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China Tells SA: We Have To Fight Covid-19 Together, In Solidarity


Chinese ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian says the rate of Covid-19 infection is slowing in his home country and China is keen to show the rest of the world how they are doing it.

Barely 24 hours after news broke that a KwaZulu-Natal father returning from a holiday in Italy had tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, the Chinese ambassador in Pretoria, Lin Songtian, expressed confidence in South Africa’s health services.

At a press briefing at the embassy on 6 March 2020, lasting more than two hours, Lin declared he didn’t doubt the “professionality” of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, who is also a medical doctor. He also said South Africa and China were in a “comprehensive, strategic partnership”, for better or for worse.

“We speak very highly of our relationship. We are partners, not only in good time but in a bad time. We are fighting together, we are ready. We already maintain close contact with your [South Africa’s] government, your ministry of health and other departments in the government,” he said.

On Saturday, President Cyril Ramaphosa indicated that South Africa would get advice from China about stemming the spread of the virus. As of Saturday, the total number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 across the globe had surpassed 100,000, according to a statement from the World Health Organisation.

To date, more than 3,000 people have died in China since the outbreak began in December 2019.

According to Lin, as of 5 March 2020, new confirmed cases in China dropped to 143 new cases a day, down from 3,887 a month ago. The day before, there were no new confirmed cases in 26 provinces and municipalities, he said. Only four provinces and municipalities – except for Hubei province, which is still in lockdown – had five new confirmed cases. Hubei had 76 new suspected cases. 

Lin believed this was evidence that Covid-19 could be “prevented, controlled and cured”, and that Chinese methods “are scientific and the treatment programme effective”. Thus the “Chinese approach”, or the “Chinese prescription” could easily be shared with the rest of the world. 

China was already on the sixth edition of its diagnosis and treatment programme, he said, which combined Chinese and Western medicine, and also interventions that did not involve drugs, but he did not provide more details about the names of drugs and the treatment methods, which are believed to be aimed at strengthening the immune system. Acupuncture, cupping and the administration of oxygen are methods often used in Chinese medicine. Bloomberg has previously reported the same, but the treatments and drugs were not named in its stories either.

Lin used strong words to speak about China’s efforts and departed from his scripted notes to repeatedly speak about the fight against the Covid-19 outbreak as a “war”. The spread of the virus in Africa was a big concern, the ambassador said. Many countries on the continent have strong ties with China, which is heavily invested in the infrastructure and commodities sectors in the continent. 

South Africa is the latest African country to detect a Covid-19 infection. Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria have all reported cases of travellers who tested positive with Covid-19.

Widespread infection in Africa would mean a war on two fronts for China, Lin said. China is already supporting the African Union Centre for Disease Control and would support AU member states through that. “We are ready to fight with both China and Africa,” Lin said.

“The most important is they must have good quarantine conditions.”

A recent joint report by the World Health Organisation and the Chinese government remarked that the Chinese approach of social lockdown and surveillance has been effective in containing the spread – for now, but was silent on the human rights dimensions. 

Global health law scholar at Georgetown University, Lawrence Gostin, told Science magazine that it might not be feasible to repeat these stringent measures in other countries. “China is unique in that it has a political system that can gain public compliance with extreme measures,” he said. Its use of social control and intrusive surveillance might not be a good model in other countries, he added. Experts said Singapore and Hong Kong might be better models to follow as their prevention plans are rigorous but less draconian. 

Lin said China was ready to help South Africa with the repatriation of its citizens who are currently in Wuhan and the Hubei province. He claimed that so far, none of them have been infected and he implied they were safer in China – perhaps than they would be back home. But he said he understood that the families in South Africa were worried about their relatives in China. The embassy was also quick to issue a press release after the South African announcement that it supports South Africa’s efforts to repatriate citizens living in Hubei province. It’s clearly a sensitive issue and was handled diplomatically, so as not to step on any toes. So far, South Africa’s government has been supportive of China in the outbreak and Lin noted that.

During an ANC Women’s League gala dinner in Midrand on Saturday night, which was also attended by Lin, President Cyril Ramaphosa said South Africa would need to work with other countries that have experienced the outbreak and gone through the worst. “China is a case in point. We will get advice from them,” he said, adding that he wanted to applaud the country for demonstrating “resilience and capability”. 

Ramaphosa also thanked China for allowing South Africa to start the process of evacuating its citizens from Hubei province. “I want to reassure South Africans that we are well-prepared as a country to contain the virus, ever since we confirmed one case of a man who tested positive for it.” 

Ramaphosa said South Africans should not panic or feel that this could defeat them. “As South Africans, we shall prevail.” 

A third person in South Africa tested positive for Covid-19 over the weekend. All the cases so far have been from a tour group of 10 people who returned from a recent trip to Italy, which has so far been the hardest-hit country in Europe. 

On a political level, the virus is very much about ideology – and this was clear from Lin’s Freudian slips in referring to the World Health Organisation, the WHO, as the WTO, the World Trade Organisation. The ambassador used the opportunity to score a few multilateral points against the United States, with which it has had strained trade relations particularly since President Donald Trump stepped into the White House and implemented protectionist trade policies. 

Responding to a question about the economic implications of the virus, Lin said China is a major engine to drive the world economy, and since 2008, 30% of the world’s growth had been coming from China. “If China gets a cold, everyone will sneeze,” he said, adding, “including America”.

 Millions of Chinese tourists had also cancelled their trips, which impacted local economies, he said. “Now is not the time for international travel,” Lin repeated. 

China’s response to the virus is more multilateralism. “Viruses know no border,” Lin said. “There is indeed a global battle between man and nature. In the era of globalisation, all countries’ interests are intertwined. No country can fight the epidemic alone. No country is immune to the virus.” He said the fight against Covid-19 presented a “shared future for mankind”. There was no choice. “We have to work together in solidarity.” DM

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