Given how China handled the 2003 SARS outbreak, the Communist Party has helped prevent an outbreak from becoming an emergency in 2020
China’s authoritarian tendencies are difficult to overstate. No matter the issue, it’s a safe bet that the Chinese Communist Party will elect to follow the least transparent and most top-heavy policy. From their absurd censorship practices to denying the existence of concentration camps the Chinese government is famously opaque. Little wonder then that the western world is critical of how Beijing is handling the latest coronavirus outbreak there. Credit where it’s due however, China is actually handling the Wuhan virus as well as anyone could be expected to.
To be clear, China’s censorious impulses have not slowed in response to the virus. During the first few days of the crisis, at least eight people were arrested for spreading “rumors” of an emerging public health threat in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Journalists report being detained by the police at a Wuhan area hospital for trying to report on the outbreak (link in Chinese). It took Over twenty million people in at least three cities have been quarantined – so far.
Consider however, that the Wuhan virus is unfolding during the Lunar New Year in China, the largest regular migration of human beings on Earth. Consider that Wuhan, like many Chinese cities, is largely a boarding city – a city of migrants. This is what drives the annual New Year migration: tens of millions of people returning to their mostly-rural homes during the only time of year they have to do so. Consider that there is an endemic mistrust of western medicine and the medical establishment in China. China’s approach to stamping the spread of this disease may be at odds with some western ideas of accountability and responsibility but there is little Xi Jinping could have done differently to more effectively keep Chinese citizens safe.
The Swine Flu outbreak of 2009 infected some 59 million Americans, ultimately killing around 12,000. The first cases appeared around late March of that year and in mid-April the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified. It took another month for disease identification kits to be widely available to public health authorities around the country. In 2014, the US was racked with panic over a possible outbreak of Western Africa Ebola virus, a disease with up to 90% mortality. The CDC took just under two months to identify and map the virus’ genetic structure and another six weeks to publish it.
The first identified Wuhan virus patient was admitted in mid-December of 2019. By the end of the month, China had informed the Chinese public, world media, and the World Health Organization, as well as reached out to the CDC. By mid-January, the genetic sequence of the virus had been shared with health organizations and governments across the world. According to Yale School of Public Health Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Nathan Grubaug, “The institutes in China have thus far done an outstanding job of communicating throughout a very challenging and dynamic situation.” By every metric of responsible reaction time, China has done very well this time around.
China is building dedicated hospitals to treat this virus in break-neck speed. They’ve diverted hundreds of millions in funding to the quarantined cities. The public is aware of the danger and the government has activated hundreds of medical teams, comprised of tens of thousands of doctors and nurses and infectious disease experts. China is working closely, and openly, with medical experts from all around the world.
China learned from its incredibly botched handling of the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003. China denied the existence of SARS to the world and even to its own people in 2002 leading to an unnecessary Chinese death toll and a world on edge. In every way, China is handling the Wuhan virus with much greater competence, openness, and global awareness.
Yes, China still took too long to acknowledge the existence of the virus and was deliberately obtuse in publicizing its likely origin. Similarly, the government is almost certainly downplaying the extent of the virus’ reach. But Beijing’s reactions in 2020 are in total contrast with their behavior in previous disease outbreaks. China’s leaders are keen on proving to the world that they are a responsible global citizen and their response to the Wuhan virus is thus far – mostly – commendable. There is much to criticize the Chinese Communist Party for but right now they are proving themselves a member in good standing of the world community.
Thomas Brown is a history teacher and freelance journalist. He is managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in Quillette, The Bipartisan Press, Spiked, Alaska Native News, GEN, Human Events. Follow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.
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