China officials in Wuhan criticised for response to outbreak
When the illness struck seven patients at a hospital in late December, Dr Li Wenliang sent a text in a group chat that said: “Quarantined in the emergency department.”
One recipient responded: “So frightening. Is SARS coming again?”
In the middle of the night, officials from Wuhan, the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, arrested the doctor and demanded to know why he shared the message, according to The New York Times.
Three days later, he was made to sign a statement admitting that his text constituted “illegal behaviour”.
Shortly after, Xinhua News Agency issued a warning to the public: “The police call on all netizens to not fabricate rumors, not spread rumours, not believe rumours.”
That same day, Wuhan officials announced that 27 people were suffering from a mysterious pneumonia, but said there was no reason to be alarmed. By this point, local residents still had not been told how the virus was transmitted. In a statement, health officials called the illness “preventable and controllable”.
Travel in and out of Wuhan was locked down on January 23, with the last flight from the city to Australia arriving more than a week ago.
HOW SLOW WERE OFFICIALS TO RESPOND?
The first case of the coronavirus was found in early December. Over the following weeks, local authorities downplayed the threat and stopped people from spreading “rumours” about it online. Their main priority was to control the narrative around the outbreak.
On January 1, police officers shut down Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and disinfected it.
But city officials remained optimistic about it in public statements, saying they had stopped the virus at its source and not suggesting there was any evidence of a spread between humans.
But by the end of the first week of January, hospitals were getting crowded with people experiencing the same symptoms.
The Times notes cases included members of the same family, making it clear the disease was spreading through human contact.
Still, local authorities did not sound the alarm. On January 7, Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang gave a speech touting his healthcare plans for the city. The viral outbreak did not get a single mention.
It has made its way to at least 25 countries and territories, including 12 cases in Australia.
A GROWING BACKLASH
There is now a growing wave of anger in China over how authorities handled the outbreak.
The Wuhan government issued a statement saying personnel attending an emergency supplies meeting on Saturday had “received masks and other related protective supplies” from China’s Red Cross, which is overseeing donations.
“We will further standardise the collection, storage, and distribution of protective gear for frontline workers … Thank you to the media for their attention and supervision,” the statement said.
“These supplies are for the doctors, not the government,” one commenter said.
“Shameless … Have some dignity. The whole country is watching,” wrote another.
It comes as people struggle to buy masks and other protective equipment across the country.
Dr Li himself was infected by the coronavirus. He issued a follow-up statement on Weibo, which angered even more people.
“Everything is settled now. It’s finally confirmed,” he wrote.
He wrote in another post: “I have seen a lot of support and encouragement for me online, which has really helped my emotional state. Thank you everyone.”
WHY WERE OFFICIALS SO SLOW TO RESPOND?
“China’s authoritarian culture in many ways set the stage for this crisis,” he said on The Daily, a Times podcast. “For decades, China has built this ruthless system in which if you are an official in the Communist Party you are expected to be almost perfect. If anything goes bad you are the one who is going to take responsibility and fall.”
“This has created an incentive system where local officials fear saying anything about bad news,” Hernandez said. “They worry that if they are found to have done something wrong they will lose their power, so in a situation like this the incentive is to cover up, conceal, delay, and try to get a handle on these problems on your own, hoping that perhaps no one will ever hear about it.”
“Instead they tried to cover it up, see if they could deal with it secretly and maybe no one would find out about it. Maybe Beijing wouldn’t find out about it. But eventually it broke.
China said it would make a lot of changes to its system after SARS. It said it would expand its disease-reporting system … they promised to be more transparent in the release of data and other things.”
But according to Hernandez, even the SARS outbreak couldn’t stem China’s authoritarian culture, which has only worsened under Mr Xi’s reign and made people more fearful of being associated with bad news.
“He’s made himself out to be the most powerful leader since Mao. He’s someone who’s always speaking about this great ascendant moment for China, in which China’s going to be this superpower, and anything that goes against Xi’s vision of this harmonious resurge in China will be seen as a problem and the people creating that problem will pay the consequences,” he said.
“When I was there in Wuhan, I could sense the fear just ripping across all parts of society. There were people like the ambulance doctors afraid of challenging officials’ statistics. Hospitals didn’t want to test patients for fears of knowing the results. They didn’t want to be seen as speaking out or bringing the truth of this unsavoury story into public view. They’re fearful of being seen as responsible for this crisis. They don’t want to stand out.”
Its response to these sorts of incidents — known in party parlance as “sudden incidents” — is critical to the party’s approval and survival.
“Having realised just how serious this is, and how potentially destabilising it is for the party, it is now scrambling to fully mobilise resources to tackle the crisis,” he said. “Ultimately, the Chinese people are likely to judge the party harshly despite the party’s efforts at narrative control.”
He noted the strongman leader’s “prestige” was “likely to take a hit”, saying the stakes were high for Mr Xi right now.
Mr Ni said the Chinese leader would be “showered with glory” if things went right.
“This is high risk, high reward for him,” he said.