Coronavirus is test of China’s international credibility

February 10, 2020 12:42
More than 60 countries have imposed immigration controls on citizens from China – despite the WHO saying this is not necessary. Photo: Reuters

Last Thursday, China’s ambassador to Britain criticized its government for advising its tens of thousands of citizens in China to leave the country.

“It was an overreaction that ignored World Health Organization (WHO) advice against sweeping travel restrictions,” Liu Xiaoming told a press conference. “We believe the epidemic is controllable, preventable and curable.”

Does the world believe him?

More than 60 countries have imposed immigration controls on citizens from China – despite the WHO saying that this is not necessary.

Effective Feb. 2, the United States imposed a travel ban on foreign nationals who have been in China during the previous 14 days. Americans returning from China are allowed into the country, but face screening at select ports of entry and are required to undertake 14 days of self-screening. It is funnelling all flights to the US from China to seven major airports where passengers can be screened for infection of the deadly virus.

Many American, European and Asian airlines have cancelled or reduced their flights to China.

The world has every reason to be afraid. The number of cases has surpassed 40,550 in 28 countries and territories and is still rising. The death toll has reached 910, more than those killed by the SARS epidemic of 2002/2003, and is also rising. There is no known cure.

The death rate from the virus in Wuhan at the end of last week was 4.9 percent, double the national average of 2.1 per cent. The city’s hospitals have been overwhelmed by the number of people seeking care; they are forced to turn away patients for lack of beds and testing equipment.

The world has been impressed by the national effort which Beijing has mobilized since Jan. 23, when it closed down Wuhan and surrounding cities. It has sent thousands of additional medical workers and equipment to Hubei province and implemented drastic quarantine measures in other cities.

The world is full of sympathy for the people of China for the catastrophe that has befallen them, on a scale which no country could manage easily.

But it was what happened before Jan. 23 that has left serious questions over China’s credibility. Last Friday, Li Wenliang, a young doctor at the Central Hospital of Wuhan, died of the disease. In an online chat group on Dec. 30, he informed fellow doctors of seven cases.

Police visited him, accused him of “spreading rumors” and ordered him to retract his statement. In the three weeks between his message and the start of the crackdown, the virus spread all over Wuhan and was carried by his people to countries around the world.

“The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is not a natural, but a man-made disaster,” said Tang Yiming, head of Chinese Classics at the Central China Normal University in Wuhan, in an open letter. “We all should reflect on ourselves. And the officials, even more, should rue their mistakes.”

The letter asked the government to admit its mistake, publicly apologize to the whistleblowers it criticized and name Li a martyr.

Officials in Hubei and Beijing chose to ignore the warnings of Li and his fellow doctors; or they were too afraid to take any initiative and waited for someone more senior to make a decision. Rigid control of the media meant that the public did not know of the risks they were taking.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian, has strongly praised China’s efforts. In January, he went to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping. The official media quoted him as saying: “China’s speed, China’s scale and China’s efficiency ...  is the advantage of China’s system.”

In an interview with the Financial Times at the weekend, he said: “Nobody knows for sure if they were hiding [anything]. The logic doesn’t support the idea [of a cover-up]. It’s wrong to jump to conclusions.”

China deserved “tailored and qualified” praise, he said. “They identified the pathogen and shared the sequence immediately, helping other countries to quick diagnoses. They quarantined huge cities such as Wuhan. Can’t you appreciate that? They should be thanked for hammering the epicenter. They are actually protecting the rest of the world.”

Not everyone in China agrees. One is Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. In his latest article, he said: “The mess in Hubei is only the tip of the iceberg and it is the same in every province. Beijing has put loyalty above competence and filled the bureaucracy with mediocre cadres who have no motivation to perform well.”

He said the crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression had made it impossible for people to raise the alarm about the outbreak. “All chances of public discussion have been smothered, and so was the original alarm mechanism in society.”

So the world is reserving judgement and cannot agree yet with the opinion of Ambassador Liu Xiaoming.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.