In November 2019, doctors and nurses in the Chinese city of Wuhan, located in the central Hubei Province started noticing an influx of patients suffering from an unusually violent flu. China is no stranger to harsh seasonal flu outbreaks, but this was unlike anything they had ever seen before. Patients would have to be placed on ventilators as the flu turned into life-threatening pneumonia, and their lung scans resulted in the terrifying realisation that this was no flu at all.
The story of what happened next is what will go down in history as a compendium of the most poignant and expensive lessons about governance, economics and geopolitics that humanity has ever had to face in the absurdly short and compressed space of just 4 months.
Regime Security =\= National Security
The Chinese Communist Party is hardly a stranger to taking decisions that many of us would find restrictive, invasive – even unthinkable. The institution that has controlled the government of the world’s most populated country since the early 20th century has presided over a litany of the most unbelievable human disasters, governance travesties and draconian policies in recorded human history. The world has become so used to such reports coming out of China that information such as the fact that Chairman Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ directly killed up to 30 million people barely raises an eyebrow.
For reference, the first world war killed about 20 million people and permanently reshaped the world. When it is China however, eyes glaze over because, well – is it not the Chinese at it again? Banning Google and only allowing their citizens access to government-approved information – it’s just China. Locking millions of Uighur muslims up in concentration camps where they are raped and have their organs harvested – is it not China? Rolling over student protesters with military tanks on an urban street – big deal, it’s just China. The Chinese government has a way of interacting with local problems that goes back so long that nobody – not foreigners, not Chinese people, not the CCP itself – has any bigger expectations of itself.
Thus in November, when faced with the jarring reality that it was facing a new outbreak of something new, nasty and infectious, the Chinese government simply did what it always does – it kicked the ball into the long grass by silencing everyone who tried to raise the alarm about the emergence of what later became known as the SARS COV 2 novel coronavirus. With its unprecedented ability to silence people online and in real life through its dystopian social credit system, it is only too easy to duck the responsibility of governance and outsource the consequences to the people in classic authoritarian fashion.
In China, like with every other society controlled by a dictatorship, all information that could potentially challenge the credibility of the ruling junta is fought with the intensity of actual warfare. Whether it is Xi Jinping or Idi Amin, the basic thread running through the dictator’s fear of information is the same – the authoritarian regime can only survive by convincing the nation that said authoritarian is somehow intrinsic to its existence. Incidentally, the CCP regularly flies this very kite, claiming to Chinese citizens that only it has the capacity to keep China together because if China adopted democracy, the country would allegedly break up chaotically.
When such regimes successfully perpetuate the idea that country and government are the same thing, they can also justify any action they take because regime security becomes the same thing as “national security.” Thus, anything that can challenge the credibility of an authoritarian government – be it political opposition, pro-democracy protesters or news about the spread of a deadly new virus it may not be able to control – is something to be put down with extreme prejudice.
Unfortunately as we saw to disastrous effect, this reflexive position to defend the political interests of a ruling regime over anything else under the pretext of such contrived “national security” can lead to horrible outcomes. In this case, the horrible outcomes leapt out of Wuhan, where COVID-19 could have been contained according to some reports as far back as October 2019. Now it is tearing a path of unprecedented economic destruction across the world while threatening Nigeria’s agricultural planting season and jeopardising global security in a way nothing has done since the second world war.
Even more unfortunately, being that the CCP’s biggest claim to credibility among Chinese people is the country’s sustained economic growth, the Chinese government is now trying desperately to paint a highly improbable picture of having “recovered” from the outbreak, so that it can arrest the alarming economic slide by reopening factories and businesses. Once again, the interests of the regime are taking priority over the interests of the people. Xi Jinping wouldn’t call it “regime security” though. He will call it “national security.”
Hopefully those of us living under wannabe dictators and pseudo-dictators are taking notes about the difference between both terms.
We are Only as Strong as our Weakest Links
The bus conductor screaming for passengers at Obalende roundabout. The African illegal immigrant sweeping streets in Rome. The homeless man begging for spare change in Brooklyn. The Malawian makwerekwere doing odd jobs in Johannesburg. What do all these people have in common? They are among the poorest and least regarded people in those societies. And they are usually blamed unfairly for a lot of what goes wrong there. They are barely even recognised fully as people.
The second thing they have in common however, is the fact that regardless of their perceived non-status in the world, we have all had to come to terms with the fact that we are not as separated from these people as we used to think we were – no thanks to COVID-19. Drive your own car so don’t have contact with the bus conductor? Well your colleague does and you may shake hands with them or touch the same laptop keypad with them. There’s only so much handwashing and hand sanitizing you can do before the reality sets in – by 2 or 3 degrees of separation, we are in contact with the whole world.
There are people in Nigeria who have never been to an airport in their lives who are now sick with a virus that originated in Central China. There are also people in Nigeria who fly their own private jets and use helicopters to escape the traffic in Lagos, who are sick with the same virus because they caught it indirectly from a slum dweller. At the end of the day – whether we like it or not – we are all near-identical sacks of flesh and blood whom Planet Earth can get rid of at any time if we do not work together.
Humans after all, did not become the most successful evolutionary mammal species by competing against each other. Sure, occasionally the mechanics of Darwinian evolution boiled down to the slowest person in the group becoming lunch for the pursuing hungry sabre tooth, while the quicker ones would survive and breed – and this trope of existing to outdo the next man is a very popular fixture of modern human society. It does not however account for the fact that if our ancestors did nothing more than race each other to win the “I-wasn’t-eaten-by-Shere-Khan-today” Olympics, there would simply have been fewer and fewer humans until the tiger would eat the last one.
Humans have survived and become the most successful animal through cooperation. The ability to organise ourselves in very large groups working toward specific purposes for the entire duration of our lives is what separates us from other primates – not our opposable thumbs or our big brains. In an age where there are so many things to hide us from the reality of how unavoidably connected we all are, it has taken the spread of this nasty virus to remind us of our incessant mortality, the fragility of our physical bodies and economic systems, and the painful reality of our crushing unimportance as far as nature is concerned.
The lesson here is for those of us who are highly placed in the world by nationality or personal achievement to understand the need to create inclusive systems and structures to enhance human development and cooperation. Individual achievement and intelligence is great but what can it do in a world where nobody can come out and the entire system of trade as you know it no longer exists?
There is also a more specific lesson for Nigeria to learn, and few people say it better than Wharton Business School PhD Researcher, Jonah Rexer: