Phillipian Commentary: Wuhan’s Woes

The first time I heard about the Coronavirus outbreak from my parents, I didn’t think anything of it. The Chinese government had minimized and downplayed the urgency of the issue, saying that the outbreak that had originated in Wuhan was a “preventable and controllable” one. Moreover, with the Australian bushfires and threats of a military conflict between America and Iran, it seemed as if the world had more than enough on its hands. This new outbreak of the Coronavirus, however, has infected people and gripped the media’s attention at equally breakneck speed; by Wednesday night, this “preventable and controllable” virus had infected 7,800 and killed 170. Fifty[a] million people in major cities surrounding Wuhan were completely quarantined, and sites of public gathering were closed nationwide. Hysteria quickly travelled around the world; when my friend in Andover heard that the coronavirus had spread to America, he immediately went to the supermarket in search of face masks, only to find that they had all been bought[b].

It is important to gain a clearer understanding of the scope of this outbreak. Due to the novelty of the virus, many aspects of it are shrouded in mystery. Although the incubation period has been estimated to be between one and fourteen days, we know neither how contagious it is or who is targeted. Although the virus disguises itself as a common cold at first, symptoms rapidly progress during the second week, leading to risks of other life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia. There are no vaccines or official treatments available, although it has been suspected that the virus can not survive in environments warmer than 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). With cases appearing worldwide and the number of infected people mushrooming—as of writing this article, another 1,000 people were expected to have been infected—the coronavirus is quickly turning into a global health emergency.

Health hazards aside, the coronavirus is proving to be a political pain for the Chinese government. Since the SARS epidemic in 2002, which initially spread unchecked partly as a result of the decision to minimize early reports, the government has tried to present itself as a competent and technologically progressive country. As such, there is no doubt that the emergence of another outbreak is harmful towards its diplomatic image and soft power. Notably, many voiced their condemnation when it was revealed that the outbreak may have begun in a live wildlife market that had been illegally selling bats for human consumption, spawning waves of racist remarks online. The Chinese economy will take a hit, too. This outbreak takes place during the Lunar New Year, the busiest part of the year. To give some context, China celebrates the Lunar New Year with perhaps even more enthusiasm than we celebrate the new year here in America, with a national seven day holiday in a country known for its unrelenting work schedule. Traditionally, the streets would be packed by joyous citizens and festivities, but if someone were to go to Wuhan right now they would only find empty streets and abandoned shops. Chinese media outlets maintain that citizens are moving around as normal, but in Wuhan private vehicles have been banned and public transportation halted. Even in Shanghai, almost 850 kilometers, or about 530 miles, away, my mom turned her phone to film a major intersection when asked about the coronavirus. Though it was mid-day, the eight lane road was nearly empty—the eerie lack of engine noises and honks were sporadically punctuated by the droning of mopeds as delivery workers drove to and fro their destinations.

How China decides to respond to this pressing issue will determine its standing in the international community as well as how the government is perceived nationally. [c][d]Should it choose to be completely transparent about the details of the coronavirus, it may be praised for helping limit the spread of the illness. Unfortunately, as of now it seems as if it has no intention of doing so. Since China’s political system is largely dependent on pleasing one’s superiors, officials have no incentive of being the herald of bad news. As such, during the SARS[e] outbreak, officials decided to downplay the seriousness of the disease, eventually leading to deaths that may have been avoided had more stringent measures been taken earlier. This looks to have happened again—a video posted by part-time NYT reporter Ezra Cheung appears to show corpses lying in hospital hallways. In the video, which has since been deleted from Chinese social media site Weibo (though not from Twitter), the woman says that “these corpses have been sitting here for the entire morning… one of them died yesterday.” Though Chinese social media sites such as Weibo and Wechat remain heavily censored, posts critical of the local government have risen rapidly in frequency. Regardless of whether this is because the central administration is attempting to deflect the blame to local offices or simply because they aren’t able to censor all of the information, as this outbreak continues and nerves become increasingly frayed more acts of defiance may emerge. Although the state media’s official stance on this outbreak has been much more cautious than with SARS by constantly reporting on statistics and occasionally admitting their own errors, there remains some disheartening examples of misinformation. For instance, following an announcement a few days prior that the city was building a new 1000 bed hospital called the Huoshenshang Hospital within 7 days, the Global Times published a tweet this Monday hailing the completion of the first building. Within minutes, the comments sections discovered that the image attached with the tweet was not in fact a new hospital ward but rather a stock photo on the search engine Alibaba. Quite an embarrassing gaffe for the CCP.

Though a new hospital probably is being built within that time frame (a similar hospital was built in Beijing in response to the SARS outbreak), medical staff are overworked and undersupplied—some doctors in Wuhan report having to resort to raincoats, having long since run out of protective suits. This, then, raises a couple of questions. Most importantly, prefabricated sections pose a serious issue for hospitals. Although a lot of time could be saved by shipping pre-built parts of the structure and attaching them on site for normal houses, hospitals require complex ventilation systems. Just imagine the health risk it would pose if the ventilation system in a quarantine room malfunctioned—it could potentially infect other staff and patients. Just as important, the lack of resources and personnel remain. Even if the hospital was successfully built and opened February 3, buildings and equipment are useless without competent medical professionals and tertiary protection suits.

Much remains to be known about this disease. Perhaps we will see treatments being developed or a more coordinated effort to stop its spread. For now, however, it remains a national health emergency, at least in the eyes of the Chinese. Much is on the line, whether it be China’s national image or the lives of those living in Wuhan. The coming days will be a crucial time for the Chinese—whether or not the state has falsified the statistics will determine their standing in the national and international community in the days to come. Choosing to adopt a more transparent approach towards this outbreak, then, will be the key to containing and controlling the Coronavirus.