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Coronavirus and Central Asia

Afghanistan and Iran to watch closely

Babak KHANDANI
Monday 27 January 2020

In the Middle Ages, the Black Death had taken the Silk Road to reach Europe. Today, there are fears of transmission of the coronavirus epidemic more through the China Sea and the Pacific, and of course by air transport. Meantime, the Central Asian Gateway is neglected. However, the massive presence of Chinese companies and citizens in this region should worry the health authorities.

For more than twenty years, China has been expanding its economic and physical presence in Central Asia, which, in addition to its mining and oil resources, is the only way to bypass the seas entirely dominated by the navies of Western countries.

Black Death
(Click to enlarge)

The negligence of the Central Asian governments could serve as a breach for the virus to spread explosively to the rest of the World. Two countries in particular should be closely monitored: Afghanistan and Iran.

There is no need to remind our well-informed readers of the presence of Chinese companies in Afghanistan, particularly in the exploitation of the Aynak copper deposit. On the other hand, it would be useful to insist that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is more than porous. Through Pakistan, the virus will spread to the Persian Gulf, the Near East, North Africa and eventually Europe.

As for Iran, China is the key economic partner. Iranian businessmen of all sizes are travelling there en masse. Some of them will inevitably bring back the virus, which could then escape via Iraq, Turkey or Azerbaijan.

The situation is more severe than we think

The situation is alarming because, according to my analysis, the Chinese authorities publish statistics that are 14 days old. For example, the figures for 26 January actually correspond to 12 January. These 14 days are precisely the incubation period of the virus.

Under these assumptions, as of January 26, the death toll would not be 81, but rather more than 23,000.

Indeed, as early as February 22nd, the population of the city of Wuhan was in a state of widespread panic, as attested by the videos posted on social networks. However, as of 22 February, for a city of 12 mln inhabitants, there were only 571 confirmed cases and 17 deaths. Even ordinary flu epidemics do more damage than that, every year.

On the other hand, the Chinese authorities seemed, right from that time, to be taking disproportionate measures in relation to the figures reported. One example is the construction of a 1,000-bed hospital in just a few days, even though the city has 40,000 beds. A second hospital of the same kind has just been launched.

Finally, it should be noted that the alert issued by the Chinese authorities on 31 December does not seem to be a mere calendar coincidence. I believe that Beijing wanted to take advantage of the loosening of the markets to pass on worrying information, hoping to make as little waves as possible.

Even if my suspicions of conspiracy were unfounded, given the exponential rate of 1.5 observed to date, the death toll will in any case reach 15 mln (fifteen million…) by the end of February, in mainland China alone. Under these circumstances, it is better to be alarmist than reckless. ■


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