Batuhan: With great power

Allan S. Batuhan

“FEAR brings out the best in some people and the worst in others. It’s a test of character, for individuals and nations.” (David Ignatius)

In the past few weeks, we have seen calamity following disaster and panic hot on the heels of both. Australia has scarcely recovered from devastating bushfires of historical proportions. The Philippines is still reeling from the effect of Taal’s unexpected eruption. And already, the world is gripped in panic and fear over a disease which very little is known about and to-date has left thousands of people all over the world infected in its wake.

Known innocuously enough as the 2019 novel coronavirus acute respiratory disease (2019-nCov-ARD), the disease now seems to be anything but. The outbreak had its origin in China, in the city of Wuhan. Just exactly why China seems to be ground zero for global pandemics is the presence of a perfect storm of conditions for disease incubation—overcrowding, a cultural predilection for exotic cuisine and a government that remains as secretive today as it was when the country was still closed to the world. Precisely because very little is known about its spread and potential virulence, the 2019-nCoV-ARD has gripped the entire world in the clutches of blind fear.

As David Ignatius would have put it, this fear is the lens by which we can see clearly what certain individuals and nations are really like, as opposed to what they simply appear to be like.

Starting, of course, with the epicenter of it all—The People’s Republic of China.

The Chinese like to think of themselves as an economic superpower, a major player in the world and a nation to be taken seriously by others. Paraphrasing Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” What this potential pandemic has just so clearly exposed though is that while China may have the power, its responsibility as a superpower still leaves a lot to be desired. From independent reports now coming out of the country, it appears that there were plenty of attempts to downplay the threat compared to what it really is, at all levels of the government.

This lack of transparency has delayed the ability of other countries to react and take the necessary precautions for its own citizens. Worse, even when it already knew of the dangers and potential spread of the 2019-nCoV-ARD, it took time for the country to implement containment measures so it would not spread the disease beyond its borders. On the contrary, it allowed inhabitants from the affected areas to continue to travel to other international destinations. This situation has now resulted in many places that are ill-equipped to deal with a mass outbreak, yet having to face up to the enormous burden and responsibility of containing the virus, before it spreads into their general population. For example, until a few days ago, China was still allowing Wuhan citizens to travel to other countries, notwithstanding the fears this would spread among the people of those countries.

Other governments too, have been found out by this tragedy. For Russia that is decisive enough to close its borders with China without delay, there is the Philippines which would do everything not to be seen as alienating China. And so before Wuhan was quarantined and cordoned off to the outside world, we were accepting planeloads of people trying to flee the containment, to the extent that we now have confirmed cases of infected travelers confined to our government hospitals.

While China was shown to be acting irresponsibly in the face of such great power, our own Philippine government was also clearly powerless in the discharge of its responsibilities to its own people. Instead of prioritizing the safety of its citizens, it meticulously made sure first that none of the actions it took would alienate the powers in Beijing.

Perhaps, if anything good could come out of this human tragedy, it would be a world that would finally see China for what it is—a selfish bully. And closer to home, Filipinos would finally begin to realize that their leaders are not as motivated by their welfare, but more by the approval of their Chinese mentors across the water.