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In fighting COVID-19 pandemic together, preserving lives must be priority

International Cooperation

Facing one of the most severe public health challenges in recent history, countries across the globe have come to realize that they share a common future and must join hands in building a global community of human health.

XinhuaUpdated: December 16, 2020

The year 2020 has been defined by COVID-19, a once-in-a-century pandemic that has caused an unfathomable amount of human loss.

Facing one of the most severe public health challenges in recent history, countries across the globe have come to realize that they share a common future and must join hands in building a global community of human health.

A medical worker takes a woman's swab sample for COVID-19 test in Shah Alam of Selangor State, Malaysia, Dec. 12, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Once-in-a-century pandemic

On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, the organization's highest level of alarm. In the following six weeks, the global caseload had surged from less than 10,000 to 120,000. On March 11, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus characterized the outbreak as a "pandemic."

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic humanity has faced. The Black Death from 1347 to 1351 killed nearly a third of Europe's population, while the 1918 flu pandemic infected about a third of the planet's population, killing so many people so quickly that bodies piled up in makeshift morgues.

Still, no one could have imagined that in the 21st century, a pandemic would take such an enormous toll on human lives.

According to WHO data, the coronavirus has reached almost all countries, leaving over 70 million people infected and 1.6 million dead.

Compared with many previous pandemics, the difficulty in stopping COVID-19 is partly due to the sneaky transmission of the deadly pathogen. The science behind what makes this novel coronavirus so deadly and difficult to defeat remains to be fully understood. How to balance saving lives with developing the economy poses another challenge to policy-makers worldwide.

Meanwhile, politicians in some countries are making global cooperation, which is essential to the containment of the pandemic, more difficult by spreading disinformation about COVID-19 and blaming others for their own mishandling of the outbreak.

A staff member displays samples of the COVID-19 inactivated vaccine at Sinovac Biotech Ltd., in Beijing, capital of China, March 16, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Light at end of tunnel

Back in early March, Tedros said he believed the coronavirus "would be the first pandemic in history that could be controlled." Nine months on, though efforts to control the pandemic vary across the globe, the WHO head's words remain relevant.

This is because humanity has, unlike in the past, moved fast to understand the pandemic and the pathogen, taken preventive measures to curb the spread of the virus, and made rapid progress in drug and vaccine research, especially in vaccine development, which as Tedros put it, offers "the light at the end of the tunnel."

Unlike decades earlier, the rapid development of genome sequencing and other technologies has substantially accelerated the process to decode unknown viruses.

It only took China a week to isolate the coronavirus strain that caused the disease after detecting an outbreak, and just three days to complete preliminary development of a test kit after the separation of the pathogen.

At the earliest opportunity, China shared the whole genome sequence of the virus with the world, providing a solid basis for global scientists to develop medicines, vaccines and diagnostics.

In addition, many countries have gradually adopted the right measures to control COVID-19, including wearing masks, social distancing, rapid identification, investigation and isolation of cases, and mass lockdowns when necessary.

Meanwhile, progress is occurring at an unprecedented speed in developing drugs and vaccines. The WHO promptly mobilized experts across the world to draw up a coordinated Global Research Roadmap and determine priorities for research. Around the roadmap, researchers have moved to screen existing drugs and try out new drugs, with traditional Chinese medicine also attracting attention.

Notably, researchers from China, Europe, the United States and other parts of the world have developed multiple candidate vaccines.

Recently, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain approved the registration of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group, or Sinopharm, while Britain and the United States granted emergency use authorization for a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. Countries like France, Romania, Portugal and Mexico issued vaccination strategies, and Russia, Britain and the United States have launched mass vaccination campaigns.

"I've seen many epidemics, many humanitarian emergencies around the world. And I've never seen the world's research community respond so fast," said Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of leading medical journal The Lancet.

Medical supplies donated by Chinese government arrive at Juba International Airport in Juba, South Sudan, on Aug. 19, 2020. [Photo/Chinese Embassy in South Sudan/Handout via Xinhua]

Lessons from pandemic

Humanity suffered dearly from epidemics in history, and has learned much in the fights against them. The Black Death called public attention to the importance of urban hygiene. The cholera epidemics in the 19th century sparked mass urban redevelopment plans. And the 1918 flu taught people the importance of public health intervention and disease prevention.

What lessons, then, can we draw from COVID-19?

First, solidarity and cooperation are the most powerful weapon against a pandemic. Viruses know no borders and outbreaks no race. Only through unity can the international community prevail over COVID-19.

As Tedros said in August, "no one is safe until everyone is safe." Throughout the pandemic, many countries have offered support to each other in various forms in a spirit of solidarity against the virus.

Second, major countries should play an exemplary role and demonstrate their responsibility by providing more global public goods.

Since the outbreak, China not only made enormous efforts to contain the spread of the virus at home, but also provided humanitarian assistance to over 150 countries and nine international organizations, and sent 36 medical teams to 34 countries in need.

Meanwhile, Beijing has repeatedly made it clear that once a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and put into use in China, it will be made a global public good.

Third, trust in science plays a crucial role to end the pandemic. Throughout history, scientific and technology innovation has been a key part in human victory against natural disasters and epidemics.

Facing an unknown virus, China and many other countries looked to scientists for information and advice. Yet, some countries chose to pursue political priorities instead, missing an opportunity to tame the epidemic.

Fourth, preserving lives must be top priority in a pandemic. An important reason why China has managed to control the outbreak rapidly and effectively is its commitment to the philosophy of putting people's lives front and center in fighting COVID-19.

Due to different national circumstances, countries may respond in different ways to the deadly virus, but preserving people's lives and health should always be the starting point for all countries in this pandemic battle.

Alone, we lose. Together, we win. COVID-19 has not come to an end. It will not be the last pandemic. But as long as countries put people's lives first and join hands, they will prevail over the coronavirus and other health crises to come.