lombardy and Tuscany are the two regions with the highest Chinese investment.
The first case in Italy was reported on 21 February. Iran which has been under severe US economic sanctions for a long time started encouraging Chinese investment, and in 2019, they joined the OBOR initiative for construction of 2 thousand mile long rail tracks crossing western China to Tehran, and to Turkey in Europe. In addition, the Railway Engineering Corporation of China is laying a $-2.7 billion high-speed railway line out of Qom.
Along with this, Chinese technicians are also renovating the nuclear power plant in Iran. Iran’s health experts believe this infection spread to Qom, either from Chinese workers or businessmen coming from China.
This clearly reveals that both Italy and Iran had received first coronavirus infection from China only. Relevant to mention that India has said a ‘big no’ to OBOR right from the very beginning.
China has been capturing the world’s markets for a long time by adopting tactics like dumping, export subsidies and a variety of other tricks.
In such a situation, manufacturing declined not only in India, but even in large developed countries like the US and Europe and many other countries around the world, and they also started facing payment crisis.
Unemployment, especially youth unemployment has increased globally.
Today, when the import of goods from China is not possible due to the lockdown there, manufacturing all around the world is hard to hit. The havoc of coronavirus on the one hand and the economic crisis and recession on the other, have been forcing the countries of the world to wonder whether China can remain in the centre stage of globalisation in times to come.
Countries around the world may redefine their relationship with China and may try to reconstruct their industries, which had been hit by Chinese products and services.
The latest example is Rs 3000 crore plan of the Indian government to revive the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API), that is, pharmaceutical industries’ raw materials. The Chinese government has also gotten active to minimise its infamy.
The world will have to decide what will be the nature of further economic activities around the world, and they also started facing payment crisis.
How did Covid-19 Start?
The disease appears to have originated from a Wuhan seafood market where wild animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes, are traded illegally.
Corona-viruses are known to jump from animals to humans, so it’s thought that the first people infected with the disease, a group primarily made up of stallholders from the seafood market contracted it from contact with animals.
Although an initial analysis of the virus that causes Covid-19 suggested it was similar to viruses seen in snakes, the hunt for the animal source of Covid-19 is still on.
A team of virologists at the Wuhan Institute for Virology released a detailed paper showing that the new corona-viruses’ genetic makeup is 96 per cent identical to that of a coronavirus found in bats, while an as yet-unpublished study argues that genetic sequences of coronavirus in pangolins are 99 per cent similar to the human virus.
Some early cases of Covid-19, however, appear to have inflicted people with no link to the Wuhan market at all, suggesting that the initial route of human infection may pre-date the market cases.
The Wuhan market was shut down for inspection and cleaning on January 1, but by then it appears that Covid-19 was already starting to spread beyond the market itself.
On January 21, the WHO Western Pacific office said the disease was also being transmitted between humans, evidence of which is apparent after medical staff became infected with the virus. Since then, evidence of widespread human-to-human transmission outside of China has been well established, making chances of containing the virus much harder.
Iran, too, is seeing a surge in cases. The country has confirmed at least 2,500 deaths and 35,000 cases. Many cases are linked to Qom, a major Shiite religious centre and a city with more than one million residents. In the US, there have been more than 123,000 cases and over 2,200 deaths – a good number of them in Washington State, which has become the epicentre of the US outbreak.
Writing for the American online magazine The Federalist, Helen Raleigh argues in her article that the ‘short-sighted and foolish decisions’ of the leaders of Italy and Iran to enthusiastically sign up for the OBOR in the hope to rescue their failing economies has left the two nations in a worse position following the outbreak of novel coronavirus.
The presence of Chinese workers in Pakistan for the construction work under China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) flagship project under the mega OBOR, has raised concerns of the exponential surge in the number of cases in that country.
Pakistan has so far reported over 1,500 cases of coronavirus the highest among the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Nations.
With the OBOR, China has used the brand of the “New Silk Roads” and promised a 360-degree counter globalisation infrastructure project of sea and land routes between China-Asia, Africa and Europe by investing in ports, inland ports, railways, telecommunications, and digital roads.
Against the warning of the European Union and the United States, Italy became the first and the only G7 country to sign onto the OBOR. The Italian government downplayed the development as “largely symbolic” saying it had no legal value, and pointed out to the fact that other European countries, like Malta, Greece, and Portugal, have already signed something similar.
The first case of coronavirus in Italy was reported in Lombardy, the region that saw the most Chinese investment. Nearly a month from then, Lombardy is still the hardest-hit region, while the entire country has been in lockdown until at least April 3.
The country’s economy is expected to contract 7.5 percent in the first quarter. A similar narrative unfolded in Iran when the Health officials traced the country’s coronavirus outbreak to Qom, a city of a million people.
Medical professionals suspect that coronavirus spread in the city either through Chinese workers employed in projects under the OBOR, or an Iranian businessman who travelled to China.