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Staff cleaning and disinfecting baggage trolleys at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport recently. The novel coronavirus respects no nationality or national boundaries. - NSTP/Ahmad Irham Mohd Noor

The novel coronavirus health threat has truly grown global with the World Health Organisation declaring a global health emergency over it.

With its epicentre originating in December in Wuhan, China, the epidemic has spawned a pandemic of a different sort in a matter of two short months.

As countries and their citizens the world over scramble to protect themselves against the spread of the infectious disease — it having already been uncovered in a dozen and a half countries thus far — the understandable hysteria whipped up has morphed into anti-China xenophobia which, if not contained, may have even larger long-term harmful effects worldwide.

It is best not to be hasty and call this new trend of China-directed exclusionism or “discrimination” by other countries in response to public panic (as well as justified and genuine concern as to how best to arrest the spread of the virus) in these countries a new form of racism.

Singapore and Hong Kong have been quick to adopt some of the sternest measures to date, with Singapore issuing a blanket ban on visitors from China. And these two cities are as Chinese as they come.

China, in its response to the sudden public-health crisis, has been nothing if not exemplary, marshalling the best that a benign authoritarian state can muster to institute a total clampdown on Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province for travellers moving in or out. Unfortunately, that was before some five million people had already bolted to other parts of China and abroad, in the annual pre-Chinese New Year exodus.

Displaying an almost uncharacteristic even temper publicly, the Chinese government initiated an airborne evacuation of holidaying Hubei residents from cities such as Kota Kinabalu and Bangkok, citing “practical difficulties” encountered by such travellers abroad.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, as if responding in kind, had earlier answered local public pressure to bring home Malaysians in Hubei by saying he would do so if China signalled that might be best. The virus respects no nationality or national boundaries and it was naturally prudent (and diplomatic) to take cues from the Chinese authorities as to what will be best in handling Chinese citizens as well as foreigners currently caught in the Hubei dragnet.

This is no time to add undue, even unreasonable, pressures on China, especially if reflexive moves in response to public anxieties are not necessarily in the best interests of everyone involved. That said, however, citizens in “freer” countries have taken to initiating their own Chinese exclusion moves or even succumbing to the temptation to mock Chinese citizens or their supposedly overbearing government.

One can only hope that those guilty quickly regain their sobriety. Any such ugly scenes are bad enough if directed at Chinese citizens and China. But the Chinese diaspora is to be found in almost any country now and any racism — whether overt or latent — risks targeting ethnic Chinese citizens of the countries concerned or other Asians as well.

Ironically, the current health pandemic has swept the globe so swiftly precisely because, in many ways, China has reverted to be the “Middle Kingdom”. Some 150 million travellers fan out from China across the globe annually and the few weeks around the Chinese New Year are peak travel season. Tourism-related businesses in particular everywhere will most deeply be counting the ill-effects.

As China maintains a self-imposed lockdown and foreign airlines cut or temporarily stop flights in and out of the country, the coronavirus ill-winds will have a generalised dampening impact on the global economy. The effects will be exponentially linked to how long and how widespread the health emergency lingers.

The redeeming quality of the current crisis is the comforting knowledge that China has apparently learnt important lessons from an earlier health scare in the form of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in the early 2000s. There is much more to be learned from the current episode, not least to treat any known viruses with the respect and seriousness they deserve.

It is reported that the novel coronavirus is not so novel after all, having first been identified in cave droppings of bats in Yunnan more than a decade earlier. If only more attention was paid to the potential health hazards of this and any other viruses, China may have been spared the untold costs in human lives and economic growth lost today.

And as the axiom goes, if China now sneezes, the world stands a good chance of being caught in its feverish paroxysm.

The writer views developments in the nation, region and wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times

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