When coronavirus (2019-nCoV) first broke out, the Chinese government responded by quarantining journalists, citizens, and doctors who said “SARS is back”—or said anything at all about the pneumonia-like virus online. China downplayed the virus to the global public even after it had notified the World Health Organization (WHO) that the virus had been identified. While the news could often be contained by Chinese censors in December 2019, by January 2020, the world knew that something like SARS had struck again.
The secrecy isn’t a new story. In 2003 the government downplayed the severity of the SARS outbreak. But back when SARS-CoV (severe acute respiratory syndrome-corona virus) struck, social media was not the communications behemoth that it is in China today.
In 2019, things have played out differently. News of 2019-nCoV spread via WeChat faster than the Chinese censors could keep up:
Online, there has been a steady trickle of photos, videos, and witness accounts from overwhelmed hospitals that seem to undermine the state’s narrative of having the situation firmly under control. Along with reports from medical personnel, some of these grassroots accounts may have played a role in authorities moving to build temporary hospitals in Wuhan. While some hashtags and posts are quickly scrubbed by censors, others—like the hashtag #Wuhan on lockdown#—are allowed to remain, showing the government’s attempts to walk a delicate line between censorship and transparency.Mary Hui and Jane Li, “China’s coronavirus outbreak is unfolding in a new age of information—and surveillance” at Quartz (January 26, 2020)
Local authorities had refused to disseminate information to people in Wuhan early on in the outbreak, attracting international criticism:
There is considerable misinformation on Chinese social media and authorities have legitimate reasons to counter false information that can cause public panic. But rather than rebutting false information and disseminating reliable facts, the authorities in some instances have appeared more concerned with silencing criticism.China: Respect Rights in Coronavirus Response” at Human Rights Watch (January 30, 2020)
China Digital Times, a bilingual news outlet that monitors censored topics in China, summarizes government actions to date:
While Beijing is eager to avoid a repeat of SARS and has maintained contact with the WHO since December, authorities are working hard to control the narrative: censoring online information and relevant “rumors,” penalizing those who spread “false information without verification” (even if they are frontline doctors), while broadcasting propaganda on diligent relief and containment efforts, optimistic outlooks from renowned experts, and fake images of nonexistent new hospitals for coronavirus patients.Josh Rudolph, “Public anger swells over official opacity on coronavirus” at China Digital Times (January 29, 2020)
So what are the key facts to date?
Because 2019-nCoV is a new virus within the coronavirus “family,” experts are still trying to piece together its epidemiological profile. So far, they have learned that it is less virulent than SARS and much less contagious than measles. It appears to exceed influenza in severity and contagiousness. The first case can be traced back to a stall operator in the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan (December 8, 2019). It may have originated from an animal. SARS and MERS, also within the coronavirus family, originated in animals before crossing the species barrier to humans.
As of this writing, 2019-nCoV has infected about 10,000 people, mostly in Hubei province, where the outbreak started in the capital, Wuhan. Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, along with thirteen surrounding cities, is currently in complete lockdown (though we can assume that, statistically, 99.9% of the inhabitants are not infected).
Why did the virus spread so widely?
Despite the severe measures outlined above, the virus has spread more widely than we might have expected, mainly for two reasons.
First, the government of China has seemed more concerned with enabling censorship and projecting an image of stability than with providing transparent information during the critical early days of the outbreak when an informed public might act promptly—in its own interests—to control the outbreak.
Second, it has tried, via a brute-force response, to give the public the impression that it has everything under control rather than responding according to the best available medical judgment while respecting the freedoms of those who have not been infected.
Historically, public health authorities have found that the best practice during epidemics is to provide clear communications with the public early in an outbreak. Often the media report stories about food poisoning or flu while an investigation for a new virus is being conducted. But the publicity actually helps the investigation by alerting area residents to symptoms of possible interest. It also encourages them to take precautions early on, such as throwing out contaminated food, getting a flu vaccine, or staying home from work or crowded public places. (See, for example, The Centers for Disease Controls’ online Principles of Epidemiology in Public Health Practice.)
The Chinese government, in contrast, detained and threatened journalists who reported on the coronavirus outbreak. According to Human Rights Watch, a doctor treating coronavirus patients was “detained” for “spreading rumors” because he had posted something about the virus on WeChat.
Wuhan area residents, trapped in lockdown and forbidden to post about their conditions or to criticize medical personnel, have taken to social media to vent their frustrations. Sentiments like “Why is the government scared of public discussion?… They are slow to handle the crisis, but fast to shut people up” and “If the government wants us to trust them, they should be trustworthy, first” are escaping the net.
In sharp contrast to the government, the Chinese scientists‘ response was stellar. They worked quickly, says Da Shiji of the China Media Project who is living as a resident in lockdown in Wuhan. As of January 1, scientists in Hubei were working around the clock to isolate and identify the novel coronavirus via genetic sequencing. Scientists in Shanghai quickly confirmed their results. But the peace-of-mind value of their efforts was squandered by the local government’s political agenda:
On January 11, on the basis of the latest research developments in Beijing and Shanghai, China officially confirmed that this new coronavirus was the pathogen causing the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic, and it shared the new coronavirus gene sequence information with the WHO… But while the Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organization about these developments at the earliest opportunity, they did not inform their own people, but instead maintained strict secrecy. This meant no progress was made on prevention and control.Da Shiji, “The truth about “dramatic action” ” at China Media Project
For a week, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission told the public that there were no new cases. That was not true. As Da points out, the official response was motivated by the need to preserve the outward appearance of stability. Public health took a distant second place as authorities, even in the face of evident person-to-person contagion, said the virus was limited in its ability to spread from person-to-person and that contracting the virus was preventable and controllable. “In light of these statements, the public remained unaware and unconcerned,” Da says.
To maintain the (false) narrative, Da said Wuhan continued with the launch of its “Spring Festival Culture Benefitting the People Campaign” and encouraged tourists to visit—at least until January 20th when President Xi issued official instructions on how to deal with the outbreak. This communication breakdown has had global effects as the virus has now spread to multiple countries.
Quarantine and Human Rights
Quarantining infected and potentially infected individuals is standard practice to prevent the spread of an outbreak. But quarantining an entire city, 99.9% of whom are not presenting symptoms, speaks more to the local authorities’ lack of organization and mismanagement of the outbreak than to the virulence of coronavirus. When the spread of the virus could no longer be denied in China, and in Wuhan in particular, the government went from censoring information and propaganda to locking down the city.
Guo Jing, a woman living in Wuhan, kept a diary of her first week on lockdown. On Sunday, January 26, she wrote, “It not just the city that’s trapped. It’s also the voices of the people. On the first day of the lockdown, I couldn’t write [anything about it] on social media [because of censorship]. I couldn’t even write on WeChat. Internet censorship has existed for a long time in China, but now it feels even more cruel.” (January 30, 2020)
Da Shiji says of the experience,
And so it was that the seriousness of what was happening in Wuhan broke upon the nation, and my city became a city under lockdown – not out of an overriding concern for public health, but out of a conviction that politics and stability preservation must always come first…
All public places are now inaccessible. No one is associating or organizing get togethers. There is no sense of community. No public life. We are all atomized individuals, living in isolation in our own homes, passing the time watching the television, or glued to our mobiles.Da Shiji, “The truth about “dramatic action” ” at China Media Project
It is the first time in decades, he recalls, that the Chinese New Year passed without the sound of fireworks.
A sense of betrayal
The Chinese Communist Party has a tacit agreement with the mainland Chinese people: Personal freedom is sacrificed in exchange for security and prosperity. The people allow themselves to be tracked by officials in one of the most extensive state-run surveillance systems in the world. But when the government cannot uphold a key portion of its end of the agreement—security—the people may be expected to become less tolerant of the human rights violations and government missteps. And the age of information makes it much easier to discover them.
For example, in early January, when Wuhan government officials held their annual meetings, there was very little discussion of the virus but there was a banquet where officials exuded peace and calm:
But when news of the banquet was posted online, it [was] met with a wave of anger as internet users bitterly criticized them for inaction. One user mocked these officials online with the choice words: “These public servants who need not concern themselves with the virus, reward themselves with flowers in the back courtyard.”Da Shiji, “The truth about “dramatic action” ” at China Media Project
Another meme was rapidly born, like a mutating virus, across social media. The word ‘coronavirus’, or guānzhuàng bìngdú (冠状病毒), was replaced with the identical-sounding ‘official virus’ (官状病毒), mocking the cowardice and ineffectiveness of the government and of high-level officials.Da Shiji, “The truth about “dramatic action” ” at China Media Project
One thing is clear: WeChat users are not buying the government’s “we-have-everything-under-control” narrative. People have taken to yelling their frustrations out of their apartment windows. And conspiracy theories and misinformation abound, largely due to the government’s own disinformation campaign.
Finally, Chinese citizens are finding creative ways to voice their frustrations toward the government. In the comments threat for the TV show Chernobyl, many compared the Soviet Union’s coverup of the nuclear accident to the Chinese authorities’ handling of cornonavirus. The site has now, of course, been blocked by censors. As if that will change public opinion.
Also by Heather Zeiger: Serious media in China have gone strangely silent. With a compulsory new app, the government can potentially access journalists’ phones, both for surveillance and capturing data. Liu Hu sums up the scene in a few words: “Outside of China, journalists are fired for writing false reports… Inside China, they are fired for telling the truth.”