The tendency in developing my post for this week has been to focus on the chaos underway in the House of Representatives. But I have tried to be more forward looking in this space. So while the endless machinations in Washington, DC—while fascinating for political junkies like me (and, I suspect, just the beginning of other strange and frustrating events as Republicans try to navigate their narrow majority in the House), something else is unfolding beyond our borders that warrants our attention.
NPR’s Morning Edition set the context in mid-December: “After nearly three years of strict “zero-COVID” policies, in recent days Chinese officials have rolled back most of them following rare protests across the country. Mass testing and mass quarantining are now things of the past. Mass infection among the elderly and those with chronic conditions could lead to large numbers of people with serious illness and deaths… Different cities and provinces are moving at different paces. Meanwhile, anecdotally, case numbers are soaring.”
Echoing this reality, Jennifer Rigby and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber report in Reuters, “Late last month, the world’s most populous country narrowed its definition for classifying deaths as COVID-related, counting only those involving COVID-caused pneumonia or respiratory failure, raising eyebrows among world health experts.
“The WHO [World Health Organization] says deaths should be attributed to COVID-19 if they result from a “clinically compatible illness” in a patient with a probable or confirmed infection, and no other unrelated cause of death—like trauma—is involved.
“China has reported five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn. But many Chinese funeral homes and hospitals say they are overwhelmed, and international health experts predict at least 1 million COVID-related deaths in China this year without urgent action.”
Hospitals and crematoriums report that they are inundated as Covid surges among those who have been isolated, have not been vaccinated or who have underlying health issues. The Chinese government is not anxious to publicize their country’s struggle with this impending surge in cases—so the news coming out of China is obviously unreliable. If we cannot get accurate information from the world’s most populous country, we have learned painfully what can happen: the virus does not respect differences among us and none of us—even among the most privileged—are immune from being affected.
Does all this sound familiar? What have we learned? How are we prepared to deal with a potential explosion of Covid cases in China and beyond?
In February of 2020, I attended a large family wedding on Long Island. Headlines on the Covid front were just beginning to emerge in this country and I thought that the mingling we were doing at the wedding would not have been possible in China—the place where the virus seemed to be limited. I wrote then, “I was struck by the thought that such a celebration is impossible in many places around the world. The reason: restrictions on public gatherings due to the coronavirus.”
“Indeed, the whole world is vulnerable. We have an obligation, as individuals and as whole nations, to mobilize against this inevitable tragedy…Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus calls upon us all—as individuals and as members of communities that make up the fabric of our society—to think beyond borders about how to marshal our resources in defense against this common enemy.”
Despite more than a million deaths from Covid in this country, I wonder how much we have learned. In addition to seemingly sparse preparations for any future pandemic, we cannot also make mistakes of the past, labeling it as the “China virus” and prompting anti-Asian hate crimes. Frankie Huang in the NY Times reminds us to assess the current situation rationally: “China’s recklessly executed reopening has become a farcical nightmare resulting in millions infected, hospitals and crematories overflowing…The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing requirement for passengers ‘on flights originating from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macau,’ will once again invite a racial backlash against Asian people in America…The coronavirus knows no nationalities or borders, and treating it as a uniquely Chinese problem not only serves to pathologize Asian people but also fails to protect the American public, whose understanding of how the virus spreads and harms depends on consistent and scientifically rigorous messaging from the government.”
While there are clearly domestic events that demand our attention, we must not close our eyes to what is unfolding in places far from our borders. The world is too small. We are too interrelated. Technology is too sophisticated. We will reap the results of these new developments, whether we want to or not.
So, let us learn from our past. Let us prepare for the future. Uncertainty about the next Speaker of the House of Representatives pales in comparison to the suffering and death, economic and diplomatic turmoil if our vision for the future yet again fails to extend beyond our borders, next quarter’s profit margins or the results of the next election. We are all in this together…for the long haul.