WHO praises Beijing, but criticisms emerge from China itself

February 03, 2020 16:18
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has praised China for setting "a new standard" for outbreak response. Photo: Reuters

A week after it decided not to declare the coronavirus epidemic in China a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organization’s emergency committee met again on Jan. 30 and decided that a global crisis had emerged, with the disease having spread to 18 countries and human-to-human transmission in three of them.

Ironically, the committee, in recommending the declaration of an international emergency, praised China for its “commitment to transparency”, even though government control of information continued to be a burning issue within China.

The committee pointed out that, of 83 cases in the 18 countries, only seven had “no history of travel in China”. Oddly, despite the role that travel in China evidently played in the spreading of the virus, the committee said that it “does not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on current information available”.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who had just returned from Beijing, praised China, no doubt accurately with its massive lockdowns, for setting "a new standard" for outbreak response.

Despite the WHO’s stance, a number of countries moved to restrict travel to and from China. These included the United States, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The Philippines, where the first coronavirus death outside China occurred, banned travelers from Hong Kong and Macau as well as the mainland.

While the WHO praised Chinese actions, there was criticism within China itself for the way information on the health crisis had been handled at both the local and national levels. Significantly, one of the critics was the Supreme People’s Court.

On Jan. 28, an article on the court’s official WeChat account commented on the detention by Wuhan police in early January of eight people for “spreading rumors” online. It turned out that all eight were doctors, and they were discussing the mysterious pneumonia-like disease quietly spreading in the city.

One doctor, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist, told members of a medical school alumni WeChat group on Dec. 30 that there were seven cases of SARS in the hospital where he worked. He was summoned by the police and reprimanded for spreading rumors that had “severely disturbed the social order”.

But the court had a different view. According to the article on the court’s account, while Li was wrong in that those patients were not suffering from SARS, they had a disease that was similar and he had not manufactured fake news for any ulterior purpose.

If people had listened to him and worn masks and avoided the wildlife market, China might be in a better position now to deal with the virus, it said.

Criticism of the central government came, perhaps surprisingly, from the mayor of Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of the epidemic. The Wuhan government had been severely criticized for withholding information or for providing misinformation.

The mayor, Zhou Xianwang, was interviewed on Jan. 27 by CCTV, China’s national broadcaster, as part of its special coverage on the nation’s efforts to counter the new coronavirus. Mayor Zhou readily acknowledged that “everyone was dissatisfied with the way we disclosed information”.

But, the mayor explained, China has a law on the handling of contagious diseases and “information may be disclosed only as permitted according to that law”.

“As a local government,” the mayor said in the interview, no doubt watched with keen interest by senior officials in Beijing, “we may disclose information only after we are given permission to do so. That is something that many people do not understand.”

Article 38 of the Communist Party’s “Regulations on requesting instruction and reporting on major matters” says:

“When an infectious disease breaks out and prevails, the health administration department under the State Council shall be responsible for announcing to the public information on the epidemic situation of the infectious disease, and may authorize the health administration departments under the people's governments of provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the Central Government to announce to the public information on the epidemic situation of the infectious disease in their own administrative areas.”

Mayor Zhou in effect alleged that it was not him but the central government that had left its citizens in the dark about the health threat in their midst. So far, the Chinese government has not responded to the mayor’s allegation.

Coming after SARS in 2003, when officials in both Guangdong and Beijing lied about the gravity of the situation, the Chinese government needs to explain, to its own people and to the world, just how the system is supposed to work in a health crisis and why, this time around, it did not work the way it should have.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.