Alistair Michie, secretary general of the British East Asia Council, is an expert on China and public diplomacy. He has been promoting mutual understanding between China and the world over the past 20 years. When COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province, he sent his best wishes from London to China International Publishing Group, to which China Today is affiliated, as one of the earliest, saying, "The people of China have exceptional resilience and determination in times of hardship and crisis. From this knowledge, we know that China will recover very fast from this current challenge."
At present, as the novel coronavirus spreads around the world and the number of confirmed cases in the U.K. has reached nearly 40,000 based on the data from the National Health Service (NHS), China Today interviewed Alistair Michie online and invited him to share his observations about the pandemic.
Governments' slow reaction worldwide
"The situation is changing rapidly but the failure of some governments to act effectively could create a catastrophe," Michie expressed his worry. He thought it was outrageous for some Western media to criticize the Chinese government for its fast reaction and firm lockdown of Wuhan as well as the strict control measures taken in Hubei Province and beyond. In his view, it seems that they have neglected an important fact that the SARS outbreak in 2003 only had an impact on Asian countries and regions, which then have learned important lessons and created corresponding mechanisms for rapid actions to cope with any possible widespread epidemic in the future. This, to some degree, explains why this epidemic was quickly responded to and has been put into control in China.
As early as January 31, 2020, Joseph Wu and his colleagues at the University of Hong Kong wrote in The Lancet: "COVID-19 could be about to become a global epidemic. For health protection within China and internationally, preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies, and the necessary human resources to deal with the consequences of a global outbreak of this magnitude."
"However, the U.K. Government was slow to react to the news coming from China." Michie said that it was only on March 23 that Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a formal TV presentation to the U.K. ordering a lockdown of the whole country. Since then, the British people have accepted self-isolation. But the British are still allowed to go out for physical exercise.
A global catastrophe
"Only time will tell if this action has come soon enough to prevent the health services being overwhelmed by people infected by and dying from the coronavirus," Michie indicated, and warned, "The U.K. was slow to respond and the cost paid in human loss of life may yet be horrific. Even worse, the approach of the U.S. is still chaotic and the outcome could be a global catastrophe."
Michie then quoted a very unrestrained editorial titled "Offline: COVID-19 and the NHS—‘a national scandal'" which was published in The Lancet on March 28. In the article, its chief editor Richard Horton interviewed the British doctors and nurses on the frontline, and found that the British hospitals and medical staff faced a serious lack of medical supplies and personal protective equipment. The National Health Service (NHS) has been wholly unprepared for this pandemic. It is obvious the slow response by the government may result in devastation of the U.K.'s healthcare system by allowing the virus to spread far faster than expected. "They didn't take any of those actions. The result has been chaos and panic across the NHS," Horton warned.
"In the U.K., people do have the advantage of much easier access to doctors through what is called the GP system," Michie elaborated, this system means patients at every local area can contact general practitioners (GP) for medical treatment which somewhat prevent the pandemic since patients don't have to wait in hospitals and thus avoid contact of infections. Talking about the Chinese doctors who offer medical consultations via online platforms, Michie showed his respect but also worried that the British don't know how to use them. "The challenge is that China is way ahead of Europe and the U.S. in the use of smartphone apps," he said.
"That warning situation suggested that the U.K. government should get into immediate dialogue with the Chinese government. It is likely that China is the only nation with the resources to provide help if it is needed." Michie noticed some reports about China reaching out to nations like Italy with medical supplies and personnel, which have relieved local strained situation. He accentuated, "To conquer this global catastrophe, the whole world should cooperate to take action, and both China and the U.K. should have further collaboration."
Joint actions are more crucial
The G20 Virtual Summit was held on March 26, which Michie thought very important for global cooperation in the fight against COVID-19. He pointed out that the G20 played a crucial role in stabilizing the world following the economic crisis in 2008. That crisis triggered these state leaders to meet under the G20 framework for the very first time. "In this far greater catastrophic pandemic, if the current G20 leaders fail to deliver clear global cooperation and collaboration, then this will be an unforgivable lapse of leadership," Michie said. He has read through Chinese President Xi Jinping's speech delivered on that occasion, titled "Working Together to Defeat the COVID-19 Outbreak." The joint statement following the meeting gave a clear commitment for global cooperation and collaboration. "But the following steps will be crucial and there should be major concerns," Michie pointed out. He further noted that the media outside China has failed to report and analyze the outcome of the G20 Virtual Summit; instead, their focus was all on reporting the global spread of the virus and the growing number of deaths. "The pandemic will only be conquered by global collaboration as that which happened during the 2008 financial crisis," Michie warned.
However, global crises create opportunities too. "China has had to endure much criticism in recent years, especially from the influential high-income countries in Europe and the U.S. I very much hope that China will reach out to these critics with an open heart in this horrific crisis," Michie said, and noted that this global catastrophe may open the closed minds, eyes, and ears of Westerners to the messages that come out from China. As what President Xi has repeated for many times and on many occasions that we should create an environment of mutual respect, mutual learning, and mutual understanding between different cultures. "The vision of creating a community with a shared future for all humankind is the only way that humanity can conquer such shared challenges as this pandemic and climate change as well," Michie concluded.