COVID-19 and Lessons from Traditional Chinese Medicine

24.11.2020 - Singapore - IDN InDepthNews

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COVID-19 and Lessons from Traditional Chinese Medicine
(Image by IDNFINANCIALS)

By Jayasri Priyalal for InDepthNews

They are fighting an invisible enemy taking a warpath. Many countries grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic interpret the situation like a war. Frontline heroes are found in battlefield scenarios.

These heroes come from different professions, medical and healthcare workers being the binding force, the rest including, security, transport, postal logistic, financial service providers, and employees attached to retail industries etc. Aside from them, many unsung heroes are working in hospitals, morgues, in burial grounds and the health and sanitary service providers who provide an invaluable essential service to keep the communities together.

The enormous risk they bear in carrying out their duties are often undervalued, like their health, and the health and safety their families are facing. Unfortunately, all these essential services providing unsung heroes fall into the bottom of the pyramid in societies without fundamental rights as enjoyed by others.

As things stand today, with over 44.7 million infections and nearly 1.17 million deaths across the regions, the situation is beyond control. Taking control to manage the problem is what is expected from influential leaders in similar circumstances. Instead, in many countries, it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken control of the situation.

The American war veteran, General George S. Patton’s quotes are used in handling challenging situations from his battlefield experiences. He said, prepare for the unknown and study how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable. What is seen in the current fix is that many political leaders are confused with known unknowns, and unknown unknowns and happy to disregard the science and medical advice for their own convenience. Attitudes demonstrate irresponsible leadership in many countries without any clue or strategic plan to manage the situation or to overcome the crisis, aside from learning from past experiences.

A similar global pandemic engulfed the world in 1918. The Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 flu pandemic, was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza – a virus. In all fairness, this influenza did not originate in Spain. Almost 500 million people, about a third of the world’s population, became infected. The flu spread across regions as the world was grappling with World War I, when European superpowers were fighting for their imperial dominance. At that time, the science was also not so advanced to be able to segregate the various pathogens whether they be bacteria or virus.

Even at that time, conspiracy theories said the flu originated in China. The fact remains that the spread of the pandemic and deaths resulting from the flu were meagre in China in comparison to other regions. With limited access to the records across China, some believe that the numbers were not accurate. A probable reason for this could be that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with its indigenous treatment methods were being used to counter the spread of the disease.

Having brought the COVID-19 situation under control in Wuhan, in Hubei province, China, the doctors practicing western medicine commended the contributions of the TCM practitioners for their assistance in combatting the novel coronavirus imperiously.

Therefore, it will be useful to examine how TCM practice has evolved in China in order to understand the impact, if any, and its relevance in restraining flu pandemics. TCM practice dates back 3000 years. Chinese medical practitioners have been treating patients with traditional herbal decoctions with careful observations of symptoms and syndromes by maintaining records which have passed from one generation to the other.

Marco Polo the famous Italian traveller, who visited China in the 13th century, records having seen that the servants who served the emperor -Yuan Dynasty- during meals needed to wear silk scarves to cover their mouths and noses. A Chinese medical scientist Wu Liande invented a mask made of two layers of gauze called “Wu’s mask” in response to a plague in Northeast China during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Experts in different countries highly complimented this mask as it was simple to produce at low cost, and the materials were easy to obtain, and it served the purpose.

Although many of us are still grappling with knowing the origin of the COVID-19 virus, one thing is exact, as per the historical records the source of the facial mask what we all use now is from China. So, it is evident that those who doubt China’s integrity find it challenging to put on a covering of the mouth and nose in order to protect their health, even when their face masks are produced outside China.

This writer has some basic understanding of TCM practice. Under TCM etiology, there are eight categories and principles applied to identify diseases and the sources. Symptoms and syndromes are clinically examined to diagnose imbalances in yin, yang, exterior, interior, cold, heat, excesses and deficiencies. Accordingly, TCM practice in the past did not identify the pathogens such as bacteria or viral as we are now familiar.  So, a flu pandemic such as COVID-19 is believed to be caused by exogenous pathogens in TCM clinical examinations.

These exogenous pathogens enter the human body through the skin, nose and mouth. The nose is the orifice (opening) for the lungs, and mouth is the orifice for the spleen and the tongue is the orifice for the heart. A brief explanation to highlight why the facial mask used to prevent the spread of diseases originated from external wind pathogens in line with TCM principles originated in China. So, by wearing a face mask one can prevent the spread of the pathogens if already infected and get protection by not getting it from others in the community.

Wearing a face mask is very common in most East Asian cultures – Japan, Taiwan – respecting this value as that of a responsible citizen.

The methods used in TCM to treat patients has many similarities with Ayurvedic and Helawedakam (Sri Lankan indigenous medicine) practices. When exogenous wind pathogens attack, the treatment methods focus mainly on strengthening the immune system and dispersing the pathogen from the body.

Many of the aromatic herbs usually have the actions of dispelling pathogens and promoting qi (unique in TCM which translates into some form of internal energy) and blood.

Herbal ingredients used in Sri Lankan medicine and TCM decoctions have many similarities, but the properties may differ. Aside from these principles, TCM etiology also uses emotional factors and climatic conditions in identifying patterns causing various diseases.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous social media materials are circulating stressing the importance of improving the immunity and emotional wellbeing supporting this argument. They are all relevant, but what is most important is social distancing and wearing a face mask to contain the virus.

Historical facts concerning the flu pandemic restraining methods and TCM principles explained show the issues contributing to ineffective leadership in managing the COVID-19 crisis outside of China. The authoritative governance style in China and the leadership demonstrated by President Xi Jinping’s firm decisions to lockdown the provinces and cities thus prevented the spread of the virus and brought the situation under control. The cultural aspects and beliefs well established in Chinese society enabled citizens to obey the orders and remain disciplined.

To drive this point, let me quote General George S Patton, again; “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” I think this worked in the same spirit in China, but not in other parts of the world.

In the worst-performing COVID-19 pandemic crisis management countries, the population did not receive a clear message about what to do as was the case of China. Mixed priorities and unclear messages confused the public. In many democracies, the current leaders got elected by riding the popularity waves stirring nationalistic emotions in the election process. They were good at managing misinformation to achieve their electoral success. They lacked clarity in their message to tell people what to do, and they were not ready to learn from others who successfully coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable in the past. Moreover, they dared to neglect science and professional medical advice. That is how COVID-19 has tested the leadership abilities of many politicians.

At least from now on those leaders grappling need to find solutions for the problem, instead of finding problems in the solutions that have been proven effective in managing similar situations in the past. This article has enumerated some historical facts, issues and alternative options in order for readers to lobby and influence  their poor leaders so that they may find the right path.

* The writer is the Regional Director responsible for Finance Sector of UNI Global Union, Asia & Pacific Organization – Singapore.

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