THE coronavirus outbreak could be worse than that of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002/3. Vlogger and former China-based businessman Matthew Tye (aka ‘laowhy86’) says that the new strain of coronavirus seems to be more transmissible than SARS. He believes that the early indications are that more sufferers are dying than recovering, which if is the case, makes the need for containment even more urgent.
According to him, Chinese officials have been slow to admit the problem and respond accordingly, so exacerbating the spread of the disease. He reports that the first case appeared in Wuhan on 8 December, but a planned public banquet for 100,000 went ahead in the city on 18January, by which time 49 cases had been made public, and the next day the populace was assured that the sickness was not very infectious. When a number of performers fell ill during the government’s New Year celebrations on 21 January the state media merely praised them for showing great spirit and carrying on with the show. The following day came the order to wear masks (not enforceable with fines until a week later), and on 23 January Wuhan was finally quarantined and the airport closed. By this time five million people had left the area and passengers had been allowed on to planes if they showed no symptoms, which unfortunately in the case of this virus take a long time to manifest themselves – as the authorities already knew – so many infected carriers may have travelled out by air.
As he points out urbanised China sees many millions of people are moving around the country in pursuit of work. For example in Wuhan’s province of Hubei, the 2000 national census showed 2.8million migrants moving north to Beijing, south to Guangdong (both about 700 miles distant) and to other coastal cities. This central region is well served with modern rail and road networks, and although Wuhan’s airport is now shut, there are huge numbers of other aviation routes in China, both internal and international, so air travel threatens to be an especially powerful disease vector.
In what sounds symptomatic of a totalitarian regime the initial concern of officials, he says, was to suppress news of the outbreak; that eight people were arrested on 1 January for talking about the existence of the virus, and on 14 January media reporters detained and their phones and cameras searched for information. He continues: By the end of the month the government was still arresting those who spoke out, and (26 January) banning articles on the internet.
He is not alone in presenting a different narrative to the official version of events. Fellow vlogger and Tye associate Winston Sterzel (aka ‘serpentza’) reports on a doctor who treated the first cases and informed his clinical WeChat messaging group on 30 December, telling them not to make it public for fear of being closed down, but to warn family and friends. The authorities picked up on this and made him sign an undertaking not to spread rumours: ‘If you continue to be stubborn and don’t repent . . . you will be punished to the full extent of the law! Do you understand?’ Subsequently he contracted the virus himself and is critically ill.
The intensive preparations now being made (eg new hospitals being set up in days),have been widely reported and admired. But there remains the question of whether the government media are under-declaring or accurately declaring the number of cases. Sterzel reports receiving feedback from Chinese followers saying more people die of the flu in the USA; but he points out that with coronavirus a higher proportion are hospitalised and there is no vaccine. China also reports improbably few cases of flu annually. Sterzel’s doctor wife tells him that this is because their method of recording causes of death is different than in the West. Rather than report the immediate cause, they will write down any pre-existing condition (eg a heart problem) and attribute the death to that. That is the opposite approach to that used by the USA and UK (for an example of ours, see page 5 here) and contributes to the problem of assessing the true state of affairs.
China’s crisis management has moved on to scapegoating since, argues Tye. The Chinese Communist Party’s focus is on maintaining its power and the confidence of the populace. The mayor of Wuhan resigned on 27 January, becoming a target for public shaming and hatred, but later laid part of the responsibility on the central government in Beijing, which in turn seeks to blame the local administration in Hubei for downplaying the scale of the emergency.
The Chinese strongly resent critical comments from outsiders, says Sterzel, and are quick to accuse the latter of racism. It’s understandable, given China’s treatment by foreigners in past times, but it encourages a culture of denial and disinformation.
It is true that Tye and Sterzel may not be entirely unbiased since they have abandoned their businesses in China because of difficulties with the authorities. But neither will official Chinese announcements either. For his part, Sterzel says that since President Xi came to power attitudes to foreigners have hardened and the ‘golden age’ of opportunity there for non-Chinese is over.
It is also most unfortunate that this epidemic, which needs close international co-operation, has come during a developing trade war. In 2018 President Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese imports, and China has retaliated with a reduction and then a total ban on US agricultural products, which were worth $19.5billion to the US in 2017. This, added to other factors, is causing American farmers to suffer terribly. Trump is trying to protect US employment and its standard of living, but the path down from globalisation is far more difficult than the way up and at the same time international relations are souring.
Perhaps, as this potential pandemic looms over us, we will start to work together again for the common good.