How a virus can strip away our veneer of civility
We are about to find out what the true economic impact of the coronavirus will be. China is at the heart of global supply chains, so the closure of factories that manufacture goods for global assembly lines will affect the global economy.
Hyundai, the carmaker, has already had to close some plants. Other companies across the globe will follow. Oil is the premier fuel for transport, which is why canceled flights to and from China and millions of tons of unshipped goods sent the oil price into a tailspin; down more than 14 dollars a barrel since its high in early January.
So much for the economic ramifications of the virus, which may be hard to assess in their totality but which are still more easily calculated than the impact the epidemic has on societies and human interaction.
Wuhan and neighboring cities in Hubei province, where the virus was first identified, are under lockdown. Nobody gets in and nobody gets out. The rest of the country fares little better. The streets of Beijing and Shanghai are empty, the Forbidden City off limits for tourists. Many migrant workers cannot return to their place of work; even if they did their factories would probably remain closed. They have to forgo much needed income.
Several border crossings with Hong Kong have been shut. Residents returning from China to the former British colony have to go into two weeks of quarantine. Failure to do so can carry a jail sentence.
Two cruise ships off the coast of Japan and one out of Hong Kong have been put into a two-week quarantine. Passengers complain that instead of enjoying a luxury break they are now effectively imprisoned.
If there is one thing that we can learn from the outbreak, it is just how razor thin tolerance in multicultural societies can be.
Governments as well as people are scared. When World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom warned of the spreading virus, he also asked for solidarity among WHO member countries. Many governments felt they had better be safe than sorry, and instructed their national carriers to suspend flights to China.
If there is one thing that we can learn from the outbreak, it is just how razor thin tolerance in multicultural societies can be. It is perhaps not surprising that a centrally run country such as China is able to use draconian measures to contain the threat the virus poses to public health. The government of China has good reason to impose these measures; it needs to protect its people.
Japan is a different case. A country that prides itself on taking care of its citizens would not normally leave thousands of people stranded on cruise ships with neither information nor compassion, although Japanese authorities might argue that they have a point as they weigh the greater good of public health; i.e., keeping the many safe versus the civil liberties of the few.
Where things become more difficult is Europe. There have been few cases of the virus so far and health authorities seem to be on top of it. A good example is the repatriation of British citizens from Wuhan and their subsequent quarantine in humane and comfortable surroundings.
However, people of Asian appearance are being accosted on the streets and Chinese students in several UK universities have complained about abusive behaviour by other students. In one central European country, the owners of a restaurant felt the need to publicize that they were Vietnamese and not Chinese.
When people are scared, they tend to forget the high and lofty principles they otherwise espouse, such as tolerance and inclusivity. This means we should be doubly careful not to forget that what we believe in is who we are. We have to be careful not to throw our core values overboard too easily when the going gets tough.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources