Coronavirus can be contained. International cooperation is required

Written by Liu Chen

Updated: March 3, 2020 11:19:14 am

Passengers wear masks as they walk past a scanning machine monitoring people’s temperature following the new coronavirus outbreak in China. (Reuters Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/File)

The coronavirus outbreak has become a global concern. Globally, around 88,000 cases have been detected, most of which are in China. The death toll is more than 2,870 according to the World Health Organisation. The central government in China has taken efforts towards combating the virus — this includes the cordon sanitaire of Wuhan in the Hubei province where the virus originated. It was a heavy-handed decision as Wuhan is the largest city in central China with a population of nearly 9 million. The question now is what other measures are needed to prevent further losses?

Medical reform is a charged issue in most countries. The policy recommendations in favour of marketisation of healthcare normally emphasise three major points: First, bend the curve of the health share in GDP; second, foster competition to provide more efficient healthcare; and third, mobilise resources from private entities which will ensure the win-win outcome of reducing government intervention as well as relieving its financial burden.

China’s healthcare reform has followed this market economy path. By the end of 2019, there were 34,000 hospitals (12,000 public hospitals and 22,000 private-owned hospitals). In comparison with 2018, the number of public hospitals in the country came down by 181, while private-owned hospitals increased by 1,677.

The coronavirus outbreak, however, has made it clear that when instant reaction is required, public hospitals hold the key. At present, more than 52 batches of medical staff of 6,097 professionals from around China are working in Wuhan and other places in Hubei. All of them are from public hospitals.

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The for-the-people principle helps to prevent healthcare from becoming another luxury good that is only availed by certain social groups. In the US, for instance, when the federal government’s gross debt in 2017 exceeded $20 trillion, forcing down the medicare cost curve through government intervention was discussed as an actionable solution. However, the unique role of public healthcare in China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak attests to the fact that only when policymakers care about the for-the-people principle they are willing to sacrifice their fondest policy goals.

There is ample ground to believe that no country, no city, and no region can survive without international cooperation. China has received different kinds of support from across the world. For instance, the medical supplies including face masks, medical gloves, and protective suits donated by India will arrive soon. China, at the same time, has made all-out efforts at home. It has identified the genetic sequence of the virus “in record time and immediately shared the sequence which helps other countries to prepare for the cases”, noted Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO in a press release on February 12. International cooperation in this hard time gives people hope.

From a historical perspective, there is enough reason to be optimistic about containing the spread of the disease. Government funding on healthcare in China increased from 658.41 billion RMB in 2003, during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, to nearly 5.8 trillion RMB in 2018, according to China’s national health commission. Its share of GDP increased from 4.9 per cent in 2003 to 6.4 per cent in 2018.

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If policy making remains consistent with the for-the-people principle and international cooperation is forthcoming, there is hope for containment of coronavirus, and several other diseases.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 3, 2020 under the title ‘Taming the virus’. The writer is professor of Public Administration and Cultural Studies in the School of English and International Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University.

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