Coronavirus Ethics: Is There a Difference Between the First and Third Worlds?

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has apparently spread from China to Europe in recent days. Italy was the first European country where the number of infected people reached the hundreds. The number of people infected in France and other countries is also growing; every day, the coronavirus distribution map adds new countries. And, worst of all, the increase in the number of infected people is accompanied by a growing death toll, including increasing death tolls in Europe.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has apparently spread from China to Europe in recent days. Italy was the first European country where the number of infected people reached the hundreds. The number of people infected in France and other countries is also growing; every day, the coronavirus distribution map adds new countries. And, worst of all, the increase in the number of infected people is accompanied by a growing death toll, including increasing death tolls in Europe.

This fast and now obviously global spread of the coronavirus has resulted in piles of analytical reports and forecasts released around the world. On the one hand, they, quite naturally, address the purely medical and pharmacological problems associated with the new virus, issues such as organizing hygiene precautions and quarantines, etc. On the other hand, analyzing the impact of the coronavirus goes beyond the scope of specialized medical subjects. They are compelled to examine the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the regional and global economies, on their dynamics, to consider the coronavirus as a potential black swan for global economic relations, global transport and production chains. The Valdai International Discussion Club has also published expert reports on the economic consequences of the coronavirus.

The Novel Coronavirus, Geopolitics and the World Economy
Alexander Losev
The risks of the novel coronavirus outbreak becoming a global pandemic are extremely low, but if the spread of the virus becomes uncontrollable, it can negatively influence internal political processes in China itself and lead to the collapse of economies in a number of regions, as well as the emergence of refugees and mass migration, military conflicts, and humanitarian disasters.
Expert Opinions

Even so, the first week of the outbreak in Italy and other European countries warranted attention not only from the medical and economic perspectives, but also in terms of public perception of the situation and of the European countries that were first affected. It appears that this international public reaction is quite revealing and deserves mention.

In recent decades, medical advances and high sanitary standards had seemingly eliminated mass epidemics in the developed world forever. The terrible scenes of plagued cities and numerous victims in medieval Europe have become a thing of the past – of the Middle Ages, or at the worst, at the beginning of the 20th century (the Spanish flu pandemic). The emergence and spread of HIV and AIDS did not change this feeling of safety because of the way HIV is transmitted and the fact that it was perceived as a risk for narrow or marginalized groups. As a result, the main emphasis in the medical policies in the developed countries has shifted to other health threats such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. But those conditions do not carry the risk of airborne transmission from person to person, and therefore are not widely seen as a source fear, let alone psychosis, and they have not interfered with the smooth functioning of society.

Outbreaks of infections have been strongly associated with third world countries that have an undeveloped sanitary-hygienic system and largely sounded like routine reports of distant horrors on television news programs. The broad public opinion in the West saw them with a similar logic of videos of endless armed conflicts somewhere in Africa – terrible of course, but far away and beyond our help – a kind of fatalistic routine. Some even got the feeling that the poorest countries were simply doomed to this constant violence, that there is no changing fate. So telecasts on epidemics in developing countries, the exotic names that occasionally flickered on TV (dengue fever, Ebola fever), quite organically (sorry for my cynicism) complemented the news about wars and violence in the third world. Like, what did you expect from them?

It is difficult to call modern China the poorest country in the third world, but its role as the seat of the outbreaks of new infections in the 21st century (SARS, swine flu) also fits into Western public opinion and its convenient perception paradigm of the developing world – terrible, but inevitable and, most importantly, far away from us. The first weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak in China confirmed this outlook. Moreover, as the situation developed, notable Sinophobic sentiment began to emerge in many countries, where the Chinese began to be seen as plagued, and calls to completely shut them off became popular.

It got to the point where tourist groups from Taiwan began to wear badges that said “We are NOT from China, we are from Taiwan,” so as not to become a victim of this discrimination against the Chinese.

On the other hand, this action also had understandable political motivations, to once again emphasize Taiwan’s separation from the PRC, but this is another subject.

It would seem that things were going as usual – just another virus outbreak in the developing world. But in the last two weeks of February, a sharp increase in coronavirus cases was reported in Italy, mainly in the northern regions such as Lombardy and Veneto, etc. That overturned the ordinary European’s global perspective. Empty supermarket shelves, people buying up stuff and fleeing from the source of infection to other regions, disrupted railway service, and chaos at ticket offices were no longer news from the distant third world – that was footage from the good and prosperous Europe. Moreover, in Italy, the coronavirus also became a new trigger in political campaigning. Politicians from the ruling coalition accused the opposition party Lega, popular in the north of Italy, of having led the northern regions to an uncontrolled outbreak of the virus, while Lega blamed the government in response. Instead of rallying the nation, the coronavirus triggered a new split. One got the feeling that the first reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy was more chaotic and irrational than in China. Although it is hardly appropriate now to discuss whether authoritarianism is generally better prepared to respond to emergency situations than democracy, but this outside impression was indicative.

On the morning of February 24, another Alitalia flight took passengers from Rome to Mauritius – a popular resort island with a warm sea, white sand beaches, and an interesting cultural environment. Italians are known to love traveling and to do it in style. And most of the passengers on that flight were tourists. But news of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy had snowballed by that time. And Mauritius, a small island state, quite naturally and justifiably adopted tough measures to prevent the virus from entering its territory. As a result, those passengers on the flight who were from the virus-affected northern regions of Italy were asked to go through a quarantine period. They refused and returned back to Italy.

Coronavirus Impact: Beyond the Scope of Rationality
Wan Qingsong
The negative impact of the novel coronavirus is temporary and controllable, and will not lead to catastrophic consequences because the Chinese government is determined to effectively control the spread of the epidemic.
Expert Opinions

Those people have indeed had a hard time and a ruined holiday; they have a right to be upset. But it is also clear that this unfolding global emergency requires strong measures to respond to it. But it is the reaction to this situation in Italy that was interesting and revealing. After returning to Rome, one of the affected tourists said in an interview with the Corriere della sera: “We, Italians, were treated like some refugees. How stupid. It was like a scene from a movie.”(“Noi italiani siamo stati trattati da profughi, che schifo. Erano scene da film”) ">http://www.corriere.it/cronache/20_febbraio_25/coronavirus-rientrati-40-italiani-mauritius-un-incubo... .

Of course, this wording was prompted by emotional stress, but the statement was still indicative. On the same days, February 24-25, other countries began to restrict arrivals from Italy. Austria closed rail traffic, Croatia warned its tourists against travelling to Italy, Kuwait imposed a travel ban, etc. As a result, Italian public opinion and the media immediately fomented the idea that Italians had become as “plagued” as the Chinese were three weeks earlier. And this led to the provocative question of whether it was even possible to treat Europeans the same as people from the developing world. The “correct” answer is of course not.

This situation seems to us extremely important for understanding the persisting stereotypes of how people from countries with different levels of economic development are seen as first and second class. This happens despite all the rhetoric about global rallying and solidarity and other idealisms. It is clear that fear of a new deadly pandemic has revived seemingly long-gone primordial reactions. Postmodernism can relapse very quickly into the archaic. But if the term “coronavirus ethics” is even appropriate here to describe public reaction to a new disease in relation to different groups in modern global society, the ethical question of discrimination between the rich and the poor, the Golden Billion and the rest, is crucial for the future harmonious development of the world as a single social system.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.