Editor’s Note: The author of this article lived and worked in mainland China for more than a decade and speaks Mandarin. All places marked with an asterisk (*) are translated from Mandarin Chinese.
The Coronavirus has spread to yet more countries. The world watches on as we imagine scientists and governments are closely following the path of the disease and coming up with new and inventive ways to keep us safe. And it all seems so orderly and sanitized. But it may not be.
It seems that the ruling Communist Party, either through too many layers of officialdom or a desire to appear in complete control, may have been lax in putting out the real facts. Whether this is an effort to hide the truth or to limit fallout remains to be seen.
In Wuhan, China, many more cases of infection are being discovered. Cities are being quarantined, preventing the movement of around 40 million people. “Trust me, I’m a doctor,” are words we are so used to hearing that they have become almost a cliché. However, when doctors answer to a controlling government, perhaps the level of trust should be taken not with a spoonful of honey, but with a pinch of salt.
It appears many leading scientists are quietly wondering whether they are being given all the information. Nancy Messonnier, director of the U.S. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, attempted to calm the rising panic by telling reporters that the threat to the general public was “low,” but added:
“We don’t have all the information at the level of detail that our scientists would prefer. You know CDC scientists, and we want to see every titbit of data ourselves, and that’s not the situation we’re in right now. We are in more of a waiting mode, waiting to see what our colleagues from China are releasing.”
Waiting to see what “colleagues from China are releasing” does not sound like the kind of openness and transparency one would expect from the scientific community reacting to what is fast becoming a global issue. But it may not just be researchers who do not have all the facts.
The South China Morning Post website on January 19, wrote that the municipal health commission in Wuhan “reported 17 new cases on Friday, taking the total in the city to 62, but no other mainland cities have reported any confirmed or suspected cases.” Yet by January 12, a full week earlier, the Post related a study by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, which estimated that as of that date, there were likely to have been 1,723 infections.
QQNews released a summary by one Dr. Tongji, who provided a list of helpful suggestions to the worried public. The last of his helpful hints was this:
“Don’t think about vaccines; it will take several years for the newly discovered virus to go from vaccine development to mass production. At present, the weather in Wuhan is wet and cold, and it is the best time for viruses to rage. Therefore, everyone should take care of themselves. Don’t rashly fight with the laws of nature. Believe in the party and government, and in the hard work and dedication of medical staff.” *
One Chinese netizen sent out a distressing message decrying the lack of help being offered by the authorities. He wrote:
“My parents are ill, my mother has multiple infections in both lungs, and I can’t stay in the hospital. It’s too crowded with people… This is the third hospital I’ve tried up until now… There’s no information or treatment… Save my mother.”*
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Chinese propaganda units are working overtime. The frontline doctors and nurses are being hailed as heroes by the press, willing to brave the danger and sacrifice themselves to save lives. And this may be true, but it is not the whole truth. In fact, medical workers are themselves on lockdown. One doctor in Wuhan wrote on Weibo (a microblogging site), “As a first-line doctor in Wuhan, we were informed today that all our breaks were canceled and we were on call 24 hours a day.”* A young nurse, drafted in, wrote, “I’m 28 years old. If I were really infected, I would die. What would my parents and boyfriend do?” *
On Chinese Facebook, a user (unconfirmed but suspected to be a medical researcher), posted that it was due to the central government’s bureaucracy that the situation is now spinning out of control. He wrote:
“They originally got a good hand. My colleagues worked hard and in less than a week: the virus was isolated, the sequence was tested, and the pathogen was confirmed. Within two weeks, we developed test reagents and distributed them to provincial disease control centers nationwide, and reviewed dozens to hundreds of specimens from Wuhan.
Such a good card is still playing thin and sparse, because there are clear instructions of politics first, strict requirements of confidentiality agreements, and it is impossible to speak in order to maintain stability. So the test report was put in the safe, and the only news was that no new cases were confirmed in Wuhan for a week, that no infection was reported to the staff, and that no medical staff were infected. Everyone thought that Wuhan had taken effective measures to kill the epidemic in the cradle. The truth behind it is that there are many medical staff Infections.” *
The latest figures from China state almost 900 confirmed cases with at least 26 deaths. France now has confirmed cases. At least one more patient in the U.S. has been confirmed. And around the world, more and more cases of this disease are being discovered and confirmed.
Although the number of deaths compared to the number of infections is very low, this can prove far more serious than a disease which kills a high number of its victims. The incubation period is thought to be from two to 14 days, with most patients presenting at around seven days. The latest patient in Chicago – a 60-year-old woman who traveled to Wuhan in late December – did not have any symptoms for around ten days. This is how the coronavirus spreads.
If it were more severe, the infected would become sick quickly and it would be easier to quarantine and track the people who have come into contact with the “patient zero.” Because many sufferers only present cold or flu-like symptoms many days after contact, it becomes almost impossible to trace all vectors.
The most important factor in preventing the spread of an unknown and presently untreatable disease is speed. Playing propaganda games puts lives at risk. Should the world later discover that Chinese authorities purposely dragged their feet to maintain “face,” serious consequences may, and should, follow.
Read more from Mark Angelides.