The coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan has shown how far and fast a disease can travel in our globalised age. It has also shown us how quickly fear, misinformation and blame can spread, only hindering the fight against the pneumonia-causing virus.
The alarm is understandable. More than 6,000 cases have been confirmed, and more than 130 people have died: a public health expert at Imperial College has suggested that 100,000 may be infected already. World Health Organization officials think it is impossible to predict when the outbreak will peak. Though only a few score people outside China have been confirmed as infected, they are scattered from the US and Australia to Thailand and the UAE. In Japan and Germany, patients who have never been to China have been taken ill.
The response has been dramatic. China has placed around 50 million people under lockdown in Hubei province. Villages and even housing compounds have imposed their own quarantines, and many people are simply staying at home. Neighbouring Mongolia has closed off its border with China completely and banned all public gatherings. British Airways and other airlines have halted all flights to and from mainland China. These drastic measures may have an economic impact even beyond China’s borders. Already the new year holiday has been extended, affecting factories across the country whose customers may well rely on just-in-time manufacturing. Wuhan itself is an industrial hub.
At present, key questions remain unanswered. We do not know how the new coronavirus first emerged, how easily it spreads, or its fatality rate. Mild cases and shortages of diagnostic kits means that the tally of cases and deaths may be inaccurate. Until we have better answers, it is hard to judge how much of a threat this poses compared to, say, existing flu strains.
Some gaps in our knowledge are inevitable when a new disease emerges. Others are likely to reflect China’s handling of the crisis, in spite of the WHO’s praise for Beijing and the dedication of scientists and medical staff. Its response has been a vast improvement on 2003, when the Sars outbreak was covered up for months. But there is little doubt the Wuhan authorities, at least, badly mishandled matters – encouraging tourism and holding a banquet for 40,000 people days after confirmation of the new coronavirus. Strikingly, the mayor of Wuhan has said he could not disclose information on the virus until authorised to do so by more senior officials. Lack of knowledge facilitated its spread. The outbreak has also exposed the limits of a health system struggling to cope under normal circumstances, and the weaknesses of a party-state which justifies its existence not through an electoral mandate, but its ability to answer basic needs. Two hospitals in Wuhan are being built from scratch, within days. Yet hospitals have had to issue appeals for masks and protective gowns.
Complacency, incompetence and cover-ups are hardly unknown in democracies. But an authoritarian political culture which punishes rather than rewards transparency prevents accountability and struggles to change course. It also, perversely, encourages rumours internally and externally. Conspiracy theories are spreading, along with discrimination towards people from Wuhan within China, and Chinese people abroad, the latter reflecting old racist tropes about disease and hygiene. Such prejudices do nothing to protect health. Justified scrutiny of the official response is necessary. It must not be conflated with hostility towards people who need and deserve help and sympathy.