COVID-19: A Glimpse to the East

An image of a crowd of people in Wuhan, China. They are all wearing masks as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
2019-20 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

COVID-19, otherwise known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, has spread to many countries around the world, affecting many immunocompromised populations and impacting millions of people worldwide. My colleagues have referenced hotspots where the response has impacted the most, from the Middle East to migrants right outside U.S. borders. They have illustrated how discrimination, isolationism, and plain ignorance have shattered families and populations, destroyed economies, and brought fear and terror into the hearts and minds of Earth’s people. It is in that essence that this article will continue to explain the impact of COVID-19 in another hotspot of the world, Asia.

The Asian continent, comprising 48 countries, according to the United Nations, encompasses immense diversity and roughly 60 percent of the global population within its boundaries. This diversity includes, but is not limited to, having the highest and lowest points on Earth, “the world’s wildest climatic extremes,” and “the birthplace of all the world’s major religions.” For the sake of this article, I will be focusing on three countries that are handling the virus very differently, India, China, and South Korea.

Food Insecurity

Having one of the highest populations in the world, India is often referenced as a case study when examining the impact of overpopulation, economics, and food security. In 2012, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, 60 million out of 200 million people were considered living below the poverty line. Economic inequality has further negatively impacted India’s poorest communities with “57 billionaires controlling 70 percent of India’s wealth” as of 2017. Such inequality has led to the increase in poverty, a lack of medical equipment and access, poor living conditions, and a lack of food.

An image of Indian Census data from 2011. The country is seen with an immense population density per square kilometer. Uttar Pradesh and the city of Kolkata are most dense.
Demographics of India. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

However, this pandemic has exacerbated the lack of access to food by Indian residents that comes on the heels of Prime Minister Nahendra Modi’s announcement to begin a “21-day nationwide lockdown.” With such an announcement also came with rising panic from Indians, crowding grocery stores and shops with people panic buying everything in sight. Under Modi’s plan, the “Prime Minister’s Poor Welfare Scheme”, individuals will be able to receive five additional kilograms of rice or wheat for the next three months. Although proposed to benefit 800 million people, many are wary of its success due to the closure of interstate travel, trains, and flights. It is under this lockdown that residents could face two years in jail and a financial penalty if they leave their home for non-essential reasons. In an interview with Time, an autorickshaw driver expressed concern over Modi’s decree to lockdown the entire country. Before the decree, his main concern was to save enough money to help get his son through college. However, “as he stays home with no daily income, his main concern is putting food on the table. He’s not sure what he will do” once those savings run out. When examining a singular issue impacted by COVID-19, the situation in India highlights the issues that countries with an enormous informal sector may face due to economic hardship and lack of infrastructure. For example, India can grow enough food for its growing population, although millions are left underfed due to “bottlenecked supply chain[s], inadequate logistics, food wastage and sharp societal inequalities.” The virus has further called to attention the lack of food security that many around the world face on a daily basis which infringes upon their basic human rights and a Sustainable Development Goal that must be achieved by 2030, Zero Hunger.

Government Control

An image of the spread of the coronavirus in January. The Wuhan province is shown to be the most effective, colored in black.
Timeline of the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic from November 2019 to January 2020. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

Being the most populated country in the world, China is often criticized for its drastic measures and horrifying treatment of Muslim minorities. When examining the pandemic, COVID-19 is known to have originated in the Wuhan province in China and was noticed by Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. Dr. Wenliang had used a private online chat to explain his worry for the novel virus, which quickly went viral, resulting in him being reprimanded by Chinese police. Following this observation, the province had shut down, cutting off transportation and sealing residents off from the outside world. In an interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, “the leader of the World Health Organization team that visited China,” had praised the Chinese government’s decisive actions towards preventing the spread of the virus:

“I think the key learning from China is speed — it’s all about the speed.” — Dr. Bruce Aylward

Although the Chinese government has sought to demonstrate its prowess and handling of the virus, through building hospitals in 10-days and publishing photos of patients who have been cured of the disease, many human rights groups have expressed concern and worry over the treatment of those who have been critical of the government. For instance, Chen Qiushi, a Chinese human rights lawyer, was “put under quarantine”, Fang Bin, a citizen journalist, disappeared in February, and Li Zihua, another journalist, was taken away by a group of men. Dr. Wenliang had died due to the virus early February of 2020. With the news of his death, thousands of comments flooded Chinese social media site Weibo criticizing the Chinese government and censorship in the country with top hashtags such as “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech.” According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), when they searched for the hashtags a day after Wenliang’s death, they disappeared having been censored alongside many comments aimed at the Chinese government.

From Wuhan province, we now turn to the Xinjiang province in Western China, where the imprisonment of millions of Uyghur Muslims could prove to be a breeding ground for the virus as it spreads throughout the world. You can read more IHR blogs about The Uyghur Muslims in the context of Crimes Against Humanity here and how this crisis is affecting refugees on the US-Mexico border here. In Xinjiang, there are an estimated three million people detained in re-education camps in Western China, mostly of Uyghur Muslims who have been suppressed by the Communist Party. As alleged by Jewher Ilham, the daughter of a jailed Uyghur academic, some of the “conditions at the detention centers offered the perfect chance for coronavirus to spread” citing “systematic abuse, serious overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions inside the camps.” Given allegations of China’s unwillingness to publish the truth about these conditions combined with the alleged suppression of critics and ethnic minorities, it is deeply concerning to gauge the risks of infection amongst those who have been cited as not having enough to eat or doctors on staff to treat those infected. This is also a signal to international groups and organizations to ensure that all people have the chance to be cured and not suffer as a result of the virus or violating the human rights to freedom of speech.

An image of China divided into province. The Xinjiang province is highlighted with the highest concentration of Muslims
Xinjiang Region, China. Source: Flickr, futureatlas.com. Creative Commons.

Some Potential Success?

Amongst all the panic buying and the loss of toilet paper throughout the country, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel manifesting itself through ‘flattening the curve’. This method has seemed to be close to perfected by South Korea whose growth in COVID-19 cases has significantly slowed compared to the United States. When examining South Korea, many writers have explained the situation by comparing it to religion and culture, chalking it up to higher levels of social trust and the lingering aspect of Confucianism. However, that does not seem to be the case. By flattening the curve, South Korea has demonstrated that it is due to “competent leadership that inspired public trust.” Having tested more than 5000 people per million inhabitants than the United States, it is no wonder that taking early action and mobilizing health officials could lead to a successful response.

“No sacred Confucian text advised Korean health officials to summon medical companies and told them to ramp up testing capacity when Korea had only four known cases of COVID-19.” — S. Nathan Park

Compared to China, India, and even the United States, South Korea did not have to “lockdown entire cities or take some authoritarian measures,” rather, they learned from their past experience with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Such preparation allowed the South Korean government to be proactive and “improve hospital infection prevention and control.” Combined with South Korea’s industrial and developmental advantages over both China and India, the government was able to take a proactive approach and deter the worst effects of the virus. Once South Koreans started getting sick in early February, the government immediately began “testing aggressively to identify cases — not only testing people who are so sick that they’re hospitalized but also mild cases and even suspected cases.” This initiative has allowed South Korea to quarantine those at a high risk while also managing to keep their factories, schools, hospitals, and entire cities open while other countries around the world are having to shut down everything to contain the spread.

An image of the cumulative and new cases of coronavirus in South Korea. The graph is showing a flattening of the curve.
2020 coronavirus cases in South Korea. Source: Wikipedia, KCDC. Creative Commons.

Conclusion

Looking back at India, China, and South Korea, it becomes apparent that a swift and proactive response is necessary in order to not allow for the lockdown of entire cities and countries. However, that proactivity must balance itself between being lax and aggressive. For example, China’s efforts to curb the spread of the news rather than the virus has made human rights concerns more apparent to the world, especially since the freedom of speech for civilians is being curbed to protect China’s global reputation. In India’s case, the pandemic has shown many human rights groups and countries the issues that a country with a massive impoverished population faces during difficult times. By being able to demonstrate good leadership and mobilizing experts, South Korea has ultimately done what many other countries would only hope to accomplish. Such success has already inspired other Asian countries to follow suit, especially Singapore, Japan, and others. And although South Korea’s population is significantly small compared to that of India and China, their success is one that can be successfully implemented worldwide. Instead of casting these successes aside as an element of Confucianism or culture, it is necessary for us to be able to model our response like South Korea’s so that were such an event to occur again, we will be able to swiftly contain the spread rather than suffer through weeks and months at home without physical human interaction.

Worldwide Famine and its Impact

by Nicole Allen and Pam Zuber

Sharing out the beans Yemen still has 350,000 dipslaced persons, although verifying this number is difficult. Most of these are from Sa’da and many of these are in Harad district on the border with Saudi Arabia. Conditions in Harad are not easy, hot and dusty and prone to flash flooding. Even before the arrival of the displaced it was an area of high malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria. UNICEF has, with the government and NGO partners worked to provide education, clean water and nutrition services. On this mission I accompanied the WFP representative and visited food distributions. After five years of displacement we need to look for longer term and sustainable solutions. One of the many beautiful features in this part of Yemen is how flowers are woven into everyday, flowers for sale at traffic lights, boys wearing them in the hair, given as gifts.
Sharing out the beans. Yemen still has 350,000 dipslaced persons, although verifying this number is difficult. Most of these are from Sa’da and many of these are in Harad district on the border with Saudi Arabia. Conditions in Harad are not easy, hot and dusty and prone to flash flooding. Even before the arrival of the displaced it was an area of high malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria. UNICEF has, with the government and NGO partners worked to provide education, clean water and nutrition services. On this mission I accompanied the WFP representative and visited food distributions. After five years of displacement we need to look for longer term and sustainable solutions. One of the many beautiful features in this part of Yemen is how flowers are woven into every day, flowers for sale at traffic lights, boys wearing them in the hair, given as gifts. Source: Julien Harneis, Creative Commons

Famine and other types of food insecurity are problems in several ways. A chronic and widespread lack of food is not only harmful to people’s health but can produce other repercussions.  Unfortunately, we are witnessing many of these short- and long-term repercussions of famine and food insecurity in several areas of the world.

Yemen

Yemen is a country in the throes of a vicious civil war. Like other countries experiencing such strife, it is experiencing food insecurity as well. People who experience food insecurity do not have consistent access to nutritious, affordable food. Yemenis truly do not have physical access. Experts estimate that Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, but the civil war has closed the country’s airports to civilian flights, blocked its seaports, and created dangerous conditions within the country. Even if food becomes available, many impoverished Yemenis cannot afford it. Saudi Arabia invested billions in Yemen in early 2018 to reinforce the latter nation’s economy and the riyal, its unit of currency, but the economic status of Yemen remains precarious.      

Malnutrition causes other problems. Malnourished people are susceptible to disease that requires medical intervention, and this has been the case in Yemen. The country has experienced cholera and meningitis outbreaks. These diseases can create even more malnutrition. Thus, Yemen is battling a vicious cycle of malnutrition and disease. There is another, less-discussed but still significant factor that also contributes to problems in the country: drug use. Many in the country use a drug called qat (also spelled khat). Users say the drug enhances strength and virility, which is why military leaders allegedly give it to child soldiers. Users also say it suppresses the appetite, which could make qat attractive in a country experiencing food instability. Given qat’s popularity, it is also big business for the people who grow and supply it. Qat is profitable, which could encourage people to grow and sell it instead of other crops that could feed Yemenis. But, as with any drug, struggles for control over the qat market could provide dangerous, especially in a country already experiencing political instability. The quest for profit might come before the health, physical safety, and other human rights of Yemenis.

Somalia

Long subject to periods of drought that devastate its food supply, Somalia’s food situation is bleak. According to the United Nations’ World Food Programme: “As of May 2018, 2.7 million people [in Somalia] cannot meet their daily food requirements today and require urgent humanitarian assistance, with more than half a million on the brink of famine. Another 2.7 million Somalis need livelihood support to keep from sliding into crisis. An estimated 300,000 children under age 5 are malnourished, including 48,000 who are severely malnourished and face a high risk of disease and death.” Such drought limits the crops Somalis can grow and shrinks the amount of pasture land they can use for their livestock. It also puts people out of work, preventing them from buying food and other necessities.

What little food and water there is available is a precious commodity in Somalia. People have attempted to control these scarce resources to build and consolidate power, which has sometimes led to violence and tension. People without such resources might be more willing to join violent movements because they feel as if they have no other optionsThus, famine and reduced job prospects might be breeding grounds for violent groups of people who feel as if they have nothing to lose. It could contribute to violence, unrest, and human rights violations, since people may feel that their situations are hopeless and that human life is worthless.

Nigeria

As with other countries on this list, political strife has created considerable food insecurity and other problems in Nigeria. The militant group Boko Haram has been active in northeast Nigeria since the early 2000s. Boko Haram’s name means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language and the group calls for Islamic law (sharia). The group has protested secular Nigerian rule in various ways, most notably by kidnapping several women, girls, and children in a number of separate incidents and by bombing and attacking government and United Nations buildings. Boko Haram has also clashed with government representatives and multinational troops, which has killed several Nigerians, displaced others, and severely disrupted everyday life in the African nation: “[I]t is likely that significant populations remain in areas of the northeast that are currently inaccessible to humanitarian actors. Reports indicate that people fleeing from conflict-affected, inaccessible areas [in Nigeria] are often severely food insecure and exhibit signs of malnutrition,” according to a 2018 report from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

If Nigerians had their way, they would not only have access to food, but the means to grow it as well. Fanna Kachella is a farmer in Rann, a city in northeastern Nigeria. The ongoing political conflict has affected her livelihood, but she hopes that food assistance can help her and her family: “Not having anything much to do has been hard for us, we are used to planting our own food. I hope we will get a good harvest from the seed.” The ability to support oneself and one’s family should be a fundamental human right. Not being able to do so is denying this right. Not being able to do so can jeopardize a person’s health, dignity, ability to form and nurture a family, and interactions with others.

a group photo of the women of SIM South Sudan
SIM South Sudan Harvest Worker Project. Source: SIM East Africa, Creative Commons

South Sudan

Founded in 2011, South Sudan is the world’s youngest country. But, in its brief history, it has faced many problems that are as old as time. Unlike other countries on this list, it looks as conditions may be improving, however. On August 6, 2018, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, signed a power-sharing cease-fire agreement with the leader of his political opposition, Riek Machar. As part of this agreement, Machar would serve as one of the five vice presidents of the country. Political conflicts between the two men plunged South Sudan into civil war in 2013. Machar once served as Kiir’s deputy but fled the country after a dispute between the men. The two men agreed to end their dispute in 2015, but it ended in 2016 when Machar return to the country’s capital, Juba.

These personal disputes erupted into a country-wide civil war that has killed thousands of residents of South Sudan and displaced almost two million more. The political conflict and its resultant disruptions, massive displacement, economic problems, flooding, dry spells, and pests all contributed to famine conditions in 2017. According to the international initiative the IPC (the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification), “5.3 million people required food assistance” in South Sudan in January 2018, “up 40 percent from the same time last year.” The initiative attributed these food-related problems to “widespread conflict [that] continues to displace communities, disrupt livelihood activities and impede humanitarian access to vulnerable populations.” But, if the truce between Kiir and Machar holds, it could spell an end to this calamitous conflict. Perhaps it will allow people to return to their homes and grow and obtain food, reversing the food insecurity and other problems that this new nation has faced.

North Korea

Food insecurity and malnutrition have been common occurrences for decades in North Korea, another country also experiencing political troubles. The oppressive and secretive nature of the country’s government has made it difficult to determine the extent of North Korea’s many problems. But, the estimates are devastating. For example, experts believe that a famine in the country in the 1990s killed up to three million people. North Korea’s mountainous terrain and cold climate have always made agriculture difficult, and the country no longer received agricultural aid from the Soviet Union after the latter country collapsed in the early 1990s, which made farming even more difficult.

The North Korean government claims that a lack of aid from other countries continues to hurt the country. Many countries have imposed sanctions on North Korea for developing a nuclear weapons program. The countries imposing the sanctions have claimed that they did not place sanctions on food but on other goods. But, even these sanctions threaten the livelihoods of many North Koreans. If the North Koreans cannot earn enough money, they cannot earn enough to feed themselves and their families. The results have been heart-wrenching. “[H]unger remains a way of life” in North Korea, wrote Dr. Kee B. Park in a December 2017 article in the New York Times. “Forty-one percent of North Koreans, about 10.5 million people, are undernourished, and 28 percent of children under 5 years old have stunted growth. When my 4-year-old daughter visited [North Korean capital] Pyongyang in 2013, she, all of three feet, towered over children twice her age.” Park vividly explains how hunger creates immediate problems and future ones. Not having food creates insecurity that can last a lifetime. It can create physical and emotional problems that persist long after people receive adequate food if they ever receive adequate food.

What Are People Doing About Hunger-Related Issues?

Different governments are pitching in to tackle famine. The government of United States president Donald Trump pledged to donate more than $1 billion since November 2017 alone. Still, relief workers say that the governments of other countries can do more. That is if the governments even know about such problems in the first place. Relief workers say that people do not know that famine exists in many places. They say that Trump’s administration has been helpful in its humanitarian efforts. But, on the other hand, they also say that publicity surrounding Trump and the activities of his administration has overshadowed people’s knowledge about other things, including famine and food insecurity in different parts of the world. Food insecurity is also tied to political insecurity. It is no coincidence that many of the countries on this list have experienced war or other forms of political instability in addition to food problems. Many experts believe hunger and war are often inextricably linked. According to Cormac Ó Gráda, “The hope for a famine-free world depends on improved governance and on peace. It is as simple – and as difficult – is that.”

Nicole Allen is a freelance writer and educator based in the United States. She believes that her writing is an extension of her career as a tutor since they both encourage learning and discussing new things. Her degrees in creative writing, education, and psychology help her understand her target audience and how to reach them in creative and educational ways. She has written about fitness and health, substance abuse and treatment, personal finance and economics, parenting, relationships, higher education, careers, travel, and many other topics, sometimes in the same piece. When she isn’t writing, you might find Nicole running, hiking, and swimming. She has participated in several 10K races and hopes to compete in a marathon one day. A longtime volunteer at animal shelters, Nicole is a passionate supporter of organizations that help animals. She also enjoys spending time with the dogs and cats in her life and spoiling them rotten.

Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, business, and gender.