The Chinese government’s response to the initial CO.VI.D.-19 coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, the most highly populated city in central China and the capital of the sprawling Hubei Province, is emblematic of the deeply entrenched institutional weakness it has been desperately trying to hide for decades. Perhaps the most benevolent thing to come out of this worldwide epidemic is its weakening of the Chinese groupthink structure. Nothing breaks trust in the national government’s purported devotion to wisdom, traditional values, and patriotism like centralized operative incompetence. We saw this with the Soviet Union’s handling of the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in April of 1986, something popularized by the H.B.O. miniseries that made headlines for depicting, with extraordinary levels of political context, an inept central government’s approach to a hugely consequential disaster.
China’s handling of the coronavirus issue has been described as “deceptive” and “authoritarian,” like the Sovet Union’s handling of the Chernobyl event. It’s worth mentioning the S.A.R.S. epidemic from 2003 that affected more than 8,000 people in 26 different countries, because S.A.R.S. was also caused by a type of coronavirus originating through animal-to-human transition and proliferated through human-to-human interaction, which is similar to the behavior of the current CO.VI.D.-19 strain that first arose out of a wet market in the city of Wuhan. S.A.R.S. originated through a similar fashion, also believed to be from bats, in Guangdong in November of 2002, which has remained designated a zone of re-emergence by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.).
The CO.VI.D.-19 coronavirus is less deadly than S.A.R.S., but more easily spread. Chinese governments at the local and provincial level have been incredibly sloppy, inefficient, and ignorant, which isn’t a surprise given the Communist government’s vast centralization of power since President Xi’s election in 2012, something I wrote about extensively in the first edition of my series on China in the 21st century. “Xi’s leadership style [of amassing power at the national level] has effectively instilled a ‘wait and see’ attitude within the bureaucracy,” writes Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “[which] is leading to slow and hesitant responses from government officials as they wait for pronouncements from Beijing before taking action.” Zhou Xianwang, the mayor of Wuhan, even said earlier this year in late January on C.C.T.V. that “As a local government official, after I get this kind of information [regarding human-to-human transmission] I still have to wait for authorization before I can release it.” He wore a face mask while saying this.
Sitting next to Zhou Xianwang was Wuhan Communist Secretary Ma Quoqiang. Both claimed responsibility for the disaster and said that they understood they would be “judged by history.” Most people saw some sort of reconciliation, as Zhou said, “If in the end you say someone has to be held accountable, you say the masses have opinions, then we’re willing to appease the world by resigning.” But those of us who know, know that these two were just two replaceable scapegoats for the larger, systematic hubris that unleashed CO.VI.D.-19, much like the mayor and health minister of Beijing during the 2003 S.A.R.S. epidemic. Li Keqiang, a premier in the national party, has been dispatched to Wuhan on behalf of Beijing and has now been placed in charge of containing the outbreak and developing a collectivized response, several months too late. He is simply the next scapegoat.
This style of response from lower levels of government includes not only inaction, but also stifling of those trying to raise awareness about public health issues. We all know about Dr. Li Wenliang, the opthamologist who had attempted to raise the alarm and got arrested and detained for rumor-mongering, spreading falsehoods, and disturbing the social order, only to catch the disease himself and die from it weeks later. But most likely, this isn’t new. During the 1990s A.I.D.S. epidemic in Henan Province, Doctors Shuping Wang and Gao Yaojie uncovered a vast network of unsanitary blood sales that proliferated the crisis and were subsequently faced with state persecution and forced to take refuge in the U.S.
The national government’s response has been largely irresponsible, with seemingly more resources being poured into the propaganda machine than into responsive capabilities by local public health officials. “State media is filling smartphones and airwaves with images and tales of unity and sacrifice aimed at uniting the people behind Beijing’s rule,” writes Li Yuan in the New York Times. “It even briefly offered up cartoon mascots named Jiangshan Jiao and Hongqi Man, characters meant to stir patriotic feelings among the young during the crisis.” James Palmer of Foreign Policy magazine writes that “the repression of speech and distortion of data in China aren’t a matter of a singular central will. It’s mostly carried out by local officials, who have the most to lose if people can complain freely about mistakes or cover-ups.” Following the challenge to President Xi’s power last year in Hong Kong, it turned out to be this year’s coronavirus epidemic—aided by local corruption, the federal government's delegatory inefficiency, and a propaganda machine seeking national unity to reinforce the legitimacy of the Communist Party—that systematically exposed the structure of lies and repression that props up a corrupt and pompous regime.
Provincial officials underestimated the reach and severity of the virus, and denounced the reality of the situation despite numerous public attempts to spread the word. Record-breaking Lunar New Year potlucks were held. Wet markets in Wuhan continued to operate. The provincial government did not even report a single case of infection in the month of January as to not spike public fear. “Beijing decided to lock down the entire city of [Wuhan, the most populated city in Central China, with a population of] 11 million,” writes Doug Bandow, a senior fellow in the C.A.T.O. Institute. “But the Xi government gave advance notice that it was closing the airport and train station, enabling a flood of people to escape while the door was still open. Five million Wuhan residents ended up elsewhere in China and beyond.”
A shortage of hospital beds resulted in directions to self-quarantine in people’s homes. Public officials were thinly supplied to attack this outbreak. “That the authorities had not stockpiled masks, hand-sanitizer, and more to respond to an unexpected pandemic was perhaps understandable,” Bandow continues. “But refusing to acknowledge let alone confront the swiftly swelling tsunamic of infections made it impossible to catch up.” Furthermore, some have brought up concerns that Beijing’s reported coronavirus death counts are too low, given that many cremations of those deceased from pneumonia-like symptoms have not been listed as coronavirus-related deaths. This distorts efforts at assessing the extent and deadliness of the virus.
The U.S. and other countries like Italy and South Korea have been slow to react in terms of tracking the virus as well. A lack of immediate mass testing allowed the virus to spread undetected, allowing hotspots to blossom in places like Seoul, Seattle, and the southern region of Italy. In the U.S. in particular, the Centers for Disease Control (C.D.C.), disregarded the guidelines provided by the W.H.O. and instead sought out its own testing method, which was sent out to labs around the country in the first week of February. However, it wasn’t entirely accurate. “The C.D.C. test correctly identified CO.VI.D.-19, the disease caused by the virus,” according to an investigative report by ProPublica. “But in all but a handful of state labs, it falsely flagged the presence of the other viruses in harmless samples.”
Furthermore, the fact that this unreliable test conducted only by these state labs was the only action being conducted prevented health officials from executing a universal initial response to pandemics: surveillance testing, or randomly screening hundreds of people in suspected hotspots for the virus. As I am writing this on March 11th, Italian and South Korean surveillance tests have been robust. The latest region in the U.S. to begin mass surveillance testing is the state of Hawaii, given that two Hawaiians have tested positive for the disease and no data currently points to it spreading within the islands. “This additional testing allows the state to proactively identify the spread of CO.VI.D.-19 in our community,” Governor David Ige said. This action is linked to the Grand Princess cruise ship that “made port calls to Nawiliwili Harbor, Kauai on Feb. 26, Honolulu Harbor on Feb. 27, Lahaina, Maui on Feb. 28, and Hilo on Feb. 29,” on which 19 crew members and two passengers tested positive for the coronavirus out of 1,400 passengers. Just yesterday, the Grand Princess cruise ship finally disembarked in California after almost a week of additional testing.
Two countries have fared well under an urging of collective social responsibility. South Korea, which just experienced a spike in CO.VI.D.-19 cases clustered in a call center near a transportation hub in Seoul, is “conducting about 15,000 tests a day, free of charge, and has carried out almost 200,000 screenings so far,” according to The Guardian. “It has also set up about 50 drive-through testing centres and distributed smartphone alerts about the movements of people who have tested positive.” Singapore, which first saw the highest rise in cases outside of China, has focused on home quarantine and contact-tracking programs. People have been compelled to turn on their phone location and have received visits from Singapore officials checking to see if they’re home. If you have not self-isolated after you’ve been told to, expect a $1,000 fine or a sentence of six months in prison, in classic Singapore fashion. Meanwhile, “contacts are being traced by the Singapore police force, who use C.C.T.V. as well as interviews with patients to draw up lists of people who may have been exposed. Though Singapore has introduced charges for visitors who require treatment, tests are free for all.”
The Iranian Vice President tested positive for the disease recently, as did the U.K. Health Minister. When global panic and testing finally kicked up in the West, hospital staff members were overwhelmed by the number of cases. The Atlantic Magazine reported on March 11 that Italian doctors have been swarmed: “There are now simply too many patients for each one of them to receive adequate care.” As a result of this critical understaffing, the Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care has published a medical document directing Italian medical personnel in response to CO.VI.D.-19. In it, they write: “it may become necessary to establish an age limit for access to intensive care,” meaning, “Those who are too old to have a high likelihood of recovery, or who have too low a number of ‘life-years’ left even if they should survive, will be left to die. This sounds cruel, but the alternative is no better.” First-come, first-serve, the document argues, would be increasingly discriminatory to those who have it harder to go to a hospital. So, don’t be surprised when, suddenly, the most wealthy and developed country in the world experiences a shortage of hospital beds.
American University, in the spirit of a major number of other colleges in the country, have moved classes online until the first couple days of April, just weeks after suspending all university-sponsored travel abroad. The osmosis-like spread of the CO.VI.D.-19 coronavirus, and the dangerous inefficiencies of countries' responses, beginning with President Xi Jinping's, has shined a cruel light on both the East and the West’s unpreparedness as a result of arrogance and of bureaucratic slag. Several countries are handling the pandemic with some grace, some have stumbled but regained their balance, and some are letting the elderly infected die due to an unwillingness to saturate all resources on a first-come, first-serve basis.
By now, it's much too late to contain the spread of virus. Prepare for shortages. It's in the hands of medicine, now.
Mark Lu is a third-year Political Science and Economics double-major int he School of Public Affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences. He is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Agora.
Image courtesy Ahn Young-joon, Creative Commons