Last month, a few rabbis organized a prayer at the Western Wall, wishing for the wellbeing of the Chinese people. Hundreds of people blew the shofar and even prayed in Chinese. “The Chinese people must know that they have a place in the hearts of the Jewish people, who are praying for them and wishing them well,” wrote Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, one of the gathering’s initiators. “May it please God to accept this prayer with goodwill and love, with the ending of the epidemic beleaguering the Chinese nation and the entire world.”
In retrospect, it seems that this prayer was partly successful. If the information coming from Beijing is reliable, it appears that China has managed to take control of the epidemic, or at least to dramatically reduce infection rates. Last week, China’s president Xi Jinping visited the epicenter of the epidemic’s outbreak in Wuhan, with the government declaring that China is gradually returning to normal. But the epidemic is obviously not over.
This week, the World Health Organization announced that the number of sick people outside China is larger than the number of sick people in the country. China is no longer the focal point of the epidemic, and what was for several months called the Chinese epidemic has become a global one, a problem for all of us.
Perhaps the Chinese people should now pray for other countries, such as the United States. The attitude towards the spread of the virus in China, which as it was expressed only a month ago in endless statements by Western politicians and public officials, now seems arrogant. For many weeks, these statements ranged from condescension to pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. Western media, wrote sinologist Prof. Yuri Pines in Haaretz, were inundated with expressions of unconcealed hostility towards China, and each misstep was touted as proof of its government’s incompetence. All this was accompanied by a wish to see the downfall of the Asian superpower.
Shift in attitude toward China
The irony is that now many people look to China in wonder, impressed by the way it overcame the epidemic. American newspapers such as USA Today completely changed their tone, now publishing stories such as “what can we learn from China?” The Wall Street Journal also admitted that the tough measures employed by China in response to the virus cast doubt over conventional wisdom regarding the way infectious diseases should be dealt with.
In retrospect, the steps taken by China were indeed draconian, but steps taken now around the world, especially in Israel, are also quite brutal. There is no longer an out of hand dismissal of the “dictatorial model” used in stopping the epidemic. This refers particularly to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement that in order to vanquish the virus he intends to employ methods which until now were restricted to combating terror, namely, for controlling Palestinians and other groups that are handled by the Shin Bet security service. Apparently, the plan is to allow the Shin Bet or police to monitor the cellphones of corona patients.
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Netanyahu himself said that these methods will require an invasion of citizens’ privacy. For many, this seems a necessary step given the gravity of the crisis. But when this is added to a policy encouraging reporting of quarantine violators and to serious restrictions on leaving homes, there is concern that we are sliding towards an unbridled technological monitoring of citizens, which could set a precedent for future crises.
In the meantime, reality here and in other places around the world is increasingly becoming similar to the Chinese model. The epidemic began in China, but China is also the first to have gotten a handle on it. The Chinese economy was hurt badly in the first quarter of 2020, with exports in January and February declining by 17.2 percent, compared to the same period last year. However, the superpower’s economy is far from fragile. The endurance of the Chinese people is apparently greater than that of many other countries. Accordingly, it’s reasonable to assume that China will lead the world during the recovery phase after this crisis, and possibly even after that. Instead of toppling China, the crisis may have accelerated China’s becoming the leading global power.
The new reality
The current situation in China reminds us of what life will look like after the epidemic is defeated, or after its peak is behind us. Many people talk about the “post-corona” period, imagining a quick return to routine. But looking at China shows that even after the peak of the epidemic is over, the country is facing a new reality. The sense of victory is overshadowed by fears of a renewed outbreak. Accordingly, restrictions on the entry of travelers from other countries have not been removed, and have even been increased. Foreign and local journalists are reporting that restaurants are nearly empty, with security guards standing at entrances checking the temperature of anyone wishing to enter. Security guards at malls in Israel may in the future be equipped with thermometers as well as metal screening devices.
Moreover, the humiliation suffered by China in the first weeks of 2020 will not be quickly forgotten. Early in February, China was furious at the Trump administration’s decision to block air traffic from China, with no aid coming from the U.S. during China’s crisis. In Israel, the Chinese embassy published a statement comparing the attitude to its citizens to the positive attitude towards Jewish refugees in China during the Holocaust. The embassy later apologized, but the incident highlighted the insult and anger felt by the Chinese over the attitude expressed by other countries towards China.
Relations between China and the U.S. were tense even before the present crisis, but in recent days government sources in China have started spreading a conspiracy theory according to which the U.S. army was responsible for the coronavirus outbreak. This could be an additional and particularly dangerous source of international instability in the coming months and years. There is reason to be worried about a vengeful China.