Farewell to the Politics of Covid-19: Implications for Global and Domestic Governance
Embracing the Year of the Rabbit in 2023, we are witnessing the end of Covid-19 and its complex variants; nevertheless, the past three years from early 2020 to January 2023 were characterized by the painful experiences and bitter political struggles, both international and domestic, of how to deal with Covid-19 and its variants. This article aims at examining Covid-19 and its international and political implications, especially in Greater China where mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have been deeply affected.
At the global governance level, the World Health Organization (WHO) did not seem to play a very effective coordinator and a health protector of the states in the world, leaving the tasks to individual states, especially in the area of vaccination production and distribution. The WHO did dispatch its delegation to China, where Covid-19 erupted in early 2020 in the city of Wuhan, but its findings failed to calm the member states. Nor did it really regard Covid-19 and its early virulent variants as bio-terrorist attacks. Arguably, Covid-19 and its strong variants could be regarded as bioterrorism plunging many states in the world into great chaos. However, there was no intention on the part of the WHO to reconsider its definition of infectious diseases, leaving the task of combating Covid-19 to individual member states.
Although many other international organizations collaborated in their combat against Covid-19 and its variants through collaboration in vaccine production and sharing of public health experiences, overall the past three years did not point to a strong WHO in the global fight against Covid-19. Nor was it swift in announcing that the recent variants of Covid-19 were so weak that the global “pandemic” could have been regarded as a thing of the past. Perhaps it is time for the WHO to revisit its narrow definition of infectious diseases and ponder the lessons of Covid-19 for its future directions and relations with member states.
At the level of international politics, Covid-19 and its outbreak led to fierce international political rivalries, bickering and struggles, especially in the context of US-China relations. It was unbelievable that the former US President Donald Trump referred to Covid-19 as a “China virus” – a highly controversial accusation sparking the deterioration of US-China relations. The origins of Covid-19 remained highly contentious and mysterious; some scientists pointed to the nature as its origin, while some pointed to other reasons, ranging from the Wuhan market to a suspected leakage from a laboratory, and from some infected US soldiers in a Wuhan military sports competition to another suspected leakage from an American laboratory. The entire debate over the origins of Covid-19 was tainted with US-China relations and their struggles.
The international politics of Covid-19 and its variants have not stopped even when they began to fade away and when China opened up its border in January 2023, when Japan and South Korea imposed entry restrictions on the mainland Chinese tourists and visitors. Although South Korea and Japan were that they had to protect their internal health security, the underlying reason was perhaps a kind of distrust toward how China handled Covid-19 and its variants in the final stage of its “dynamic zero Covid policy,” which to some states in the world remained mysterious and secretive. The ways in which South Korea and Japan have imposed entry restrictions onto the mainland Chinese visitors remain controversial. It is hoped that both countries will relax their entry restrictions as more mainland Chinese in China are developing their immunity system against Covid-19 and its variants.
At the domestic level, China since its rise in the early 2000s has been most affected by the onslaught of Covid-19. The Wuhan outbreak was a painful experiences to many residents in the city, leading to the country’s tight quarantine policy imposed onto its residents and comrades from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan until early 2023. What is striking in the mainland Chinese experience was that it adopted a highly centralized and mobilizational strategy in imposing very tight restrictions on the movement of its citizens after the Wuhan experiences in early 2020. In 2021, it appeared that China kept a tight lid on the spread of Covid-19, but the Shanghai experiences in mid-2022 and most importantly the sporadic citizen protests in December 2022 pointed to a need for a more flexible policy dealing with Covid-19 and its variants. The central health officials appeared to put the blame onto the provincial and local officials for being too strict in their policy implementation of the “dynamic zero Covid policy.”
However, from a more objective standpoint, given the fact that the vaccination rate of some elderly people in urban cities and rural areas was perhaps not high, and given the sudden policy change from the central health authorities in January 2023, quite a number of Chinese citizens became the victims of the last wave of attack from Covid-19 and its variants. As such, due to the painful experiences in Wuhan city in early 2020, China adopted an effective centralized and mobilizational strategy against Covid-19 and its variants, but this overcentralized strategy was suddenly and drastically reversed in early 2023. A better strategy was, from the benefit if hindsight, a more gradual loosening up of its “dynamic zero Covid policy” in the fall of 2022, allowing more citizens to develop their natural immunity rather than overprotecting them. The drastic policy reversal in early 2023 also led to a scramble for medicines and anti-fever medicines on the part of many ordinary Chinese in many cities. This phenomenon demonstrated the problem of an endured overcentralized policy which was suddenly changed to rapid relaxation without sufficient warning to the local pharmaceutical industries that anti-fever and anti-cough medicines could have been prepared and produced more adequately during the early phase of policy reversal. Perhaps China remains so large geographically that any policy reversal from the centre could have unintended consequences on provincial and local levels that were unanticipated by health authorities.
Hong Kong was another place deeply affected by Covid-19 and its variants. The sudden outbreak of Covid-19 and its virulent types in March and April 2022 led to the death of many elderly people, exposing the weaknesses of the elderly care homes, the lack of coordination among governmental departments, and the failure of the health authorities to anticipate and address sudden crises. Yet, Hong Kong’s approach to dealing with Covid-19 and its variants was far more liberalized than mainland China and Macau, leading to its gradual opening with the outside world and a faster recovery of the economy.
Macau followed the centralized policy style of mainland China. At the early beginning of Covid-19 in 2020, the Macau government made a decisive step to close the casinos for some days in order to protect public health – a measure praised by the citizens. However, an overcentralized and a rigid policy against Covid-19 and its variants cost Macau dearly; many citizens were mobilized to have their health checks again and again. Luckily, most Macau people have an obedient political culture, obeying the directives from the government without grievances. Still, the sudden opening up of Macau in early 2023 led to the complaints and difficult adaptation of some citizens. A more dynamic governance of Macau requires its political leaders to be more autonomous and to adopt a health policy at least slightly different from the central government. Indeed, Macau’s dependence on mainland workers and tourists means that its governance has its hands tied. Still, the Macau authorities should revisit its over-rigid health policy during the past three years and learn a bitter lesson on how it would deal with another public health crisis in the future.
Taiwan was no better than Hong Kong and Macau. Taiwan’s authorities were caught by surprise when Covid-19 and its variants attacked the island. However, the responses of its health authorities were in general quite fast, and Covid-19 and its variants were under control while the door of the island was gradually opened to the outside world without excessive fear.
The case of Greater China and its varying responses to Covid-19 and its variants shows different policy styles. Taiwan and Hong Kong adopted a more liberalized and open approach to opening their doors, while mainland China and Macau took a more centralized and rigid but suddenly reversed policy approach. The approach adopted by mainland China was arguably understandable, given the very painful experiences in Wuhan in early 2020. However, Macau could have done better and learnt from a more open approach adopted by Hong Kong, while Taiwan as an island naturally adopted a more liberal approach to coping with Covid-19 and its variants.
With the onset of the Year of Rabbit in 2023, the four places in Greater China are expected to envisage a rapid recovery of their economy, human interactions, external trade and industrial rebound. If so, 2023 is going to be more socially exciting, economically lively and internationally interactive.
In conclusion, we can bid farewell to the politics of Covid-19 and its variants, which have cost the lives of many citizens in the world, including sadly many residents in the Greater China region. The origins of Covid-19 remained controversial and illustrated the US-China rivalries at a time when China was rising economically and militarily while the US perceived the “China threat” as a “real” one. The WHO performance remained controversial and it perhaps needs to learn a bitter lesson from how it handled Covid-19 and its variants, and whether its coordination role would need to be enhanced in the future. After all, states in the world were the final fighters facing the bioterrorist attacks of Covid-19 and its variants, especially the weaker developing states that lacked vaccines and the necessary capacity to deal with infectious diseases. In Greater China, different types of regimes adopted varying policy styles, ranging from the more liberal approach adopted by Taiwan and Hong Kong to the more centralized, mobilized and yet suddenly reversed style in both mainland China and Macau. Although no single approach to dealing with Covid-19 and its variants was effective, it is perhaps the ripe time for the governments and their health authorities in the Greater China region to reflect and review their policy responses and lessons so that any other infectious disease tantamount to bioterrorism would be tackled in a far more effective manner in the future.