China: Containing Information Over the Coronavirus

The SARS outbreak of 2003 caused many to question the Chinese government’s capacity to deal with viral threats.

The SARS outbreak of 2003 caused many to question the Chinese government’s capacity to deal with viral threats. That virus eventually killed 774 people and infected more than 8,000 people. Now, China is dealing with another outbreak: the 2019 novel coronavirus. As of February 6, there have been 28,060 cases in China and 594 deaths. The 2019 novel coronavirus has a relatively low death rate—about 0.17 to 4.10 percent. Yet it has already sent affected regions into a frenzy, with some experts calling the conditions in lockdown zones “a humanitarian disaster.” The coronavirus has not only affected and devastated regions of China, but it has also revealed key flaws in the Chinese government’s response, illustrating the necessity for transparency and communication in the event of an outbreak.

The culture of fear, subservience, and bureaucracy in the Chinese government may be to blame for the spread of the coronavirus. As recently as February 6, multiple media outlets such as the New York Times have reported continued censorship on the virus’s spread, along with an emphasis given to state-run and commercial media outlets for positive coverage. This lack of disclosure, transparency, and communication has prevented an effective response.

The initial suppression of the news about the coronavirus is likely why the disease has spread uncontrollably. By not issuing earlier warnings, the Chinese government lost its window for preventing the disease from spreading not only throughout China, but across the world. Zhou Xianwang, Wuhan mayor, stated that he did not share the scale and danger of the epidemic earlier because he needed the authorization from higher up. Yet he still could have instituted preventative methods, such as telling the residents to wear masks and wash hands frequently without revealing how serious the situation was. He certainly could have canceled the potluck banquet attended by over 40,000 families that took place just a few days before the city was locked down. As more information surfaces, it’s clear how ineffective the Chinese government was in containing the disease in its earliest stages: warnings were vague and few precautions were taken. Now, weeks later, the disease has killed 594 people. There is no vaccine and no cure. And so, confronted with the disastrous situation, Chinese officials are evading responsibility and scrambling to contain the disease, instituting travel bans and lockdowns. Yet the containment methods in infected regions of China are coming too late and are causing additional chaos.

Rather than keeping the coronavirus contained, the lockdown is only exacerbating shortages of supplies, as the government has not opened itself to outside aid in fear of revealing the country's battered state. In Wuhan, China, there is a severe lack of medical equipment, food and other necessities. Stores are sold out of protective masks, disinfectant, surgical gloves and thermometers. Most shops are completely shut down, and people are walking on foot to hospitals. Those hospitals, overflowing with patients, are turning people away. In Beijing, restrictions have been placed on most aspects of daily life, disrupting the lives of residents. Additionally, travel bans may have come too late—the disease has already emerged in other countries, although nowhere near the severity of it in China. While China may have the capacity to analyze diseases, it seems unable to address them effectively.

The coronavirus has revealed what happens when a disease emerges in an underprepared area. It emphasizes the importance of communication and transparency in a government. The bureaucratic nature of China’s government and system for dealing with diseases prevented a quick response. The incentive to sweep the virus under the rug caused a cover-up of the early stages of the disease; people were told that there was human-to-human transmission even as the disease began to spread. Now, the Chinese people are suffering through lockdowns, disease, and chaos—all because the government was unable to communicate effectively.