The human cost of this epidemic for China is growing each day, but much more than that is the image of China as a helpless middle power struggling with a disease when it is supposed to be a technologically advanced society, demonstrating that China has a long way to go in providing health services for its people …. reports Rifan Ahmed Khan
There could not have been a worse scenario for China than the outbreak of the Coronavirus in the Hubei province, its subsequent rapid spread to other parts of China and to the rest of the world. The outbreak and its continuing toll on the people of China demonstrate clearly that China was caught unawares by the crisis and despite warnings the state ignored the intensity and scale of the problem. Ironically, just a few days ago, the doctor who issued a warning about the new virus died after being infected by the Coronavirus.
The reaction of the Chinese state to the warning issued by Dr. Li Wenliang in early January about a “strange new virus” was to summon him for questioning. Li Wenliang, had told medical school classmates in Hubei about the new virus in an online chat room, now known as the Coronavirus. He joined the more than 700 other Chinese who have died in an outbreak.
Within China, Dr. Li has become a hero even before his death after word spread regarding the treatment meted out to him by Chinese authorities. In early January 2020, he was called in by medical health authorities and the local police, who forced him to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an “unfounded and illegal rumour”. Even as China has battled the epidemic, it also tried to stifle criticism that they mismanaged their response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan, a city of eleven million.
Little noticed is the fact that China had stepped up censorship after a rush of online criticism and investigative reports by Chinese journalists who sought to expose missteps by officials who underestimated and underplayed the threat of the Coronavirus. Dr. Li’s death has also exposed a troubling aspect of the epidemic that goes unmentioned in official statistics: the number of doctors, nurses and medical workers infected by the virus.
The Coronavirus, originated from Wuhan (in Hubei Province) in the local sea food market and has today rapidly spread to other parts of China. It has also spread to Japan, Thailand, South Korea and the US. The virus’ impact has been most keenly felt in Hubei which has seen a staggering 97 per cent of all deaths from the illness, and 67 per cent of all patients. The death toll, which grows larger every day, reflects the local health system in China being overwhelmed by the fast-moving, alien pathogen, making basic care impossible.
The human cost of this epidemic for China is growing each day, but much more than that is the image of China as a helpless middle power struggling with a disease when it is supposed to be a technologically advanced society, demonstrating that China has a long way to go in providing health services for its people. In its inimitable style, China also created the world’s largest-known quarantine, with an effective lock-down in the Hubei province. Hubei, known for its car factories and capital Wuhan, has a mortality rate of 3.1 per cent, versus 0.16 per cent for the rest of China, due to the Coronavirus.
Social media is filled with pictures of empty streets in China’s major cities, once bustling with life. Suggestions to prevent the spread of disease abound, but not all of them factually correct. While people have started wearing masks in many other cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, reports indicate that masks that can effectively suppress the spread have already been sold out and more so the lack of availability in countryside.
The Chinese way of handling such crisis is to first stem the tide of information and if possible, seal off the areas that are in the middle of the epidemic. Quarantine is perhaps the best way to tackle the problem but not providing information or increasing awareness is certainly not the way to handle such crises in a mature manner. The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that the top leadership of China including President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Sun Chunlan have personally monitored the prevention and control-related efforts. This had to be done against the backdrop of the mass migrations that occurred during the New Year celebrations. President Xi called for resolute efforts to curb the spread of virus and Li Keqiang stressed for tackling the crisis as public health emergency. Sun Chunlan called for maintaining social order and treating the virus spread as `Class A’ infectious disease.
The initial denial of the outbreak by China was followed by an admission (20 January) that the virus could spread among humans. Subsequently, China clamped down on tour groups, called for random checks on poultry, temperature screening at airports/ railway stations, long distance bus stations and passenger terminals. Even though various diplomatic missions in China did not immediately press the panic button, several advisories have been issued by them. Missions are maintaining direct contacts with various related government organs including the Ministry of Health, all which indicates the seriousness of the health epidemic. Also, countries started to ban flights into and out of China, except those seeking to evacuate their citizens or those contaminated by the disease.
China’s National Health Commission recorded a single-day high of 89 deaths from the Coronavirus on 8 February, bringing the total number of those killed to 811 people in mainland China. The outbreak of SARS, killed 774 people after its emergence in 2002 and 2003, mostly in mainland China and Hong Kong. Official statistics now show that the Coronavirus now surpasses SARS in both the number of confirmed cases and fatalities. China’s cabinet-level National Health Commission has confirmed 2,656 new cases of infection, down from 3,399 on 7 February, to bring the total to 37,198. SARS infected 8,098 people during its outbreak. The problem is that China is known to under report failures and over reporting achievements, so it cannot be ruled out that prevalence of infection and extent of damage may be much higher than the reported numbers. Lessons learnt from China include first response in medical terms and spreading information to increase awareness with the aim of preventing infection.